It’s no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs have had some heartbreaking playoff exits in recent years. The Original Six franchise hasn’t provided their fanbase with much to cheer about when hockey matters the most. Toronto’s last playoff win was eighteen years ago and lots of their younger fans have not seen such a thing happen. Now, they’re getting close to an unprecedented two decades without winning a single series. Their last playoff series win came in the 2003-04 season against the Ottawa Senators. It’s hard to imagine but they haven’t won a series since the beginning of the salary cap era.
Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Struggles Reach 18-year Mark
Last Playoff Series Win 2003-04
Featuring a roster with Mats Sundin, Bryan McCabe, Joe Nieuwendyk, Darcy Tucker, Gary Roberts, Alexander Mogilny, and Owen Nolan the 2003-04 Maple Leafs had a ton of veteran experience. At the trade deadline, Toronto added Hall of Famers Brian Leetch and, current Seattle Kraken general manager, Ron Francis to their roster with visions of a lengthy playoff run.
Toronto finished the regular season with 103 points, good for second in the Northeast Division. They would meet up with their Battle of Ontario rivals, the Ottawa Senators. After going the distance, another future Hall of Famer, Nieuwendyk would score two early goals paving the way to the Leafs’ last Game 7 victory. Toronto matched up against a solid Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. Jeremy Roenick ended the Leafs’ season in overtime of Game 6.
The overtime loss signalled the start of Toronto’s playoff struggles for the years to come.
The Playoff Drought Begins in 2005-06
Following the 2004-05 lockout, Toronto’s roster saw some significant changes. The team, who had six future Hall of Famers on their roster before the lockout, now only had two of them. Starting goaltender, Ed Belfour, struggled throughout the season posting abysmal numbers with a .829 save percentage and a 3.29 goals-against average. This was a huge decline from his .918 SV% and 2.13 GAA in the 2003-04 season. It was pretty clear that the 40-year-old Belfour’s best playing days were in his rearview mirror. Toronto needed a new starting goalie.
Toronto missed the playoffs for the first of seven consecutive seasons in 2005-06. The club finished with 90 points on the season, two shy of the final playoff position. The season also was legendary head coach Pat Quinn’s last behind the Maple Leaf’s bench.
Having a Great Goalie Isn’t Always Good Enough
This was a quote from then general manager John Ferguson Jr speaking about acquiring a goaltender named Andrew Raycroft from the Boston Bruins. Raycroft’s future didn’t turn out to be tremendous in fact it would be quite the opposite. He posted a .890 SV% and a 3.16 GAA in 91 games across two seasons in Toronto. The goaltender would be bought out by Toronto on June 27, 2008.
The fact that Raycroft didn’t fulfill his expectations coming in wasn’t the worst part of this trade. Toronto sent their 2005 first-round pick Tuukka Rask to Boston in the trade. Rask, who had not yet played on North American soil, went on to have an excellent career as the Bruins’ starting netminder. Putting up .921 Career SV% and 2.28 Career GAA it’s safe to say trading Rask was a great setback for the Maple Leafs.
No Playoff Appearances From 2006 to 2012
After the Jeremy Roenick overtime goal in 2004, Toronto fans wouldn’t see their team play another playoff game until May 1st of 2013.
During the seven-year playoff drought, Toronto would see Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle try their hand at leading the club back to the postseason. Toronto also saw its share of front office changes during this time period. Ferguson Jr, Cliff Fletcher, Brian Burke, and Dave Nonis all spent time in the general manager position.
Inconsistencies behind the bench and front office went hand in hand with many on the ice. Toronto, still searching for a true number one goalie acquired Vesa Toskala along with forwarding Mark Bell from the San Jose Sharks. The Maple Leafs gave up a first, second and fourth-round pick in the trade. Ultimately, San Jose would move the first and second rounds pick to the St Louis Blues drafting Logan Couture 9th overall in the process. Unfortunately for the Leafs, Toskala was also not the answer they were looking for in between the pipes. Toskala played in 145 games over three seasons for Toronto, posting a .894 SV% and a 3.08 GAA.
The Brian Burke’s Leafs
After 13 seasons in Toronto, long-time captain and franchise cornerstone Mats Sundin signed with the Vancouver Canucks in the 2008-09 season. GM at the time Brian Burke was quoted saying “I’d rather have a guy who wants to make sure in his own mind of what he is doing, as opposed to a guy who plays (halfway) just to collect a paycheque,” about Sundin signing with the Canucks.
Brian Burke was also the man in charge when Toronto acquired Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins. Kessel became a star in Toronto however Burke paid an enormous price to land him. The Leafs sent the Bruins a 2010 first-round pick, a 2010 second-round pick and a 2011 first-round pick for the 22-year-old. Following an atrocious season, the 2010 first-round pick ended up being 2nd overall (Tyler Seguin). The 2011 first-round pick was 9th overall (Dougie Hamilton).
Burke also added some physical defensemen to the Leafs who were not the most fleet of foot. Burke’s vision for the Maple Leafs never seen them clinch one postseason appearance.
The End of the Draught, and A Monumental Collapse
The 2012-13 shortened season provided some optimism that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff struggles were coming to an end. The club finally clinched a postseason berth after the long-awaited seven-year drought.
Toronto met up with the Bruins in the first-round series. Through four games Toronto found themselves trailing the series three games to one. Showing resilience and swinging the series momentum in their favour, the Maple Leafs forced a game seven back in Boston.
Game seven started out as well as the Leafs could have liked. They held a 4-1 lead with just 11 minutes left in the third period. However, Nathan Horton would get Boston going scoring with 10:42 remaining making it a 4-2 game. With time winding down Milan Lucic scored making it a 4-3 with only 1:30 remaining. The TD Garden nearly blew the roof off the building as Patrice Bergeron scored the tying goal just 31 seconds later. Bergeron ended the game and the Leafs’ postseason in overtime.
Toronto missed the playoffs in each of the following three seasons.
Six Consecutive Playoff Appearances 2017-2022
The arrival of two young superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner greatly changed the face of the franchise. The Maple Leafs made the playoffs in Matthews’ rookie season faltering to the Washington Capitals in six games.
In 2018 the Leafs and Bruins would replicate the 2013 series. Boston took a 3-1 series lead before Toronto won the next two games to tie the series and force another game seven. They say that history repeats and it sure did in this case. Toronto held a 4-3 lead entering the 3rd period before giving up four unanswered goals. They lost the game 7-4 and again had their season ended.
The 2019 playoffs, another first-round matchup against the now rival Boston Bruins, would again see Toronto bow down in the deciding seventh game.
Both of the past two seasons have also ended in heartbreaking fashion for Maple Leaf fans. Another game seven, another tough loss, and another season ended. They looked poised just this last spring to knock off defending Stanley Cup Champion, Tampa Bay Lightning, prior to another third-period collapse in game seven.
When Will the Toronto Maple Leaf Playoff Struggles End
With each passing year, the Maple Leafs core has gained more and more valuable experience. They have an elite forward group that makes them legitimate contenders every season. Also with each passing season is another burnt year of the scoring phenom Matthews’ contract.
A common theme of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff struggles over the past 18 seasons, goaltending again leaves uncertainty. The tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov will be the deciding factor as to whether or not the franchise can book their first playoff win in nearly two decades.
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