Defining Maple Leafs Early Playoff Exit

It was a back and forth Game 7 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins, but in the end the Bruins came out on top and are headed to the second round to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning.

While the Maple Leafs’ season can be watched and critiqued, much of their success and failure to advance in this year’s playoffs can be picked apart using a single letter in the alphabet – the letter D.

Maple Leafs’ Defence

From the first drop of the puck this season, the Maple Leafs’ defence was brought into question. Roman Polak and Connor Carrick battled for roster spots at times during the season. Nikita Zaitsev missed significant time and finally the team handed Travis Dermott a spot – one that he earned through his play in the AHL.

Travis Dermott #23 of the Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs added Dermott to the roster, but it wasn’t the defensive upgrade they were looking for. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Still, the Leafs battled defensive woes throughout the season. The trade deadline came and went and what the team had to show for it was Tomas Plekanec – a two-way forward – but still no change on the back end.

Paired up against the Bruins in the first round, their holes in the defensive end were exposed. They struggled to break out of their own end, often turning and throwing the puck blindly up the ice and the Bruins caught on. Their defensemen often pinched, keeping the puck in and sometimes these opportunities would lead to goals.

Related: Biggest Mistakes the Leafs Can Make

The Maple Leafs lack of ability to clear the zone certainly played a part in their giving up 28 goals over seven games – including two seven-goal games for the Bruins and three games of over five goals. It makes it hard to win that way.

Now that’s not to say the Leafs don’t have some NHL calibre talent on their blue line. The fact is that they struggle in their own zone and they’re still lacking when it comes to that stud defenceman. That something the Leafs will have to address in their extended offseason if they’re hoping to take that next step in their postseason adventures.

Maple Leafs’ Struggled with Discipline

On top of their defensive play, the Maple Leafs also had a hard time staying out of the box – at least in the games they lost in this series. Early on, they lost Nazem Kadri to a three-game suspension following his reckless hit on Tommy Wingels. That was a blow to the team seeing as Kadri netted 32 goals during the regular season.

Nazem Kadri Maple Leafs
Nazem Kadri was suspended following Game 1 of this series. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But it wasn’t just Kadri that had trouble when it came to discipline. The Maple Leafs averaged nearly 10 minutes in penalties per game in the playoffs. They took 24 minors and had 67 total penalty minutes in just seven games. Meanwhile, their penalty kill was operating at a rate of just 68.2 percent, while the Bruins were able to take advantage of 31.8 percent of their power play opportunities.

It’s safe to say that you’re not going to win a series when your special teams aren’t getting it done. And while the Leafs did have trouble staying out of the box, the Bruins experience and veteran presence were able to take advantage of the Maple Leafs’ lack of discipline in this series.

Did the Leafs Lack Determination?

Numerous times, players mentioned how Game 7 was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was arguably the biggest game that some of these players have played in. Simply put, it was a must-win and the Maple Leafs needed a quick start. They got it.

But up 1-0, they gave up the lead. They found a way to score again and went up 2-1. Again, the Bruins tied it. Finally, the Maple Leafs finished the second period of Game 7 with a one-goal lead at 4-3, but the Bruins came out in the third firing on all cylinders. They scored four goals and the Leafs just looked like they lacked enthusiasm.

If, in fact, this was such an important game, where was their determination to shut down the Bruins once they took the lead? This goes back to their defensive play and not being able to get it done in their own end. Part of that is inexperience, part of that is lacking determination to get into that second round.

Maple Leafs’ Stars Disappeared

While they gave up 28 goals in seven games, the Maple Leafs scored 20 of their own. While Kadri’s absence in the lineup was felt both defensively and on the offensive side of the puck, other players like Auston Matthews and William Nylander had a hard time producing.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews (1-1-2) and Nylander (1-3-4) combined for just six points in the team’s seven-game series. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Matthews tallied just one goal and two points in seven games, while Nylander was able to pick up the pace in the final few games and finished with a goal and four points in seven games. James van Riemsdyk finished with three goals and four points in what might’ve been his final games in blue and white, while another pending UFA in Tyler Bozak finished with four points of his own.

With Boston’s top line of Marchand, Pastrnak and Bergeron tallying roughly 30 points combined in the seven games, the scattered points of the Leafs’ top talents simply wasn’t enough.

On the other hand, Mitch Marner did everything in his power to carry the Leafs into the deciding game having posted two goals and nine points in seven games while taking the brunt of the Bruins’ physical play. But one player isn’t enough for a team to move on.

Maple Leafs’ Demons Remain

Finally, there’s been a lot of talk about how different this team is from the one that lost in Game 7 of the 2013 NHL playoffs and it is very different. But there was a shadow that was hovering over this Maple Leafs from the onset of this series and that was the demons of the 2013 group.

Related: Maple Leafs and Bruins, Cue the Nightmares

While some suggested that they had chased those demons following their Game 5 win in Boston, that just wasn’t the case. Sure, it was an elimination game and the Leafs came out on the winning end, but it wasn’t Game 7. It wasn’t a winner-take-all scenario and the Maple Leafs didn’t look like they were about to crumble.

But three leads later, a 7-4 loss in Game 7 of the 2017-18 playoffs to the same Bruins team that beat them five years ago and those demons remain. While it isn’t the ideal finish to another incredible regular season for the Leafs, they will have to take the positives from this series and learn from it before the puck drops on the 2018-19 campaign.