Maple Leafs Must Stay the Course Despite Heartbreaking Game 7 Loss to Lightning

Adam Herman@@AdamZHermanContributor IMay 15, 2022

TORONTO, ON- MAY 14  - The Leafs bench is dejected as time runs out as the Toronto Maple Leafs are eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning after losing 2-1 in game seven of their first round NHL playoff series at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. May 14, 2022.        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Steve Russell/Getty Images

It happened again.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, for the sixth straight season, have lost a first-round playoff series. That makes it 17 seasons without a playoff series victory, to say nothing of a Cup drought that has lingered since 1967.

Analyzing the series itself, it's hard to fault the Leafs. Toronto dominated in the regular season, finishing fourth overall in the NHL. The divisional playoff format and an unusually strong Atlantic Division meant they had an extremely difficult first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who finished with 110 points and are, of course, two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions.

And the Leafs put up a hell of a fight. Both teams had their moments, and this was a tight matchup from start to finish. In fact, Toronto actually outscored Tampa Bay 24-23. Game 7 was a dead heat, with Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy standing on his head; he let up just one goal despite the Leafs generating 3.42 expected goals, per Evolving Hockey.

What if a couple of pucks bounced a few centimeters left or right? What if the referees made different calls in pivotal moments? What if Vasilevskiy was slightly more human on Saturday? It's just as easy to imagine the Leafs winning this coin flip of a series, and nobody would have questioned the Lightning's efforts in such a loss. This was a seven-game marathon that would have been a worthy Stanley Cup Final. The Leafs were dealt a miserable hand, played an incredible series and fell one goal short.

History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes. Many of these themes—bad luck, running into a hot goaltender, barely conceding a tight series that went seven games—have been repeated over and over again. Maybe that's nothing more than bad luck, but at this point it's hard to fault anyone who thinks there's something more to it.

What would that be, though? There are flaws in the Toronto roster. The team lacks a true cornerstone No. 1 defenseman. There's room for improvement in goal. Jack Campbell has been inconsistent and had an average series. At a minimum, the Leafs must add a goaltender who can push him for the starting spot. No team is perfect. Not Tampa Bay. Not the St. Louis Blues, who are advancing to Round 2 with three real NHL defensemen. Certainly not the Edmonton Oilers. In fact, if one were to rank NHL teams by their weakest links, Toronto would fair better than most.

It's easy to say that these results indicate that something is fundamentally broken in Toronto. It's a lot more difficult to actually cite the specific problems. Maybe you ax head coach Sheldon Keefe or even president Brendan Shanahan or general manager Kyle Dubas. Maybe it gives the fanbase a cathartic release and a sense that something is changing.

But what specifically have Leafs coaches and management done wrong the last few seasons? They've nailed all of their lottery picks and have returned incredible value on their late-round draft picks. They've done a great job developing prospects into quality players. Unlike most teams, the Leafs lack any obvious anchor contracts. They have star talent, both grown at home and recruited elsewhere, as well as depth down the fourth line and third defensive pairing.

The product has been nothing short of phenomenal in the regular season. The Leafs were elite this season both offensively and defensively. Their special teams, a weak point last season, came through this time around. Mitch Marner and William Nylander, scapegoats of the past, had career years. Keefe had this team looking dangerous.

So perhaps this team is less than the sum of its parts. Something about the locker room mix or on-ice combinations leads to some sort of mental block, some self-destructive behavior, once a playoff series is on the line.

Again, what is the actual problem and how can the Leafs act on it? It surely isn't a lack of veteran leadership. Three different players—John Tavares, Jason Spezza and Mark Giordano—were successful NHL captains prior to joining the Leafs. There are multiple players who have been through the wringer and have reputations as having great character. There are no indications of locker room toxicity. If you're going to take a sledgehammer to the roster's core, who specifically gets sacrificed? Marner? Nylander? Tavares? In what world could the Leafs possibly come out the other side improved?

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

There are many ways the Leafs could overhaul the makeup of the team: a new voice behind the bench; mainstays of these failures dealt with fresh blood coming into the locker room; a complete makeover of management. Could that lead to better results? Sure.

It's also a lot easier to imagine the many ways that could do more harm than good. The politician's fallacy, or making change for the sake of change, reeks of desperation and impulsivity rather than a coherent process. Previously, Phil Kessel was labeled as persona non grata in Toronto—a prima donna who lacked the mental makeup to succeed in big moments. He was exiled to Pittsburgh, where he promptly helped the previously underachieving Pittsburgh Penguins win two straight Stanley Cups.

But six straight first-round exits. Six! With sympathies to the Toronto faithful whose patience reserves are emptied, maybe the only option is to not panic and trust the process. This is an incredible team that just can't seem to catch a break. At some point, the dice are going to have to roll in their favor and they'll get rewarded. They just have to.