It’s the spring, the weather’s getting nice, the lawn needs some work, and the birds are chirping. It must be time for a “the Leafs just lost in the first round” mailbag.
I will say this, compared to last year’s edition, there was far less angst this time around. Many of you are disappointed, or even ticked off, but the doom-and-gloom of last year’s mailbag was nowhere to be found. Everyone who wrote in sounded, dare I say it, reasonable.
I’m not sure if that’s a good sign, or if it means we’ve all given up. Either way, let’s get into it.
Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.
My question is how can you run the same core out year after year only to watch them fail? Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly are arguably the most talented core in the league, but they have failed so many times in a row. How can you not look at all of the success that they’ve had in the regular season and see no correlation in the playoffs without changing a couple of them out?
My life would be so much easier if I cheered for Buffalo. — Adam K.
OK, maybe they weren’t all reasonable. Cheer for Buffalo? Dude, back away from the cliff.
But other than that, Adam does a good job of representing the “change it up” side. Maybe not blow it up entirely, but what I described in Monday’s debate column as change for the sake of the change. It’s not an unreasonable take, even if you think the current team is good, because you’d think there can only be so many times that you fail before you have to mix it up somehow.
As I argued in that piece, everything should at least be on the table. We all know that in the cap-era NHL, especially when the cap has been flat for years, it’s hard to pull off major overhauls. We can hot stove a bunch of blockbusters, but we know they probably won’t happen. The most likely scenario is that the core is back, and we all settle in to watch the same movie again. Part seven will have a different ending, right?
Same as it ever was. But with one key difference — compared to the last few years, there was one name that came up way more often in fan frustration, so let’s get to that next …
In hindsight, was there really the need to sign John Tavares? Great player and the catch of that free-agency class, but was it necessary? Is this Dubas’ biggest blunder, and is there any way to offload his contract to another team?
If Tavares didn’t sign, what do you do with that extra cap space? Obviously, Zach Hyman stays, but what else? – Steve S.
Man, it really felt like we were about to hit the tipping point on Tavares right around the Game 4 disaster. Everyone was looking for someone to blame, Matthews and Marner had been decent, and that Sunday night no-show raised big questions about leadership. The captain was going to be the target once they lost. You could hear the pitchforks being sharpened.
Then he was great in Game 5, almost singlehandedly won Game 6, and had the controversial no-goal that could have been the turning point in Game 7. So maybe he’s OK after all.
The question is if “OK” is good enough for $11 million. It isn’t, and it’s fair to say that Tavares is overpaid at this point. It’s not a terrible contract the way some other around the league are, because he’s still productive — he was basically a point-a-game player this year, which is excellent for a second-line center. But his underlying numbers weren’t great, he isn’t much of a two-way force, and he doesn’t seem to be elevating his wingers’ game like he used to in New York. And at 31, he’s not likely to get better over the final three years of his deal. If you can move him, you do, but it doesn’t seem like a realistic option. So. at this point you probably have to ride it out, enjoy the 30 goals and 75 points, and work around the cap hit as best you can.
But that’s not what Steve is asking here. He wants to know whether the signing itself was a mistake. And that’s a tougher question, one that I’m seeing in a few places these days. At the risk of getting overly dramatic, was the Tavares signing the original sin that doomed the Dubas-era Maple Leafs to eternal disappointment?
The argument against the signing would basically be everything we just laid out. Tavares never had an MVP-level season early in the deal, he’s not quite worth it midway through, and now we’re at the point where it’s a declining asset. That $11 million hit is a big number, and the Leafs could make better use of it elsewhere. Put it this way, would you rather have this current roster or one that subtracts Tavares, keeps Nazem Kadri, and has had $6.5 million in extra cap room to work with the last few years? Easy call.
Maybe too easy. When the Leafs signed Tavares, we assumed he’d be the team’s big star for a few years before Matthews, Marner and Nylander were ready to grab the torch. Instead, Matthews levelled up almost instantly, Marner mostly has too, and even Nylander has his moments. You can argue that Tavares is the fourth-best forward on this team, because the other guys all exceeded expectations. OK, but how much did his presence have to do with that? How much of that Matthews development is due to Tavares initially taking the tougher minutes? How important was playing with Tavares to Marner’s development back then, and to Nylander now?
