Thursday, August 13, 2020

What’s wrong with the Maple Leafs? Exploring eight theories

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but with their season on the line, the Toronto Maple Leafs came up small. Sunday’s Game 5 loss to the Blue Jackets marked the third straight year the Leafs have lost a winner-take-all game, and the fourth straight that they’ve lost in the first round they played. Four years into the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner/William Nylander era, the Leafs have won as many postseason rounds as they did during the dark decade before. As in, none.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Leafs were the favourite against Columbus, if only marginally. The talent on the roster seems undeniable. They’ve been a roughly 100-point team for four years now. When you look at what normally goes into a successful rebuild, the Leafs have checked most of the boxes. And yet here we are again, in the aftermath of another game that was supposed to be their chance to Change The Narrative, and it all played out the same way it always does.

So what’s wrong? And how can they fix it?

The roster has its holes, like any roster in a hard cap league will. There’s always room for improvement. But with the Shanahan-era Leafs, that’s not what we’ve come to mean when we ask what’s wrong. No, we mean: What’s wrong? What’s the fundamental flaw, the big problem, the overarching defect that’s keeping them from achieving the success that, on paper, they should have already had?

That’s what everyone’s trying to figure out these days. That includes the Leafs themselves, who spent yesterday’s season-ending Zoom sessions answering variations of the same question: What’s wrong with you guys?

Let’s look at eight theories you’ll hear come up about this team, and see which ones might be on to something.

Theory: The whole philosophy behind the roster is flawed

The theory: By now, the Brendan Shanahan/Kyle Dubas model is fairly well-established. Load up on skill, control the puck, trust your goaltending, and win the game by playing in the other team’s zone, where you do your best work. Toughness is fine, as is veteran grit, but that’s not the priority in today’s game. You pay top dollar for speed and skill, and fill in as much of the rest as you can afford around the edges.

It makes a lot of sense, right up until the postseason arrives, the game clogs up, and you’re getting outworked by a team with less skill but more jam, and your high-priced superstars can’t find room to operate.

Why it fits: It sure seems to pass the eye test. And losing to a hard-working team like the Blue Jackets will only reinforce it.

Except…: It’s not like skill teams aren’t having any success around the league. Last year’s Blues were a heavy team, but the Big Bad Bruins haven’t been all that big or bad in years, and they seem to do fine. The Penguins won back-to-back Cups without intimidating anyone. And if you can’t advance without size and muscle, how come smaller teams like Montreal, Calgary and Arizona could find a way to win last week?

Where that leaves us: A variation on this theme is the old: “They’re built for the regular season, not the playoffs” curse. And there’s truth to that. This Leafs team isn’t one that’s designed to go hard to the net and score dirty goals, and sometimes those end up being the difference in the playoffs. But while there may be something here, all those counterexamples suggest that this can’t be the entire problem. Let’s keep looking.

Theory: The philosophy works, but the current roster doesn’t

The theory: You can win with lots of skill, supplemented by some depth and grit. The approach wouldn’t have worked in the 80s or 90s, but in the modern NHL it absolutely can. But the Leafs have the wrong guys in the wrong roles. That’s why it’s not working.

Why it fits: There’s at least some recent evidence to support this idea too. Start with the blue line. No, you don’t need six Chris Prongers to win a playoff round. But you also don’t want Cody Ceci playing top-four minutes, and for some reason, the Leafs insisted on that pretty much all season long. We all knew they needed a right-handed defenceman last year, but the guy they went out and got, Tyson Barrie, was a disaster.

You can keep going. They’re paying Mitch Marner like he’s an elite, Hart-caliber difference-maker that he might not be. John Tavares is very good, but should he be one of the highest-paid players in the league? We’ve gone around in circles on William Nylander for years. And while Freddie Andersen has generally been good, what’s the deal with those back-breaking goals and constant collapses in deciding games?

Except…: Even if there’s some truth here, I’m not sure how helpful it is. When you’re building an NHL team, you don’t get to choose the exact guys you want for every role. You take what’s available. Tavares was the best free agent on the market. Marner was (probably) the best guy they could draft in that spot. No team, including the ones that win Cups, get their ideal guy in every spot. They do the best they can, then they figure out how to make it work.

Where that leaves us: There’s a lot of overlap between the first two theories, and they boil down to the same thing: The roster needs an overhaul, or at least some significant changes that go beyond tinkering. How do you do that when you’re capped out and most of your key pieces are on long-term deals?

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