The Toronto Maple Leafs were defined in their 2019-20 campaign by one particular attribute: wilful ignorance. That which extended to all branches of their roster from its glaring flaws in construction to the rot permeating behind closed doors.
Remember, these Leafs began their now-lost season with Mike Babcock behind the bench, a coach whose entire modus operandi clashed obviously with the organization that employed him — both on and off the ice — and whose eventual dismissal appeared inevitable to all who paid even fleeting attention.
That “one foot in, one foot out” mentality was present from the get-go, and became the bedrock upon which another disappointing year in Leaf Land was built.
Then again, was this disappointing? Or was Sunday’s 3-0 shutout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets exactly what was meant to happen all along?
These Leafs were, by all metrics, a middle-of-the-pack team in 2019-20, regardless of how their reputation happened to paint them. Their 36-25-9 record was good enough for only eighth in the Eastern Conference. They failed to string together a stretch of play that anyone would deem consistent entirely. Not to mention, the opponent the Maple Leafs duked it out for the final postseason spot with all year was the Florida Panthers, a team so pitiful that the New York Islanders clapped them out of playoff contention with such force, the reverberations can still be felt across time and space today.
Those were Toronto’s peers. Not the Lightning, not the Bruins. Rather, the NHL’s middle class.
The Leafs’ tax bracket and offensive firepower may have suggested they were contenders. But they were not. Not even close.
Contenders don’t place their blueline’s health on the success of a Cody Ceci redemption project that ignored a six-year track record of prior failure. Contenders don’t neglect their backup goaltending to the point that it tangibly costs them much-needed wins and, by extension, equally-needed assets to acquire an eventual replacement. And contenders definitely don’t lose to the Zamboni driver they pay to tend the ice at their minor league facility.
The David Ayers game, obviously, became a watershed moment of this Leafs season, albeit not for what actually happened during those fateful moments on the ice. If you’ll recall, that contest served as Toronto’s final tuneup before the 2020 trade deadline, of which Kyle Dubas and his staff were reportedly preparing to be quite active.
Then, The Incident™ happened. And plans quickly changed.
From that moment on, there would be no more bailouts, no more firings, and no more swings for that “one final piece.” Dubas placed the onus on the team itself to right its own ship. Perhaps he should have adopted this mindset earlier. The players had been catered to their every need, after all. But, hindsight is 20-20. Now it was up to them to prove just how far they could go.
Sunday night gave us that answer. And it’s hard to be surprised by it.
Perhaps the harshest reality dealt to Leafs fans in the past 48 hours is that this team is just not special. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to prove otherwise, of course. And yet time after time, moment after moment, the Leafs simply haven’t.
These Leafs are plagued by those very moments, to which they consistently fail to live up to. It can be seen in Frederik Andersen’s annual steadiness only to allow a back-breaking goal in the late minutes of an elimination game. It can be seen in Mitch Marner’s regular season dominance that fades into a single even-strength point when the games matter most.
It can be seen in the hit posts, the broken sticks, the mental gaffes.
Look around you. It’s all there.
Of course, hockey is a chaotic sport, requiring large samples of data with which to draw hard conclusions. Judging the long-term feasibility of this Leafs core off of a five-game qualifying series during a global pandemic would be a fool’s errand. There are simply too many variables at play here. You need more runway. Thankfully, these Leafs have provided a half-decade’s worth, ultimately demonstrating their ever-present inability to win four-of-seven postseason matches and put an end to the organization’s second-round banishment that still dates back to 2004.
You can point to the team’s positive expected goal metrics, its unsustainably low shooting percentage, or even the equally unsustainable (or perhaps not, after Tuesday night) save percentage from the opposing goaltenders as excuses. They might even be worthwhile. Perhaps if this was a seven-game series, the Leafs finally break through, as the numbers would suggest, and slay their dragon.
And as a famous Italian chef once proposed: if my grandmother had wheels, she would have been a bike.
The fact of the matter is, the Toronto Maple Leafs in their current form have been faced with countless defining moments for the past five years, and failed to rise to them every single time.
For better or worse, Sunday’s defeat to the Blue Jackets may stand as the final one.
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