There are three games left in the regular season, and the stage is all but set for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The magic number to clinch first place is down to one. Auston Matthews has a comfortable nine-goal lead in the race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy. And having been the first team in the Scotia North Division to clinch a playoff spot, the time has come where the Maple Leafs can breathe before the real show begins.
But, given their track record in recent years, there really isn’t much of a reason to breathe. Having lost in the first round each year from 2017-2019 and not even making the dance in 2020, it’s safe to say that fans are allowed to be nervous. Even in a year like this one, where the Maple Leafs seemingly don’t have any glaring issues and they’re far and away the best team in their division.
I don’t even want to picture what the city of Toronto and the media will look like if the team loses in the first round yet again. That’s why I’m writing this article.
The Maple Leafs have a strong tendency to be their own worst enemies. They arguably have one of, if not the most skilled team in the NHL, but their skill doesn’t guarantee them anything at all. One quick glance at the five-game series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in last year’s playoff bubble will tell you that.
Plugging Every Gap
Heading into this season, general manager Kyle Dubas addressed pretty much every single need the Maple Leafs had. One of their biggest holes last season was the lack of a competent backup goalie, so Dubas traded for Jack Campbell before the 2019-20 season was postponed. He then doubled down on this by trading for David Rittich after Frederik Andersen went down with an injury.
Seemingly the biggest flaw in Leafs teams from recent years was the lack of a good defensive core. And after years and years of the defense continuing to prove an issue, Dubas signed defenseman T.J. Brodie in the offseason. The result? Brodie is now arguably the Maple Leafs’ best defensive defenseman and has done wonders at both even strength and on the penalty kill. And just for good measure, Dubas brought in Zach Bogosian and Ben Hutton to further add to the depth.
Okay, so all the holes have been filled. Now what? Well, how about a tidal wave of veteran leadership and grit? The offseason saw Dubas add Wayne Simmonds on a one-year contract. And while Simmonds isn’t the player he once was offensively, his heart and tenacity is still as strong as ever. Guys will have to answer the bell if they do anything to harm the stars. Just look at the way he handled the Zach Hyman injury.
And how about Joe Thornton? The 41-year-old has been nothing short of a blessing for a young, inexperienced Maple Leafs locker room, and while he’s not going to be the first one in the corners or the one stirring the pot right in the middle of the scrum, he’s shown that he can kick it up a notch when push comes to shove. He has years of wisdom and experience under his belt and can teach the young core a thing or two about facing adversity.
And while we’re on the topic of grit, the acquisition of Nick Foligno was simply the perfect cherry on top of the cake that is the 2020-21 Maple Leafs. While some fans were initially upset that the Leafs traded a first-round pick for the former Blue Jackets captain while Taylor Hall went to Boston for a second rounder, that disappointment quickly faded.
To anybody who’s still upset over that, all I ask you to do is to look back at the Blue Jackets team that knocked the Maple Leafs out of the playoffs in 2020. When the team lost Game 5, I think it was safe to assume there were more people thinking, “Man, this team needs a Foligno” instead of “This team really needs to trade for Hall”.
And, for what it’s worth, Foligno has four points in five games with the Maple Leafs since the trade.
Playoffs Are Open Season
So, now, the Maple Leafs have four players on the roster who have captained other teams. They have a stable defensive core. They have a competent goaltending situation. As we all know, they also have the skill. There are no more excuses to lay an egg in the first round. And like I said, it’s all going to come down to the players’ ability to tackle adversity when faced with it.
If there’s one thing you can take away from the NHL playoffs, it’s that anything is possible. Your record during the regular season doesn’t mean anything outside of whether or not you have home-ice advantage. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2019-20. Then what happened? Oh yeah, they got swept by the underdog Blue Jackets.
It’s looking more and more likely by the day that the Maple Leafs will face the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. They’ve had success against them this year, carrying a 6-2-1 record against the Canadiens. But that success doesn’t mean anything. Like the Blue Jackets last year, the Habs are a team who will take it to you and will do anything to be the first-round-upset story in the headlines. Especially against a rival like Toronto.
Even this season, the two teams the Maple Leafs have seemingly struggled against the most are the two teams that have virtually been out of the playoff race since early February. They have a record of 5-4-1 against the Vancouver Canucks, and while a record of 5-2-1 against the Ottawa Senators isn’t bad at all, they’ve stuck it to them and made them work for every win they got. Oh, and the Maple Leafs blew a four-goal lead against them to lose 6-5 in overtime back on Feb. 15.
Skill Advantage Isn’t Enough to Win Games
My point is that a team’s record isn’t an indication of how they stack up against the Maple Leafs. You can look at the standings and take the Leafs over any of the other teams. I would. They have the best record and they’ve only played teams in their own division. So, yeah. They’re the best team in the division and realistically have the best chance to make noise down the stretch.
But like I said, playoffs are a whole different vibe. And any one of these teams can turn it on at any given moment. Heading into the 2020 bubble, Toronto should have been the clear favourites. Their skill blew the Blue Jackets out of the water, but it didn’t matter. Columbus won the series by grinding and grinding until they tired the Leafs out. The Maple Leafs have to do the same if they want to finally break that first-round curse and make a good playoff run.
This means keeping their foot on the gas pedal for the entirety of each 60 minutes they play. Continuing to move their legs and not stopping until the final buzzer goes. Avoiding stupid penalties to the effect of too many men and delay-of-game. Another big one is not letting their emotions get the best of them.
The Maple Leafs lost Nazem Kadri to suspension in back-to-back playoff runs between 2018 and 2019. And honestly, I don’t know that there are too many fans out there who fault him for acting the way he did, especially towards Jake DeBrusk during the 2019 Playoffs. While Kadri obviously isn’t a Maple Leaf anymore, the teams they’re likely to play will get under their skin and drive their emotions up. Answer the bell if you have to, but in the end, this team needs to put their heads down and power through any sort of pushback.
The Maple Leafs do not have any excuses left. They’ve addressed every need from defense, to goaltending, to grit, to veteran leadership. They have legends without a Cup like Joe Thornton, who’s probably going to retire after this season. For the first time since they became a contender, they don’t have to worry about Boston or Tampa Bay. There is simply no excuse to fizzle out after seven games this year.
In the end, the Maple Leafs are the only ones who can control their outcome.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.