The Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t find an answer an overtime in Game 5 against the Florida Panthers. With that, their 2022-23 season was over in disappointing fashion.
Although the Maple Leafs got the monkey off their back by winning a playoff series and knocking the Tampa Bay Lightning out in the process, this loss to the Panthers took away any shine from their first-round victory.
The Game 5 loss happened on home ice in front of their fans. It’s kind of fitting in the sense of it encapsulated how they played on home ice in the entire playoffs.
The Maple Leafs held home-ice advantage against the Lightning and Panthers. They went 1-5 at home including an embarrassing 0-3 against the Panthers. That’s completely unacceptable for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
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As disappointed as fans should be with this outcome, it’s not the end of the world, not by a long shot. In fact, this latest Maple Leafs’ blunder might actually be the best thing to happen to them. Sounds crazy, right? Actually, it’s not crazy at all. Let’s explore.
Change Can Be Good
It’s widely believed that the Maple Leafs are going to go through some kind of change. Whether it’s in management, on the coaching staff or on the roster, running it back as is doesn’t appear to be an option.
Remember the last time a team went through an embarrassing loss that forced change? The Lightning were swept in 2019 by the Columbus Blue Jackets. That sweep turned out to be the best thing to happen to the Lightning. Why? Because it told them that they had to change. How different would things be had the Lightning defeated the Blue Jackets and didn’t go through that pain?
The Lightning made changes to the makeup of their roster. The result was consecutive Stanley Cups and three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final. Sometimes, teams need to experience the pain of losing to finally realize what they have to do.
The Panthers went through this experience in a slightly different manner. They were swept out of the playoffs in the second round last season by the Lightning. This was after steamrolling the league in the regular season. GM Bill Zito saw a need and met it head on.
Zito made one of the biggest trades in recent memory by acquiring Matthew Tkachuk and then signing him to an eight-year deal to be a south Florida fixture. Tkachuk and the Panthers just eliminated the Maple Leafs in five games to advance to their first Eastern Conference Final since 1996.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of being embarrassed and enduring a loss in the way they did. The Florida teams made changes after being swept. Those changes led to more success in each case. The Maple Leafs would be wise to follow this lead.
Maple Leafs Still Good But Need Changes
The five-game loss to the Panthers still doesn’t change the fact that the Maple Leafs are a good hockey team. They’ve enjoyed abundant regular-season success. But they haven’t enjoyed the ultimate success the playoffs would bring.
That’s why major changes are needed on the Maple Leafs. Being a great regular season team is not the goal. Winning the Stanley Cup is the goal. Their current roster has not even made it half way yet. What kind of a message would running it back send to everyone?
The Maple Leafs have tried different approaches since locking down the core four. They’ve added different depth pieces. They’ve tried different goaltenders. They’ve used trade deadlines to acquire players they thought would get them over the top. It hasn’t been good enough yet. The most playoff wins in one season with the core four was this season with five. They need 16.
What hasn’t been touched yet? The core four. Is now the time to change the dynamic of the Maple Leafs? They have to do something. But before they go down that road, they have questions to answer.
The biggest of those questions are who will be the general manager? Is Kyle Dubas coming back? Then once the leadership is decided on, where do things go with Auston Matthews? Is he worth the $13-$15 million he could command on the open market? Given his playoff success so far, that might not be a slam dunk answer.
As for the core four, consider this staggering stat. In the series against the Panthers, Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander combined for three goals. That’s about $40 million of cap hit that got three goals. Now consider that Nick Cousins and Gustav Forsling combined for three goals as well, with two of them being game winners. Their combined cap hit is under $4 million.
This has to open the eyes of everyone in the Maple Leafs’ organization that change is needed. They committed half of the salary cap into four players. You need a team to have playoff success. It hasn’t worked to this point.
Right Changes Yield Results
The good news is that the Maple Leafs’ window for playoff contention is still wide open. They have plenty of talent that keeps the window open. But if they want to take the next step as a team, they must make the right changes.
The right changes yield results. The Panthers were willing to trade Jonathan Huberdeau, a player who scored over 100 points and was a major reason for their regular season success. Credit to Zito for doing something that was met with a ton of resistance and doing it because he felt it was needed. Who’s laughing now?
Are the Maple Leafs willing to consider a trade of any of the core four at this point? If they want to win deep in the playoffs, they better consider it. It might not be popular and it might be met with ridicule. But if it gets the Maple Leafs closer to the Stanley Cup, they have to do it.
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The Maple Leafs from top-to-bottom are going to have to look at themselves in the mirror and truly evaluate themselves and their thoughts. Are they capable and willing to make the necessary changes to win? If they do, this situation can still work out for the best.
The potential is there for the Maple Leafs to make this loss to the Panthers the best thing to ever happen to them. But that only works if they swallow their pride, admit what they’ve done hasn’t worked and then make the necessary changes. We’re going to find out through their moves what is important to them.
If it’s winning the Stanley Cup, there will be major changes that will have the hockey world talking all summer. That might be what it takes at this point.
Luckily for the Maple Leafs, they have the Lightning and Panthers to thank for showing that change can bring success. It’s the only thing holding them back from their ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.