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COLUMN: In Leaf Nation, playoff exit sparks another round of angst

Toronto’s now in Year Six, but patience is a virtue, and astute is the GM that recognizes the true talent of his team, says columnist John Epstein
Kyle Dubas is sticking with his core players after yet another first round playoff exit. It's led to lots of angst in Leafs land.

With the recent conclusion of the NHL’s expansion and junior drafts, and the commencement of the free-agent-signing-season, questions that continuously orbit Leaf Nation as per its misfortunes, have intensified further.

The particularly hollow comments from team President Brendan Shanahan have not eased the angst.

Yes, the ringing of hands, and the gnashing of teeth persist in Leaf Land. Evident still are the grimaces from their fifth consecutive first-round elimination, this time at the hands of the overachieving Montreal misfits. Echoes of “Nobody can beat us, we drink beer and wear Adidas, Ole! Ole! Ole!” reverberate still.

Adding aggravation to that angst is the awkward timing of the Toronto Blue Jays talented young core contending coincidentally with the Leafs’ latest collapse, locally, this weekend.

On the bright-side, COVID’s now waning, not winning, and with it, a tentative resumption of that proliferate pith, “just like the Leafs” – that hallmark comment of corporate convention speakers, wedding MC’s openings, and warm eulogy’s closings, and the instantaneous understanding by all of some parallel tenure of tribulation – shall echo still.

Nonetheless, excessive has been the criticism of Maple Leaf management’s roster construction, let alone the nasty diatribe directed at Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Where Corey Perry excelled for the Canadiens, Joe Thornton expired for the Leafs, but, in fairness, the reverse may have as easily ensued.

Jason Spezza, brought in by the same executive, was stellar once again. Montreal’s Ben Chiarot was healthy, Toronto’s Jake Muzzin was not. Tellingly, between the pipes, Carey Price’s lone bad game came early, whereas Jack Campbell, solid at the outset, faltered critically, late.

There’s heat in Montreal as well, and audible was the collective sigh of relief when Carey Price went unclaimed by the expansion Seattle Kraken. For certain, Kraken GM, Ron Francis, was sleepless in Seattle, contemplating the claiming of Price, left unprotected by Montreal, tactically, while Shea Weber was exposed practically.

The latter was a stalwart through the Canadiens wonderful run, but is so medically maligned he’s taken on the appearance of’s Captain Obvious; small wonder the Kraken kept clear.

Big-time talents, Gabriel Landeskog and Jack Eichel have both been linked to the Habs, pending Weber’s move to long-term reserve, but fresh in one’s mind is that Toronto was/is talented too, but wasn’t it Montreal’s will, and not its skill, that prevailed? That Tampa had thunder to go with its lightning, was decisively the difference.

The Maple Leafs should take pause, let cooler heads prevail. It’s hardly uncommon for seemingly lethal nucleuses of talent to stutter or stall. Today, the Sabres have disintegrated, and the Oilers suffer the same malaise that plagues the Leafs.

Fortunately, talent like that of Matthews, Marner, and Tavares, can keep the window of opportunity ajar a while longer. For the sum of the total may still exceed that of its parts should some alchemy, however elusive, be applied.

Consider the Hall-of-Fame nucleus of the late-1970s New York Islanders – Mike Bossy, Brian Trottier and Denis Potvin – a disappointment until Butch Goring arrived in a dull deadline deal in 1980. Goring was the playoff MVP that spring, widely credited with sparking the Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cup wins, and, more so, for the frenzied focus with every trade deadline since.

Though in the end successful, too chaotic was the wheeling, the dealing and the relocating of the late-1980s Quebec Nordiques. Of the totally tantalizing talent they drafted – Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, and Eric Lindros, only Sakic served on the Colorado Cup-winner, nine years later.

True enough, Toronto’s now in Year Six, but patience is a virtue, and astute is the GM that recognizes the true talent of his team. Sometimes you just get beat; the Leafs, this time, by Carey Price.

Such a GM says “No” to the bad deals while waiting on the good ones. Angst exists elsewhere, don’t you know? Consider how many offers of ‘spare parts and picks’ were politely declined by Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin for PK Subban, before Nashville GM David Poile, frustrated, himself, not winning with Weber, offered the big blueliner up in 2016.

Similarly, Detroit stuck with Steve Yzerman when the Red Wings fell short years back, and he rewarded them with three Cups in six seasons, just as Tampa Bay did with coach John Cooper, retaining him after the favoured Lightning were swept in the first-round by the Blue Jackets in 2019, winning consecutive Cups since.

But what of the coaching? Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme adjusted when Montreal fell behind in the series 3-1 to Toronto, while questions as per Leaf coach Sheldon Keefe’s counter, continue.

Hockey’s old adage that Cups are won by the coach who gets his best players to play their best, has definite merit. This was likely put best by former Canadien Steve Shutt’s intriguing twist, “You hate Scotty Bowman 364 days of the year, then you win the Stanley Cup.”

John Epstein is a former, 25-year Orillia business owner who left southern Ontario for the north years ago, and has never been back. He is now a freelance writer, whose column will appear monthly in OrilliaMatters.