T he joy of the greatest regular season in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 105 years of existence will not be poured neat.
No, sir. The intoxicating cocktail of this record-breaking 54-win, 115-point romp will be spiked with doubt and laced with fear, sprinkled with regret, and served by a ghost that’s been haunting the mecca for 55 years. It’ll be the kind of drink that requires a chaser. Maybe two.
Some will say club president Brendan Shanahan and handpicked general manger Kyle Dubas have doubled down. Nah. They’ve sextupled down on this talented core of five — Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly — who, you may have heard, play for a team that has lost five consecutive first-round playoff series. Set their Stanley Cup ambitions aside for a second. These bright stars, most firmly in their primes, represent a proud organization that hasn’t celebrated a single series victory since Toby Maguire was the only Spider-Man of cinematic record. These Leafs, man. They’re either doomed or due. Destined to be demonized or determined to become dragon slayers.
And there is zero doubt where Dubas, the stubborn/steadfast architect of the roster, lines up on that debate, set to be settled beginning Monday against the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning. “For better or worse, I believe in this group. I believe that they are going to get it done and that they are going to win,” Dubas stated over the summer, the sour taste of another Game 7 loss still on his lips. “I understand that this comes with certain doubts because we have not broken through in the playoffs. But it is my belief that they will. I believe in them as players. I believe in them as people. I know that the decision lies on me and the risk is for me in going ahead that way.
“I am comfortable with it. I believe we are going to see the best version of this group next season that we have seen yet. I am willing to bet everything on that.”
It’s impossible to contextualize the Maple Leafs’ success in 2021-22 without acknowledging the collapse to Montreal the spring prior. How captain Tavares went down in sickening fashion, how top defender Jake Muzzin pulled up early with a torn groin, and how a couple of critical turnovers and an all-world goaltender swept the rug out. Ask former Canadiens defenceman and current thorn in the Leafs’ side Ben Chiarot why the Maple Leafs blew it last May, and the first two words out his mouth are Carey and Price. “He was incredible. Honestly, the series could have gone either way,” Chiarot, now representing the Florida Panthers, says. “I know they took it pretty hard.
“Being in Toronto, having a season that they had and then losing in the first round, media, everyone kinda comes down hard on the team. But that series could have gone either way. It was one shot. You know, any one of those games in overtime was one shot for them and it’s a different series. Carey Price was a big difference-maker.”
The gutted sadness of the Maple Leafs dressing room post-Game 7 was captured and crystallized in the images of Matthews and Marner alone among the stalls, heads hung.
Another lost year.
Needing a retreat from the noise — all those damaged fans and told-you-so pundits calling for heads and composing fake trades — Toronto’s quiet leader plotted a lakeside getaway. Tavares invited every Leaf living or training in Toronto to flee north. Players only. He hosted them at his Muskoka cottage. They trained during the day, found some ice to stay sharp. But they also mixed in some fun on the water and drinks on the dock before drilling down to business. The captain provided a casual space where the veterans could mingle with the rookies, the leadership crew with the latest cluster of Dubas’s bargain-bin free-agent finds. They got to know each other better as men, as teammates.
Perhaps most importantly, they tackled the elephant in the boathouse. They unravelled their 3-1 series collapse to the lowest-seeded team. “Yeah, 100 per cent,” Wayne Simmonds says. “That was one of the main things in going to Johnny’s house. We had a great dialogue with one another — and we kept it real. We got to address what happened last year head-on, and we’re not hiding from it. It’s for us to learn from and get better and to mature as a team.”
By the time training camp rolled around, disappointment had morphed into resolve and a touch of fury. “Guys were pissed off. We came into camp to work. It wasn’t just to go through the motions; it was to get better,” Muzzin, a rare Leaf with a ring, said at the time. “There was a little anger in some guys.”
To channel the heartbreak in a positive direction, Dubas brought in renowned peak performance coach Greg Harden, an expert motivator credited with helping Michael Phelps and Tom Brady reach such lofty athletic heights. Behind closed doors, Harden would be available to all throughout the season, and was spotted during the Leafs’ most recent road trip. His heavy lifting would be with Marner and starting goalie Jack Campbell, who took the brunt of the playoff disaster upon themselves. “He’s amazing,” Campbell says of Harden, choosing not to detail their sessions. “He just really gets you to want to be the best version of yourself.”
Even with the team building, extra fire and added support, though, spring’s adversity bled all the way into October, like an unshakable viral symptom. Marner — ripped for failing to get a single puck past Price in the Montreal series — dragged his career-worst goal slump through the first eight games of the season. Matthews, recovering from off-season wrist surgery, needed three games off and four more on to get his record-breaking shot in order. Petr Mrazek, Toronto’s most handsomely paid goaltender and free agent, tore his groin two periods into his first start. A four-game losing skid in late October felt like it could spiral into pink slips.