We don’t know and we can’t know, which isn’t a satisfying answer but it’s what we’re stuck with. Maybe the kids don’t develop without a veteran star to learn from. Or maybe they don’t all insist on squeezing every penny out of mega-deals if they didn’t just see the new guy get one first. The Tavares contract isn’t a good one anymore, but maybe it was in the early years, if only in that you-always-overpay-for-UFAs kind of way. You could even argue that he’s underappreciated in Toronto, where the kids get more of the attention and his paint-drying personality lets him fade into the background. Remember, the one year he missed the playoffs was also the one year the team completely fell apart.
In the end, I think it all ends up somewhere that I’ve been thinking about for a while now, and I’m going to warn you in advance that the answer is deeply unsatisfying. I think the Leafs’ strategy — of signing Tavares, paying up to lock in Matthews, Marner and Nylander at a premium, and then building around that core four — made sense back in 2018 and 2019. And I also think that the flat cap hurt the Leafs worse than just about any other team, because everything they did was based on what should have been a safe assumption that the cap would keep rising. The plan made sense as long as they kept getting the extra $2 to $5 million a year in cap room that teams always got. Then everything changed, and the Leafs were kind of screwed.
If you’re a fan of another team you roll your eyes at that, because it’s more Leaf whining. If you’re a Toronto fan who thinks they’re on the right track, it can make you feel hopeless. And if you’re a fan who’s given up and you want someone to blame, this doesn’t even give you that, because nobody screwed up.
Nobody had the wrong plan. It was the right one, and also it hasn’t worked, and it might be doomed to never work, and it isn’t anyone’s fault.
Thanks, I hate it.
Can we frame the Leafs in a different way besides the overwrought and caustically negative? — Delan H.
Oh wait, Delan wasn’t done asking his question yet.
This is the first season where it’s really Kyle Dubas’ team from start to finish: Sheldon Keefe, his chosen coach, got a proper training camp for once and a full 82-game campaign, all the bad contracts from prior eras are cleaned out, and what I am left with is the best regular season in Leafs history, the best performance from several players, and the most I have trusted a front office ever. I trust their talent evaluation engine and their ability to uncover good players and reclamation projects for pennies on the dollar and I’m all in for running it back.
Maybe I’m in the minority but I don’t feel angst-ridden about this playoff exit even if I am sad and frustrated at things like refereeing and bounces. I don’t believe all the seven-game first-round exits are the same, and I’m less upset about this one than any of the previous in the Matthews era. A lot of people, some of whom aren’t even Leafs fans it seems, think players should get traded and front office personnel canned, but I don’t see it, and it doesn’t track with my perception of a league where, like, Kevin Cheveldayoff is still GM of the Jets. — Delan H.
Not much to add here, I just wanted to represent the positive side of things, especially after that last answer got kind of dark. As disappointing as this has all been, there are plenty of teams who’d trade places with the Leafs in a second. In fact, let’s get to that …
For all the people that are crying about blowing this team up, how many teams would you trade the Leafs for? I mean entire roster for entire roster. The Avalanche for sure, but how many others?
Maybe I’m too big of a homer, but is that it? The Sergei Bobrovsky contract is too bad to consider the Panthers. The Lighting are aging, but that’s possible. The point is this team is great. Not good, but great. — Tyler M.
I mean, Tyler isn’t completely wrong here. I think the Avalanche are the only clear yes here, all things considered. Every other top team gets into the “you could make the case” territory. Factoring in cap situation and prospects on the way, you definitely can argue for the Panthers, Hurricanes and Lightning. I’m not sure if you put the Flames there until you see how their free agents shake out. Maybe the Rangers if you believe Igor Shesterkin is the real deal for the next decade.
That’s probably the whole list, right? None of the rebuilding teams are there yet, the Golden Knights are too confusing, the Wild are about to enter cap hell, and everyone else is closer to the mushy middle.
I’m not sure what all of that really tells us, other than as a reminder that the Leafs roster is still in excellent shape. This just leads back to the question of why it can never win anything.
I want to know the fate of the chip bag. Is it stomped into chip dust? Sadly eaten while a lone tear trickles down your cheek? Offered to the food bank? — Alison
The middle one.
By the way, for those wondering about the maple leaf-shaped ketchup Cheetos: Not bad! Would recommend. What a nice change to see something that delivers on its potential.
