The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team with a bright future and one of the best rosters in the NHL.
The Toronto Maple Leafs lost twice to the Bruins (a Cup winning, legacy team among the best in the NHL) in game seven of the opening round. The Leafs deserved to win at least one of those games, maybe both of them.
I can’t tell you how maddening it has been to constantly see Nazem Kadri bandied about as the Exact Kind of Player the Leafs Need when it is almost 100% guaranteed that if Nazem Kadri had not been suspended TWO PLAYOFFS IN A ROW, that the Leafs would already have been to the second round. The revisionist history makes me sick, if I’m being honest.
Everyone is talking about how bad the Leafs are and how they can’t win in the playoffs, because they “don’t have a grinder who plays the right way,” while completely ignoring that that exact supposedly missing piece was 100% responsible for two straight game seven losses.
As for the series vs the Blue Jackets, the Leafs dominated four out of five games and lost because Columbus had one of the best goalie performances in playoff history, stopping over 98% of 5v5 shots, which is a statistical anomaly so rare they should open an exhibit about it at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
What I am saying here is that the Leafs are a good team. Damn good. Results, however, are always going to colour public perception (the main reason its virtually always wrong). Nothing we can do about that.
But there is one thing the team can do about it: copy the Tampa Bay Lightning’s response to failure.
Tampa and the Leafs
The Leafs take a lot of crap for a team that has the two best teams in hockey over the last five years in their division. Hard to make it through the first round when you’re all but guaranteed to play the best team in hockey. (Had Toronto beaten Columbus, they’d have played Tampa).
But excuses aside, the Leafs should take a lesson from the Lightning, who are in their third conference final of the last five years.
It is, however, not the conference finals that interest me. It’s the other two years of failure.
Three years ago, coming off a conference final and picked by many (if not most) to be the NHL’s best team, the Lightning missed the playoffs. Last season, they were tossed from the first round by the same Columbus Blue Jackets, in four games.
Four games that, by the way, Tampa absolutely dominated.
Tampa had roughly 55% of the shot-attempts, scoring chances and expected goals, but lost in four games because Columbus got an unusually high 5v5 save percentage of 94%. While that is 4 percentage points less than the number they used to beat the Leafs, it’s still insane enough to all but guarantee victory.
At no time did Tampa respond by making wholesale changes to the core of their team. They did not in any way change the style, philosophy, or long-term goals of their team. No one suggest that Patrick Brisbois be fired, or that you “couldn’t win” with Nikita Kucherov.
Last year, Tampa had three x 40 goal scorers who went three games without a goal, leaving their team down 0-3. They didn’t suddenly decide to change the way they played, and once again this season they were the league’s best offensive team.
They are now heavy, heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They have done it by identifying a core – Kucherov, Stamkos, Point and Hedman – and sticking with it despite occasionally bad results.
The Lightning didn’t make the Stanley Cup Finals until eight years after they drafted Steven Stamkos. He is currently looking for his first Cup in year 12 of his career. Brayden Point was drafted in 2014. Kucherov in 2011.
It takes time to put together a championship. Pittsburgh and Chicago were total flukes, made possible only by the fact that they combined hall of fame rookies with a league still new to managing the salary cap. The kind of advantages they had aren’t even possible today.
The teams the Toronto Maple Leafs want to emulate – Tampa, Boston, Washington – all took nearly a decade become the annual contenders they are today. The point that I am making here is that the Leafs are a really young team whose results, while bad, are absolutely excusable and understandable. (All stats from naturalstattrick.com).
Instead of making the radical changes some media and fans are calling for, the Toronto Maple Leafs would best be served by copying Tampa’s response to failure: stick to the blue-print and don’t listen to the critics.