The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to have to win a playoff round this year.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are at the point in the building process where winning is now expected. Maybe even demanded.
After four straight first round losses, the Leafs are going to have to make some significant progress this year. And fair or not (it isn’t) that is how professional sports works.
Two major competing corporations working together to run the Leafs was unlikely to begin with. That that they would turn over the reigns of their franchise to a 31 year old who is younger than many of his players and try to revolutionize the NHL even more so. But to expect their patience with the project to be infinite is just naïve.
Pressure Is on for the Toronto Maple Leafs
So while the Toronto Maple Leafs will eventually be rewarded for building a team that can compete over the long term, and for doing all sorts of smart things that most NHL teams don’t (or won’t) do, the fact is that all those things will go to waste and we’ll be right back to chasing our tails like the rest of the league if we don’t see some tangible success soon.
In an ideal world, we’d trust Kyle Dubas enough to give him the time to avoid the randomness of luck, but that just isn’t the one we live in.
As dumb as it is, and as much as its antithetical to actually winning, if the Leafs can’t get over the hump this year and win at least one playoff round (as stupidly arbitrary as that is for measuring success) this experiment will probably be over.
Does it matter that the Leafs first three playoff losses were excellent learning experiences, and that, had the Leafs won any of them, they’d have pulled off a major upset against a legacy team? Does it matter that when they lost to Columbus it was after a six month layoff, or that it was against a team who set the NHL for highest save percentage in NHL playoff history (despite allowing the Leafs to get dangerous scoring chances at will?)
It should, but of course it doesn’t. Any reasonable, non-emotional look at the Leafs over the last four years shows a team getting better every year. The NHL has nearly full parity and of course results vary, but the facts are that if we look at the predictive, underlying stats from the first 47 games of the Sheldon Keefe era, it shows a team on par with Tampa and Las Vegas as one of the three best teams in the NHL.
But results steer perception, and as frustrating as that is for the nerds (like me) who live in the details, that is just the way it is. So the Leafs have to win this year. Maybe not a Stanley Cup, and maybe not the President’s Trophy. But they definitely need to win a playoff round.
Despite making the playoffs four years in a row and being, by any measure, one of the best teams in the NHL, tangible results are now being demanded. I have no doubt that the team will meet expectations, but if they don’t it is likely will see ownership make emotional and highly questionable decisions when it comes to running the team.