“I have a lot of thoughts. Not many good ones,” coach Sheldon Keefe said in a post-game pall after Oct. 23’s 7-1 thrashing by a depleted Pittsburgh Penguins squad. “The biggest thing to manage right now is just the mood and the belief of the group. It’s easy to start doubting and questioning things when things aren’t going your way.”
When Shanahan showed up mid-trip in Chicago to watch the winless Blackhawks take a 2-0 lead over his team, multiple beat reporters drafted news stories of Keefe’s firing (just in case). The Maple Leafs rallied with three consecutive goals that dramatic, cathartic night, the final one by Nylander in overtime. And if you’re looking for an in-season turning point, stop the search.
Spats of injuries, the Nick Ritchie misfire, Mrazek’s third groin pull, basically the entire squad getting COVID, all those losses to lottery teams, the late-winter goaltending crisis… “I don’t think anything really compares to how we started the year and having to find our way through that,” Keefe says, looking back.
Hardened by playoff scars and emboldened by surviving that early season swoon, the Maple Leafs — like most of the happy top half of the Eastern Conference — have essentially been on cruise control for months now. They wield the best power play in hockey, threaten with the second-most explosive offence, and defend with a vastly improved top-seven penalty kill. Matthews authored history with his 60-goal, 106-point MVP campaign. Since returning from a January quarantine, Marner has been playing the best hockey of his life. The injured Michael Bunting — hopeful to return for Round 1 — is not only one of the sport’s best bargains ($950,000 cap hit), he’s a candidate for the Calder Trophy.
All three members of Toronto’s top line burst into the Lightning series hot off their most productive NHL seasons. The same can be said for Nylander, Alexander Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, Ilya Mikheyev, Justin Holl, David Kämpf, Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Lyubushkin and Nick Abruzzese. Rielly crushed a new personal best with 58 assists. “Almost to a man, we’ve had guys having career years here offensively and defensively,” Keefe says. “I think we’re feeling good.”
Those whose best individual stat lines are behind them will still have plenty to draw on — wisdom, desperation, and hometown pride. Tavares left Long Island to make good on these moments, and was robbed of one a year ago due to fluky injury. Jason Spezza, Mark Giordano, and Wayne Simmonds are all local heroes who arrived late to the Leafs. All own silver sticks. None have touched the silver mug. “We’re guys that have had established careers, and we’re not scared of the moment,” Spezza says. “I look forward to it. That’s why I play the game. You go through 82 games to get to the playoffs. And those are the moments that I think I can help the most.”
Fifteen years have passed since Spezza, 38, went to the Stanley Cup Final with the Ottawa Senators. He doesn’t have a contract for next year, and it’s not a crazy stretch to imagine this chance as his last. As the last for this Leafs core, as currently constructed. As Dubas’s or Keefe’s last in this city. “I was very focused last year. But I think you learn something from every year, and you learn something from every loss, and we feel like we blew a great opportunity last year. That’s definitely been in the back of our minds all year,” Spezza says. Vintage candour. “We all feel the burden of losing that series. So, I think that drives us.”
The Maple Leafs needn’t look any further than their gilded Round 1 opponent, threepeat-chasing Tampa Bay, to see how losing can drive a bunch of ticked-off men in blue-and-white. Since following up 2018-19’s record-breaking 62-win season with the embarrassment of getting swept by the underdog Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1, the Lightning have won eight consecutive series. They won’t hold home ice, but many will still slot them as favourites over the Maple Leafs — a great regular-season team and the best version of themselves.
And, until proven otherwise, that’s it.
“Unless you do some winning come playoff time, it’s hard to look past anything other than that,” says Rielly. “The team is deep, yeah. But you gotta do something with it.”
Asked to describe the mood of his room heading into this post-season, Keefe thinks a beat before he answers. “Focused,” the coach replies. “Focused and confident. The guys really believe in what we’re doing, they believe in each other, believe in themselves.”
Not unlike their fanbase, the Maple Leafs are bracing for hardship but hopeful for a breakthrough. For a make-good on Dubas’s bold bet. The 82-game dress rehearsal has wrapped, but this is no time to party. The show is about to start, for real. “Knowing what we’re preparing for and knowing that it’s going to be extremely difficult for quite some time,” Keefe says. “We’ve been preparing for difficult times all season.”
And on the night Matthews flipped in goal 59 and whistled goal 60, he tried to speak not of what he had done but what his team had yet to do.
“We’re obviously working toward something bigger,” Matthews said. “The job’s not done. The work’s not finished.”