It’s August, not April, but it’s that time of year again. Though the month on the calendar has changed, even a pandemic can’t keep the pattern from repeating like clockwork in Leafland.
In the wake of yet another post-season disappointment, you don’t need to venture far to locate umpteen outraged demands for changes to Toronto’s NHL roster.
You know the chorus of popular plot lines. The Leafs ought to trade William Nylander, because Nylander slouched through a subpar five-game loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and because his bonus-laden, salary-light contract figures to be attractive to the many cash-strapped teams in the COVID era.
Or the Leafs should trade Mitch Marner, because he’s produced precisely one five-on-five point in his past 12 playoff contests, and because if general manager Kyle Dubas is going to do something about a defensive corps that’s clearly lacking, moving Marner’s $10.9-million (U.S.) cap hit would go some distance in providing the headroom to add quality blue-line help.
And sure, trade Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson, too — they of the respective hits of $3.2 million and $3.4 million — since the coronavirus-induced flattening of the salary cap means their roles would be better filled by lower-salaried players: 18-year-old rookie Nick Robertson, for starters.
There are merits to all four hypotheticals. But the only thing that truly matters comes down to four letters: WWDD. What Will Dubas Do?
If we’ve learned anything about executives in the analytics era — and Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is, like most of us, a product of his time — the safe bet is obvious: He’s going to stick to his vision. He’s going to “trust the process,” as the saying goes.
You could hear it in the way Sheldon Keefe, Dubas’s hand-picked, house-groomed head coach, rationalized the loss on Sunday night. Keefe tossed off various Columbus goals as “somewhat lucky” while pointing out that Toronto’s five-on-five shooting percentage in the series was an unfathomably dismal two per cent, the lowest in the bubble by far — another suggestion that Toronto was on the wrong end of hockey’s puck-luck lottery.
And you could see it in the numbers that suggested Toronto’s series loss — the fourth in four tries since Auston Matthews arrived via a draft lottery — was a matter of being on the wrong side of the bounces. The Leafs led the qualifying round in five-on-five high-danger scoring chances and five-on-five expected goals. The problem was expectation didn’t match reality. While the math suggested they should have scored approximately 10 five-on-five goals in their five games against the Jackets. Columbus goaltenders Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo allowed them to score precisely three.
In other words: If a GM wanted to made a boardroom case that the Leafs, far from being a flawed team, were simply victim of a small sample size and a couple of hot goaltenders, Dubas certainly could. And maybe he will.
But if Dubas is as flexible and as forward-thinking as his supporters will tell you he is, you have to believe he’ll see that there’s plenty more wrong with his team than a case of rotten puck luck. If you’re Dubas, it’s not just a five-game series loss that ought to make you doubt your philosophy of skill-first puck possession. It’s a 70-game regular season that was chock full of regression. It’s a team that, after a honeymoon sprint in the wake of Mike Babcock’s November firing, reverted to the maddening habit of viewing consistency as an inconvenience. It’s the fact that, only a couple of months after Keefe took the reins, the new coach was chiding his players for the bulk of the things the old coach was reviled for harping about, including its shocking lack of “maturity” and “focus.”
It’s a captain, John Tavares, who was so badly failing to drive Toronto’s second line as its centreman against the Jackets that Keefe felt the need to move him to the wing on a super line that included Matthews and Marner — a strategy that ultimately failed. It’s a team that became known for spectacular bounceback games mostly because it insisted on backing itself into ugly corners from which it was shamed into escaping. It’s yet another season of ups and downs. Dubas can’t forget that his team created those downs.
Any smart executive in Dubas’s position, of course, will be tempted to stubbornly trust the process. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests he needs to adjust it.
The Leafs were the sixth-worst defensive team in the NHL as measured by goals-against per game. It’s not a coincidence that the best nine defensive teams in the league remain alive in the now-16-team playoff tournament. Nobody’s suggesting offensive firepower isn’t an asset. It’s just that Toronto has made it the franchise’s defining asset at the expense of roster diversity.
It’s easy to rip Marner for scoring one five-on-five point in the past 12 playoff games. But nobody on the team has more than four during that stretch. Which tells you: five-on-five offence is difficult to generate in the playoffs. Which is why most teams put more emphasis on defence and goaltending in their roster-building approach.
It was back in the wake of February’s trade deadline — only a couple of days removed from losing to the mythical Zamboni driver, David Ayres — that Dubas expressed public befuddlement about what he described as his team’s “Jekyll and Hyde” unpredictability. Dubas insisted he didn’t know the root of the Leafs’ mercurial performance. Fans can only hope he’s got a better handle on it now.
The idea that president Brendan Shanahan has consistently tried to sell — the idea that it’s simply time that’s required here — just doesn’t hold water. The Leafs aren’t particularly young anymore, not when their core group is now four post-season failures into its collective career, not when Tavares is now 11 years into his NHL career and still has precisely one playoff series victory to his name, not when Frederik Andersen, at age 30, is now a career 0-8 in would-be series clinchers.
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Dubas’s theoretical vision of the game is beautiful and skilful and high scoring and fun. It’s also difficult to pull off when the games get real, especially when you play against a defence-first, shot-blocking machine like the Blue Jackets, especially when the goaltenders stand tall and the referees largely park their whistles.
Which brings the GM to a crucial moment of existential questioning. What Will Dubas Do? Only the Chinese Farmer knows. But the options are clear. He can either stubbornly trust the process, or he can smartly adjust it. He can double down on his unproven theory, or he can acknowledge what’s become obvious: that there’s something missing here beyond the numbers, and it’s management’s job to put a finger on it, pronto.