The Toronto Maple Leafs had the opportunity in front of them. They got to play in their home rink. They made an incredible comeback in Game 4 to force a deciding Game 5.
But then thud.
The Columbus Blue Jackets came back and shut the Maple Leafs out to end their season. Once again, all that top-end talent and absolutely nothing to show for it. Serious questions had to be asked about the direction of the Leafs. Could a setup like this even work?
As bad and embarrassing as the loss was, it sometimes takes gut-wrenching losses to see the full picture and make necessary changes. For the Maple Leafs, losing to the Blue Jackets was actually for the best. It made the team realize they had to address certain aspects if they want to break through.
Changes Were Necessary
At the end of the day, the Maple Leafs were not hard enough to play against. The Blue Jackets had plenty of space to operate and dictated much of that series. When all the chips were down, the Blue Jackets exposed the ultimate weakness of the Maple Leafs. In a tough, grind-it-out kind of series, the Maple Leafs just couldn’t keep up.
But now, after a good offseason, the Maple Leafs will start the new season trying to forge an updated identity. The core (except Kasperi Kapanen) remains the same. But Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian and T.J. Brodie are in to help the Leafs get to the next level.
So the Maple Leafs still have high-octane offense. But now they have players who don’t mind playing the physical game. So long as the core buys into this idea, they become a much more dangerous team come playoff time.
Give GM Kyle Dubas credit. He was up against the cap and moves had to be made. He was able to bring these players in on team-friendly deals. They’re ready to roll.
These Maple Leafs will have all the motivation to not last season repeat itself. If they can put it all together with their new pieces, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them compete for a division, whether it’s the Atlantic or an All-Canadian division.
Blue Jackets Bring Out Best in Others
If there’s something else the Maple Leafs can hang their hats on, it’s that the Blue Jackets have shown a tendency to bring out the best in their opposition. Just look at their recent past.
The Washington Capitals were down 2-0 in the first round in 2018, the year they went on to win the Stanley Cup. It was the Blue Jackets that had them in that hole. What happened next? After a double OT win in Game 3, the Capitals won the next three to win the series. The rest is history.
The next season, the Blue Jackets had the Boston Bruins down 2-1 in round two. But then, the Bruins rose up and took the next three including Game 6 in Columbus. The Bruins eventually fell in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Earlier in that playoff, the Blue Jackets stunned the hockey world by sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the playoffs. Talk about embarrassing for a franchise. What did the Lightning do? They made critical moves to fill desperate needs. The result? The Lightning got their revenge on the Blue Jackets on their way to a Stanley Cup.
The Blue Jackets are a good team who is known as a team that is hard to play against. Teams had to adjust to them but then were able to overcome them because they had a high-end talent advantage.
The Maple Leafs seem ready to do what the Capitals, Bruins and Lightning have already done. They are ready for a long run in the playoffs. If they get their opportunity, they can thank the Blue Jackets for the much-needed lesson to get over the hump.
The Maple Leafs’ season couldn’t have a had a worse ending than the one in 2019-20. But it was actually the best thing that could have happened to them. It screamed out the changes that were needed.
Dubas and the Maple Leafs made those changes. Now it’s up to the players to do their job and make a long playoff run. If recent history is any indication, expect big things from the Maple Leafs in 2020-21.