There isn't a more polarizing team in the NHL than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Loved and hated. Depending on who you ask, there's a wide range of opinions on just how good or bad this team really is. I've heard both sides of the argument and I still can't decide if this Leafs team is the real deal or not. How much stock should we place on past playoff performance?
Has GM Kyle Dubas added the missing ingredients to take them to the next level? Will the Leafs live or die by how Auston Matthews plays? Are the Leafs good enough to win tight playoff games when their big guns aren't firing? Is the defense good enough? Do they have the goaltending? Campbell or Andersen? Is Sheldon Keefe the right coach to lead Toronto to playoff success?
I think one common mistake fans make (myself included) is that we jump to conclusions too quickly. Recency bias has a way of clouding our long term judgment. So when I hear "the Leafs have no chance of winning a playoff round" I have to laugh. Why can't they? Because they haven't won one since 2004? How much playoff success did the Blues have before they won a Cup? We used to laugh at the Caps and call Ovechkin a playoff choker. Remember when fans used to say a team couldn't win a Cup with Russian players?
Things change. Old narratives become new stories. I do believe that the Leafs have to prove themselves in the playoffs. Until they've won something they haven't won anything. So the pom pom wavers should be cautiously excited. Winning playoff rounds isn't easy. Winning a Stanley Cup is very hard. This just in. But when I look at this Leafs team, they look different. I think Dubas has done a good job of changing the makeup of this roster. At least on paper. Time will tell if he has or not. Whether Shanahan told (made) him do this, I don't know.
The critics will say the Leafs are built for the regular season and not for the playoffs. In past years I would agree. But doesn't adding a gritty Nick Foligno make a difference? I think he does. The Leafs should be harder to play against. Simmonds, Nash and Bogosian add some snarl. Brodie has been a big upgrade on Barrie. But the Big 4 of Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander will still need to be the Leafs best players if they are to advance deep into the playoffs. Is Morgan Rielly turning into Jake Gardiner? Or will he elevate his game for a long playoff run? Zach Hyman is still a catalyst for this team and he'll play a big role.
I believe it's important for the Leafs skill guys like Matthews, Marner and Tavares to play with more grit and snarl. More pushback is needed. I don't mean "go out there and rip opponents heads off." But don't get pushed around. Zetterberg and Datsyuk were two good examples of this. They held their ice. By that I mean they wouldn't be pushed around when the going got tough. Mike Babcock used to say about Zetterberg "he'll keep coming right after ya." Like Hyman does for the Leafs now. I don't believe Nylander has it in him to be this type of player. Matthews 200 foot game has really improved. Marner and Tavares need to make themselves tougher to play against.
Whether we like it or not, the Leafs ARE Cup contenders. It doesn't mean they should be the favourite. I'm not saying they'll win the Stanley Cup. But you'd be hard pressed to find a more consistent team so far in this shortened season. Yes, playoff hockey is much different than regular season hockey. I learned this many years ago watching my Red Wings play like Superman from October to March only to turn into Clark Kent in April. But they learned. It took them awhile to figure out the playoffs. But when they did it was sure fun to watch.
All Cup winning teams have one thing in common. At some point they all face some type of adversity. Whether it be trailing in a series, winning a 4 OT game, winning a game 7 or overcoming the loss of a key player. Surviving adversity brings teams together. It gives them confidence. A sense of invincibility. You're going to win games you shouldn't win. You're going to lose games you shouldn't lose. Any playoff team should always expect to be "out goalied" at some point. It happens. That's hockey. But don't use it as a self fulfilling prophecy. Throw away the crutch and keep moving forward. Lose a battle and win a war. Are we out of cliches yet?
In the age of parity there are no juggernauts to beat. Even the best teams have flaws. The Leafs don't have to beat the '77 Habs, '84 Oilers, '92 Pens or '97 Red Wings. So I don't know why so many fans think it's impossible for the Leafs to win a Stanley Cup? I'm not buying the so called "weak Canadian division" narrative. There's weak teams in every division. Conversely, I'm not awarding the Leafs the Cup based on having one of the best records in the league. I'm fully aware that once the playoffs start all teams are 0-0. I just don't understand counting the Leafs out before the playoffs even start.
It'll be interesting to see how things unfold in the playoffs. Will the Leafs exorcise their playoff demons? Or will they fail like so many fans expect (want) them to? Just remember, the Leafs can't beat Boston in a playoff series. Ever! 1967. Harold Ballard. Tom Kurvers. Scott Niedermayer. Kerry Fraser. Muskoka 5. Mats wouldn't waive. Jeff Finger. 4-1. Wafflegate. Tank it. Robidas Island. David Ayres. Should've taken Laine! 😉