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November 30, 2021 November 30, 2021

Leafs shock no one and collapse again in the first round

Posted on June 2, 2021 by Taber Times

By Cole Parkinson
Taber Times
cparkinson@tabertimes.com

There’s literally nothing left to say about the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They lost another Game 7 on Monday night and at this point, if you’re a Leafs fan like myself, you just expect the same result year in, year out. After losing Game 6 on Saturday, that pushed the series to Game 7, and I didn’t have any confidence or faith they’d win the series — I’ve seen this movie one too many times.

They blow games in the playoffs, they blow series leads, and they collapse when the pressure turns up. That’s just what they do — they lose.

And do not give me any excuses about the pressures of playing in Toronto — that’s a tired narrative that is so ridiculous I can’t believe people still talk about it like it holds any merit. Every single NHL hockey team has pressure from their fanbase.

Sure, Toronto’s fanbase is one of the biggest, but we’re talking about professional athletes who make millions and millions of dollars. If they can’t handle the pressure of playing in Toronto, why are they in the league making this type of money?

Are Toronto fans tough on players? Yes, but I’d argue the vocal minority give the silent majority a rough look, and that’s no different across the league. The majority of the fanbase just wants to see the team win for once. Those who go to a player’s social media page to chirp are losers, and they shouldn’t be allowed on social media.

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are great hockey players, but once again failed to push their team past the first round. And while it was acceptable when they were rookies just entering the league and barely making any money against the salary cap, they’re now making $11.6 million and $10.9 million, respectively. They were virtually invisible offensively all series, and it led to the Maple Leafs once again being bounced in the first round. If your two best players don’t show up in the playoffs, it’s hard to win a series.

William Nylander was far and away the best forward this series for the Leafs, and anyone even thinking about trading him this offseason has to be insane.

Jack Campbell was fantastic throughout as well. Was the first goal in Game 7 a weak one? Absolutely, but the fact they were even in a Game 7 to begin with was ridiculous because he gave them a chance to win in Games 5 and 6, but the team couldn’t get it done. Campbell finished the series with a .937 save percentage, which was better than Carey Price’s .926. Goaltending wasn’t the issue.

Another major reason the Leafs lost was their abysmal powerplay. It sucked going into the playoffs and continued to be brutal in the playoffs. I could spend the rest of this column just talking about how much I hated the powerplay.

Don’t get me wrong, the Montreal Canadiens, and especially Price, deserve all of the credit in the world for mounting this comeback. People weren’t giving them any chance before the series started, and once they were down 3-1, everyone thought the series was over. Price was rock solid in Games 5, 6 and 7, which lead to Habs players being able to play freely knowing he’d make saves when mistakes were made.

A few weeks ago, before the series started, I said I could see a future where the Leafs were eliminated in the first round, and Montreal played their tails off for three straight games and did just that. They outworked, out muscled, and played like they wanted to win more than Toronto.

So, while Montreal heads to Winnipeg to face the Jets in the second round, I honestly don’t even know how to assess this coming offseason.

Usually, I can have some positive energy heading into an offseason, but I can’t muster up any. GM Kyle Dubas went out and acquired what fans had been clamouring for — playoff grit, veteran leadership, and upgrades on the backend. That obviously didn’t work, but this doesn’t all fall on Dubas — it’s squarely on the players.

They’re the ones on the ice, and while the coaching staff should be questioned for some of their decisions, they ultimately aren’t on the ice. The Leafs were the best team in the North all season and failed when it mattered most.

Dubas gave this team a ton of new blood in the way of TJ Brodie, Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton, Zach Bogosian, and later with Nick Foligno, and I’d argue only Brodie was noticeable this playoffs in a positive manner. Looking at the bottom six forwards, other than Jason Spezza and Alex Kerfoot, who would you honestly want to bring back?

Thornton looks finished as an NHL player and Simmonds contributed nothing when it mattered. Bogosian was a solid addition to the bottom D pairing, so if he wants a short-term deal with a small salary, I wouldn’t be opposed to that.

Does this lead to a major shakeup by trading someone at the top of the roster? Possibly, but I don’t even know how that solves anything. When you trade a high-end player, the team doing so is almost always losing the best talent in the deal, but something has to be changed up.

There doesn’t seem to be a clear path after this year, and I don’t envy Dubas and the front office, because I’m not sure there’s an easy solution to get this team into the second round and beyond that. There’s something wrong with the psyche of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and this isn’t just a one-year thing either. It sure feels like since the 2013 playoffs where the Leafs lost the infamous Game 7 against the Bruins, they haven’t been able to shake it.

And while they’ve lost series since 2013, this one hurts the most by far.

Losing to Washington in 2017, the Bruins in 2018 and again in 2019, and then Columbus last year were all gut punches, but the Leafs were not as heavily favoured as they were in this series.

It was an embarrassing effort from Game 5 on, except for a notable few — Campbell in particular, who stood on his head and gave them chances to close the series. But, they couldn’t get it done in three chances, and now, I can honestly say I need a break from thinking, talking, and watching the Toronto Maple Leafs.

At this point, it’s hard to say any other North American team is tougher to watch. Bill Burr said it best on Monday night in his tweet — “The Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team that can make Cleveland Browns fans feel lucky.”

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