It was the best time to slay the dragon in their own lair, or exorcise the demons that plagued them. In the end, the Leafs were once again defeated by the dragon and their demons continued to haunt them. With another loss the Boston Bruins in the first- round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a team that was destined to make a deep run, is now starting to look for answers and quickly during a window where the time to win is now.
For the third time, it ended in defeat. But there was no egregious collapse that left the fan base with dropped jaws. This Game 7 was different where it wasn’t a blowout. This whole series was competitive and entertaining for seven straight games. I was always on the edge of my seat every single game, anticipating what would happen next. But, it’s the same old story for the Leafs where at times during this year, their mistakes caught up to them at the worst possible time.
Morgan Rielly had a career year. Newly acquired John Tavares had a career year. Mitch Marner had a career year and in the end, while all these personal accolades are great, it’s bittersweet knowing that expectations were high and that another early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs was the result.
I mean in a series, and a game, where Toronto seemed to be the better team for the better part of two periods, it was the Bruins that made the most of their chances and capitalizing on the Leafs mistakes. You can fault Andersen for two goals that he should’ve had. You can blame Gardiner for another questionable Game 7 where he didn’t perform the way he wanted too. Or you can blame Kadri for the suspension that hindered the Leafs at times where his presence was needed the most.
General manager Kyle Dubas is now in a spot where he needs to find answers and change it to make this team into a true contender. But the blame does not lie with him.
It lies on the bench.
Assistant coaches Jim Hiller and DJ Smith control the power-play and penalty- kill respectively and it was abysmal for the second half of the season and in the playoffs. The Leafs were 3 for 16 (18.8%) on the power- play, which is average at best. Their penalty- kill finished at 56.3%. The only team that was worse than them in that department was the Tampa Bay Lightning. That percentage alone is terrible.
At a time where special teams is always a difference maker, this is one of the issues that killed them during this series. While they had some good looks at both ends, the success rate wasn’t there and the Bruins defenders gave them a hard time to enter the zone and setup and destroying them with the man advantage.
Before the series started I wrote about what the Leafs need to do to beat the Bruins, fixing the power-play was one of them. They’re too predictable. Although, using Matthews on the off- wing was a great new strategy, it was too little too late.
Mike Babcock has been criticized heavily this year compared to the previous years about his decisions, ability to change his style and player management. Even with the match-ups, Babcock lost those against Bruce Cassidy because he was pin- pointing out the Leafs weakness. This is similar to a chess match and the Babcock got heavily out-coached. This is another major concern. As a coach, you need to adapt and change your style to be the better team. Babcock had no answer and kept his lineups and game- plan the same. Babcock is trying to use his strategies that may have worked in the past. But none of it is working now.
The stretch pass was one of the Leafs strength at one point, but it became a burden for them. It didn’t work out as well as Leafs planned. Boston exploited that to give them nothing throughout whole series, most notably on the first Bruins goal. Travis Dermott had possession of the puck and instead of trying to skate up with it, he tried to stretch the play up and created a turnover leading to Joakim Nordstrom’s goal. It’s a great tactic to have in your arsenal, but it shouldn’t be the go-to play as it’s been backfiring a lot all year.
Early on in the season, the Leafs killed every team with their speed and skill. It was a major asset and they broke out as a whole unit. I didn’t notice this a lot during the second- half and playoffs. I don’t know if that had to do with the way Babcock wanted them to play, but they weren’t the same team when they weren’t using their speed.
With that being said, the Leafs American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, looked more fast and quick than the pro team. While it’s good for players development and playing in that moment and looking to get to the NHL, it puts everyone on the big club to shame. The Marlies are moving onto the second round under Sheldon Keefe and they are quick in every department; transitional play, chasing down loose pucks, puck movement, cycle play, defensive play, you name it. The Marlies were better than the Leafs.
Auston Matthews was scoring and producing at an important time, which he should. Although, he was doing a lot in Game 7, he only had 18:48 total ice time and only 6:16 in the third period of game 7. The teams’ franchise player played just over six minutes in a crucial game where it mattered most to try and salvage the season.
Meanwhile, Patrick Marleau was out there when game was on the line. Marleau didn’t have a strong season and he was in the final shifts of the game to try and save the year.
See the problem here?
This head scratching player deployment is all on Babcock. I’m a big fan of his and I’ve supported him for a long time, but to give your star player the least amount of ice time when it matters most is inexcusable. I don’t see Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin get the short end of the leash in terms of ice time. The fact that Babcock would rather play an aging 39-year-old Marleau over a young superstar like Matthews shows that his stubbornness is his own demise. He’s stuck in the past where the vets should be out there playing while the young guys take a seat. That’s not how it works anymore. The stars deserve more ice time and depth guys, while they have a purpose, shouldn’t be getting more than them unless you have the utmost faith in them.
Everything falls back to the coach. Player performance, special teams, everything goes back to them. This is his team and he has the carry the blame for how everything unfolded, in the regular season and post-season. They’re responsible for the way they play and the execution each game.
It’s a shame that Dubas had to take the blame for the coaching staff’s failure during the end of season press conference. Could Dubas take the blame for not making another move to improve the team deadline? Sure, there’s always an opportunity to improve the team. But as his first year as general manager, I thought he did a fantastic job. What he shouldn’t do is take the blame for something the head coach and special teams specialists are responsible for. That’s not his job.
The fact that Babcock didn’t take any ownership for the team’s failure whatsoever, shows that there is some sort of disconnect between the coach and general manager. And that is problematic.
If I’m Dubas, I’d talk to Babcock and give him an ultimatum, one more year to try and get a hold of things and turn it around. I’d fire his assistants first before anything because the PP/ PK was atrocious down the stretch and playoffs. I’d give Keefe one of the spots and if next year is another early exit, fire Babcock and make the Keefe the head coach. Keefe had an excellent track record in the Ontario Hockey League and he has showing glimpses of being a NHL coach in the AHL, winning a title with the Marlies. There’s no doubt, that he deserves a spot.
Like I said, I’ve always liked Babcock. I wouldn’t fire a guy who came in and brought the team back to the playoffs and has had success in the past right away. But the tension, issues or whatever is going on between him, his assistants, his franchise player or general manager is troubling. In addition, being out in the first round in five of the last six years is concerning and shouldn’t be overlooked.
For three seasons, the Leafs have had great regular season success but has been mediocre in the playoffs. You can write off the first season as it was their first time making it with a young core of players, same with last year as the team is still trying to find itself. But this time around, things were different. Compared to previous years, this team had the best chance to beat the Bruins and move onto the second round. There should’ve been some sort of improvement on the previous year and there was nothing to show for it. That falls on the coach. The effort wasn’t there when it mattered most. This year was a wasted opportunity, for the players, the coach and management.
And let’s not forget, Dubas’ hands are going to be full with a number of roster changes looming. This could come in shoring up defensive depth and figuring out what to do to try and make this team a contender. Will he acquire a top- four, right handed defenseman? What will he do with players like Connor Brown, Patrick Marleau and his contract and even Nazem Kadri after his selfish and idiotic suspension?
There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. And Dubas is going to have an extremely busy off- season. Change is going to be coming. Whether it’s the coaching staff or roster management, it’s coming.