In what will become the longest summer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, there are far more questions than answers on where to go from here.
One would think that with inarguably the most talented roster, the Toronto Maple Leafs would achieve significantly greater than a loss in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs to their arch-nemesis, the Montréal Canadiens. However, Toronto decided to continue its streak of failing to advance to the second round for the 15th-straight season after the team blew a 3-1 series lead to the Habs, and were humiliated in a Game 7 contest that left the bench speechless.
“Failed I Have, Into Isolation, I Must Go”
When times are tough, you often hear sayings such as “there’s light at the end of the tunnel”, “it’s always darkest before dawn”, and “after every rainfall, there’s a rainbow”, but no matter how many of these you say to Toronto fans, it simply cannot heal the pain from watching their team’s inability to strike a match in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1967 (only six teams were in the NHL then). Though In 2017, hope began to rise the Maple Leafs have transcended into becoming one of the most dominant forces in the league, led behind perennial all-stars in Auston Matthews, Jonathan Tavares, and Mitch Marner. These three players are so valuable to the team, that they spend more than $40 million to keep the three players together, despite a league salary cap of $81.5 million during the 2020-21 season. To really understand where the problem begins for this team, do yourself a favor and re-read the last sentence. An NHL starting roster is comprised of 12 forwards, six defensemen, and two goaltenders. If three players alone have a salary-cap hit of more than $40 million, that leaves roughly $41.5 million to cover 17 other positions, and those are just the starters, never mind the players you have in your taxi-squad in the event someone is injured or is a healthy scratch. You don’t need to be a math wizard or NHL analyst to understand just how flawed this buildup is. Abhorrent management is only the first chapter of a generation-long story that’s led to some infamous feats…
The Saddest Haircut
In the wake of their inexcusable upset, one of the players for the Maple Leafs has a dreadful walk of shame looming. Mitch Marner, who finished fourth in the NHL in scoring with 20 goals and 47 assists in 55 games played, was a ghost in the first-round matchup against the Canadiens. While he tallied four assists in the 7-game bout, he failed to finish scoring chances in dire moments and was otherwise a phantom of the player he was in the regular season. As part of the heritage of the NHL, players will grow out their facial hair for the playoffs. Given that Marner can hardly manage to grow any stubble, he opted for a playoff mullet to garner the same effect. Not only does Mitch now have to look in the mirror with a greasy mullet that he’ll have to shave off, but it’ll likely be the last thing he does as a player for the Toronto Maple Leafs. As mentioned above, the Leafs are stretched too thin when it comes to the salary cap, and to solidify their depth on the roster, they need to shed some weight. With Tavares as the captain of the team, and Matthews as one of the most prolific goal scorers in the show, we’re left with Marner as the prime candidate to give up his jersey, as his time here in Toronto is done. There’s no doubt that the 24-year old playmaker can still retain tremendous trade value this summer, and he’ll likely contribute highly to his future team’s success, but for the Maple Leafs to vanquish their demons, they need to shuffle the team.
“Stop! He’s Already Dead!”
The most mind-boggling aspect of the failure that surrounds the Toronto Maple Leafs is that, despite having such an overpowered offense, the biggest weakness for the team was the lack of production by the offense. Early in the series, Toronto, unfortunately, lost captain Jonathan Tavares due to a freak collision that resulted in a concussion and knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of the series. For the remaining core, after their Game 4 win that gave them a 3-1 series lead, they became scared of their own shadows, and even an Auston Matthews, who potted 41 goals in 52-games played in the regular season, was stunted by the pressure. By the time it was Game 7, players in the blue and white were actually falling during plays they were so nervous. The Maple Leafs had no idea what to do. Anybody that wasn’t named William Nylander couldn’t find the back of the net, and the players that consumed over $40 million of Toronto’s cap became bags of milk on the ice that night. “What’s next for the Leafs?”, is what everyone is asking, but nobody’s answering. There is no answer to the question, at least not one the fans want to hear.