In recent years, okay — decades, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have not had a lot to cheer about when April rolls around. Diehard fans are all too familiar with the dates. Last playoff round win, 2004 against the Ottawa Senators. Their most recent conference final appearance, 2002 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Last Stanley Cup victory…never mind. Fans of the blue and white are now into the sixth decade of having that year recited to them.
The regular-season success of the recent “Core Four” edition of the Leafs has not translated to playoff success. Five successive first-round defeats, followed by questions about their roster and their general manager have become a spring ritual. If another first-round loss happens this year, many followers of the club will be calling for drastic changes. As tempting as that may be, it would be the wrong approach.
Another Maple Leafs First Round Loss Shouldn’t Affect Long-Term Plan
After their recent four-game win streak, this current edition of the Leafs is now on pace for a franchise-record of one hundred and twelve points. They arguably have two of the top ten players in the National Hockey League. Auston Matthews recently passed the fifty-goal plateau and could win back-to-back Rocket Richard trophies. Mitch Marner has become a dangerous goal-scorer and leads the NHL in points since mid-January. This team has led the league in power-play efficiency for almost the entire season and boasts a penalty-killing unit that has consistently been just outside of the top five.
In addition, the Leafs are in the top 5 in goal scoring and goal differential. Also, general manager Kyle Dubas has put together one of the team’s deeper, and more flexible rosters, of his tenure. They have a top line that is one of the best in hockey, a dependable third line that can shut down another team’s top scorers. The fourth line needs to be sorted out but has more options with the recent addition of Colin Blackwell.
On defence, the recent in-season acquisitions of Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano provide head coach Sheldon Keefe with more options on the blue line than he previously had. These two plus regular workhorses T.J. Brodie and Morgan Rielly, along with the impending return of Jake Muzzin from long-term injured reserve will allow the Leafs to play either up-tempo hockey or low scoring, tight-checking games that happen more often during the playoffs. Justin Holl will be somewhere in the top 6, but not be relied upon to play heavy minutes. This is more suited to his role. In reserve is a much improved Timothy Liljegren, and possibly Rasmus Sandin down the line. Since Giordano arrived the team has seen their shots against significantly drop. These are not the days of Martin Marincin.
Yes, dud-losses against lesser-lights like Montreal, Buffalo, and Arizona are frustrating to watch, but this group seems to perk up when a “souped-up” Maserati is staring across at them during the opening face-off. Against Boston, Calgary, Carolina, Colorado, Florida, and Tampa Bay the Leafs have a record of 8-3-1, with a goal-differential of +8.
Cause for Concern
Goaltending is always huge during the playoffs, and during the second half of the season, it has been problematic for the Leafs, to say the least. Erik Kallgren was needed to settle things down (who saw that coming?!). On the bright side, Jack Campbell looked solid during his return in Philadelphia on Saturday, but he needs to get back to his early-season form in order for the Leafs to advance in the playoffs.
Of greater concern to the Leafs’ playoff chances is the depth of the Eastern Conference. The top 8 teams have been decided for months and there doesn’t appear to be an easy out in the bunch. This is why patience is needed should the Leafs suffer another first-round playoff exit.
As frustrated as fans and management would be with that outcome, disrupting the foundation of this team would be a mistake. The Leafs have established themselves as a consistent playoff team and an annual contender for the Stanley Cup. When, during the last half-century, have Leaf fans been able to say that? Also, Matthews and Marner are just nicely at the beginning of their peak years.
So, Leaf fans, buckle up and enjoy the ride. Maybe the “gifted” kid will take you on a playoff run to remember, but even if the spring is once again unkind to your team, take a breath and know that good times will follow in the years to come.
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