The Toronto Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967.
Not only that, but the Maple Leafs have not advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2004. The heartbreak for the fanbase has been excruciating at times. The Leafs have lost multiple game sevens to the Boston Bruins, were eliminated in a Best-of-5 play-in series by the Columbus Blue Jackets and, last season, blew a 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens to lose in seven games, again.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have earned a reputation as a team that puts up points in the regular season but can’t get anything done in the playoffs.
In Major League Baseball, the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox broke epic championship droughts, so it can be done. One of the similarities between playoff baseball and playoff hockey is that any team needs good fortune if they are going to win a championship. That can mean getting some puck luck or, maybe more importantly, good health. Injuries can derail any team’s playoff hopes.
Under this management group, with Brendan Shanahan as President, Kyle Dubas as General Manager, and Sheldon Keefe as head coach, the Toronto Maple Leafs have rightfully elevated expectations but that has only made the latest playoff losses more crushing.
There is always a reason. Nazem Kadri’s annual playoff suspensions, Jake Muzzin’s untimely injuries, or John Tavares’ devastating injury against Montreal last season all had an impact on the final results. No matter how legitimate those factors might be when it comes between a team winning and losing a series, it doesn’t matter.
The drought that hovers over the franchise means that the reasons do not matter nearly as much as the results.
So what is at stake for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2021-2022 season?
PRESIDENT – BRENDAN SHANAHAN
To his credit, the President of the Maple Leafs has largely stayed in the background and that could give him some cover when it comes to the Leafs’ perennial playoff disappointment. If the Maple Leafs do not advance past the first round again this season, it is certainly possible that Shanahan could get relieved of his duties but, from a distance, it seems like he might have more job security than that, with the opportunity to make bigger changes in the organization without it costing him his own job this time.
GENERAL MANAGER – KYLE DUBAS
If the Toronto Maple Leafs do not win a first-round playoff series this season, that could conceivably result in the GM getting fired. Following last season’s crushing disappointment, Dubas elected to run it back with the same core. That could prove to be the right decision, not panicking in the face of the pressure that came following another playoff elimination. That decision also kicked the can down the road. If the Maple Leafs do not win a playoff round this season, Kyle Dubas could face the consequences.
That potential outcome might just be a minor inconvenience for Dubas, a 35-year-old who is the youngest general manager in the league. He has helped build the Toronto Maple Leafs into one of the top regular-season clubs and that should not be taken for granted. That it has yet to manifest itself in playoff success would hardly be justification for letting him go and Dubas would be among the top contenders for any potential GM openings around the league.
HEAD COACH – SHELDON KEEFE
At this point in his tenure with the Maple Leafs, Keefe has delivered an excellent regular-season team, posting a 62-29-12 record (.660 PTS%) with Keefe on the bench, and that should not be cast aside so easily but he is very much Dubas’ guy, having coached for him previously with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League and with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. If – IF – Dubas were to meet his end with Toronto, that would presumably put Keefe’s job security in peril, too. Maybe a new GM would be okay with keeping Keefe, but new general managers love to bring in their own coaches, so a GM/coach front office sweep is a possible outcome.
The Maple Leafs have been so successful in the regular season because they have elite offensive talent and when that talent does not lead to goals in the playoffs, suddenly the calls to trade star players get louder.
Matthews is probably exempt. In the past two postseasons, he has three goals in a dozen games, but has also put 62 shots on goal in those 12 games, scoring on just 4.9%, the kind of small-sample performance that seems likely to level out over time. No matter how this season plays for the Maple Leafs, it is still extremely likely that Matthews will be part of the team’s future.
Marner is a 24-year-old who has 228 points (62 G, 166 A) in 196 games in the past three seasons and yet he was in the crosshairs of critics following the playoff loss to Montreal. In the past two postseasons, Marner has eight assists in 12 games, but he did not score a single goal despite registering 34 shots on goal. That goalless drought, combined with a salary cap hit of more than $10.9 million per season, and no playoff success does make Marner a potential candidate to move if the Leafs do not have more success in 2021-2022. Should it happen, that would be a monumental blockbuster type of trade.
Tavares has played more than seven playoff games just once in his career and even if the Maple Leafs do not advance in the playoffs, Tavares has a no-move clause in his contract, so he is probably still part of the core beyond this season.
Nylander was Toronto’s best player in last season’s playoff loss to Montreal, producing eight points (5 G, 3 A) and 21 shots on goal in seven games, but he has probably been rumoured to be in trade talks more than any current Toronto Maple Leafs player. If the Maple Leafs lose in the first round and Nylander is anything less than great, he could easily land on the trade block.
PENDING UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
A 27-year-old defenseman who is in the last year of a contract that comes with a $5 million cap hit, Rielly has been averaging more than 23 minutes per game for the past three seasons and he is a big part of the Leafs defense. It might be difficult for the Maple Leafs to get him signed to a deal approaching market prices without moving another big salary.
It has been a long and winding road for Campbell, on his way to having a shot at the Maple Leafs starting goaltender job this season. He is 29, has never played more than 31 games in an NHL season, and has a very team-friendly cap hit of $1.65 million. With the Leafs signing Petr Mrazek in the offseason, the team has insurance but if Campbell proves to be a legitimate number one goaltender, he is another player that the Leafs would presumably like to find cap space to sign.
WHAT IS SUCCESS?
Is winning a first-round series enough of a positive step for the Toronto Maple Leafs to continue with the current core, or is it going to take more than that?
Let’s assume that they do not have to end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought for the season to be considered a success but anything less than winning one playoff round is probably going to spark significant change.
Given recent playoff history, there is a lot of potential downside heading into the season but…
WHAT HAPPENS IF THE MAPLE LEAFS WIN?
The Toronto market already puts Maple Leafs players on a pedestal and think of how highly they regard players that have experienced any kind of playoff success. Since 1967, the Maple Leafs have had four teams that have reached a conference final – 1993, 1994, 1999, and 2002. The supporting cast on those teams still gets applauded in the city. Just imagine the reaction that any player, coach, or executive will have in Toronto – for the rest of their lives – if they could bring the Maple Leafs a Stanley Cup.
The 1994 New York Rangers are forever heralded for ending the Blueshirts’ drought and it’s not like hockey is the No. 1 sport in New York City. That the Toronto market cares so much about their hockey team is precisely why the pain is so great when they lose and why the potential payoff for a win is so enormous and that goes from Shanahan to Dubas to Keefe to all the players on the roster.
So those are the stakes. No pressure.