Please rank these four players on the likelihood you think Toronto could — in the current trade marketplace — “win” a trade involving them by next year’s trade deadline (i.e., craft a deal that will not risk Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson style fleecing): T.J. Brodie, Marner, Nylander, Tavares. — Zach B.
A Nylander deal is clearly the easiest to win, in the sense that he’s not especially overpaid and you could get something close to fair value at a different position, or maybe even more if you’re smart about it.
Brodie has value, but probably more to this team than many others; if you move him, now you need a trustworthy veteran blueliner and that probably costs you at least as much if not more, so why bother?
Marner is the best player of the bunch and in theory would bring by far the biggest return, but with his cap hit you’d be dealing with a limited market and every GM would smell the desperation, so you’re probably settling for three quarters for your dollar. Tavares also isn’t tradable at this point.
So: Nylander, Brodie, Marner, Tavares.
You really thought you’d get rid of me that easily? — Smokey M.
Dude, you’re a jerk. We even went out and used our big trade deadline deal to bring in a guy from Seattle. It’s been 55 years, give us a break already.
I love this team, I really do, they have a personality, which is sorely lacking in this league, are fun to watch on the ice and on social media, and I think the argument against breaking up the core/team generally is right. But how do I motivate myself to watch regular season hockey anymore?
At this point, I am going to need some playoff success to make the regular season feel like any of it matters. Following the team via Instagram and Twitter feels like all I need to go through the regular season and pick it up at playoff time again. — Seth P.
This is a great question, one I struggled with last year. I paid a lot less attention to the Leafs’ regular season than most years, only because it never felt like it mattered. Once they had a playoff spot locked in, which in this year’s East was around mid-November, what was there to get excited about until the postseason? They won me over a little towards the end of the year, with the team points record in sight and Matthews chasing 60 goals, but that was about it.
So my answer to Seth is that he has it right — you’re fine to just tune out. Spending 200 hours of your life watching games that won’t matter much doesn’t feel wise. Watch the big games, or the ones you’re pretty sure you’ll enjoy. And stay informed on what’s happening, preferably through a high-quality subscription-based website. But otherwise, give yourself permission to tune in and out. It’s a long season, and it mostly doesn’t matter.
I’m not a Leaf fan but I know a few, and I’m not sure what to say to them right now. Can you help? — Kevin S.
Nope. I’ve had several interactions with people over the last few days, and not a single one of them have made me feel better. You know what, don’t talk to Leafs fans. Leave us alone. Check back in August.
But if you must, or you have no choice, then I can at least offer some advice. I don’t know what you should say, but I know what you should avoid. So let’s wrap this up with an important public service message: Things you should not say to a Toronto Maple Leafs fan right now.
“Did you know that the Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967?” Don’t be ignorant, do you really think anyone who actually knew this would still cheer for this godforsaken team?
“Plan the parade!” Toronto’s haphazard zoning strategies, crumbling infrastructure and constant construction makes planning a large-scale parade a logistical nightmare, so don’t tell them to do it unless you really mean it.
“Remember that time the Leafs had a lead and then blew it and everyone laughed at them?” You’re going to need to be more specific.
“There are six other NHL teams in Canada.” Leafs fans have enough to worry about without introducing brand new information that will only confuse them.
“You do know that Auston Matthews is signing with Arizona in two years, right?” As if there will be an NHL team in Arizona then.
“Wendel sucks! Dougie too!” There’s no need to bring their children into this.
“Would you like to talk about Kerry Fraser’s missed high-sticking call from the 1993 playoffs?” Saying this to a Leafs fan is a waste of time because there is a 100 percent chance they are already talking about it.
“I am a Senators fan.” While it may seem polite to remind a Leafs fan that it could always be worse, it kind of ruins the fun for everyone else.
“What’s the Scotiabank Arena like?” No actual Maple Leaf fan has been able to go to a home game since the late-70s.
“Stop crying.” Look they would if they knew how.
“Hello, I am a 40-something part-time Zamboni driver, would you like to hear a funny story?” Not now, David.
“It’s company policy here at The Athletic that we cover teams fairly and objectively and don’t come across like raving homers, Sean.” It didn’t work the first 10 times you said it, what’s going to be different now?
“I do.” Trust me, you’re definitely going to want to rethink this one.
(Top photo: Claus Andersen / Getty Images)