Maple Leafs are Yankees of the NHL — but even worse

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When Lou Lamoriello skedaddled north to take the job of Maple Leafs’ general manager in 2015 after a seeming lifetime in New Jersey, he said upon visiting the Garden for the first time with his new team, “Toronto is hockey. … Toronto should be the Yankees of the NHL.”

And though Lamoriello is now three years deep into his third NHL incarnation on the Island, his wish and his vision have come true. The Maple Leafs have indeed become the Yankees of the NHL.

A financial powerhouse with a team of expensive stars that never wins anything.

Well, at least the Yankees can win a postseason round or two.

This isn’t so much about whether a team can succeed when it commits 49.7 percent of its cap allotment to four forwards in what has become a flat-earth NHL. It is about what happens when the forwards who embody your vision and around whom you have built your team flame out spectacularly in the crucible. It is about what happens when you might have given the money to the wrong people.

It is about what happens when Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, neither of whom has a particularly appealing public persona, fail to produce after a season of producing zany numbers. It is what happens when there isn’t enough support to compensate for a series-ending injury sustained early in Game 1 by John Tavares. It is what happens when Willy Nylander becomes the lone member of the remaining amigos to elevate his game.

This isn’t quite the same as the Capitals’ repeated failures last decade to get through the Penguins. It is not tantamount to the Rangers running into the Islanders wall in the early ’80s or the original Jets’ inability to scale the Edmonton mountain later in that decade.

Auston Matthews (r), Mitch Marner and Jack Campbell following the Leafs' latest playoff failure.
Auston Matthews (r), Mitch Marner and Jack Campbell following the Leafs’ latest playoff failure.

The Maple Leafs have lost five consecutive opening-round series (including last year’s qualifying round under the bubble) to four different teams. They have been beaten by the Caps, by the Bruins (twice), by the Blue Jackets and now by the Canadiens. Eight times the Leafs have skated into potential clinchers. Eight times they lost. Five times over the past three years they played a winner-take-all contest. Five times they were on the wrong side of the handshake line.

By the way, though it is indisputable that the organization is more heavily invested in analytic analysis than any other NHL franchise, the luddites in the industry should stop celebrating Toronto’s demise as proof that the Leafs’ way can’t work. Because there are many teams that don’t rely as heavily on analytics that also have not won in years.

The goaltending numbers over these past five years are respectable enough — with Freddie Andersen, Jack Campbell and Curtis McIlhenny (one relief appearance) combining for a 2.63 GAA and .917 save percentage over 32 games. But not one time was either Andersen or Campbell (this year) the best goaltender in any given series.

You know what narrative has disappeared, by the way, as Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck lead their teams in Round 2? That star goaltenders in the playoffs are obsolete, that’s what.

The Maple Leafs have had capable goaltending that has not been good enough to tilt a single series their way. So no, Toronto has not had goaltending capable enough to win a series. And unless they shed one of their marquee guys to free up space — and that would be Marner, who at an average annual value of $10.903 million, has not scored a goal in his past 18 postseason matches — the Leafs are not going to be able to buy an entrenched upper echelon netminder.

There was an overpay for Nick Foligno three trade deadlines after refusing to pay the rate for Ryan McDonagh. There was Joe Thornton, mythicized throughout the year, coming up empty. There was a power play far less than the sum of its parts that the coaching staff could not fix. Again, though, when top players fail, that means the power play inevitably does as well. There was the hole created by Tavares’ absence.

There is a culture of postseason failure in Toronto where there has been an annual and total eclipse of the heart. This is a team that has blinked in the face of adversity every single time and has become frozen in fear when the stakes are the highest.

The inability to change that culture has been the biggest, and most surprising, failure of Brendan Shanahan’s presidential administration. For the Leafs are only a slightly more exaggerated version of the Red Wings of the 1990s, who regularly conquered the regular season only to wilt and wither away in the postseason.

That changed when Detroit acquired Shanahan in 1996-97. It was he, and not Steve Yzerman and not Sergei Fedorov and not the Russian Five and not even Scotty Bowman, whose presence transformed the Red Wings into champions.

But it is obviously one thing to do it on the ice and another to be able to do it from the executive suite. The Leafs have attempted to tackle the veteran presence and character thing, but they have not hit it yet. Have not come close.

So Toronto goes on, in search of its first Cup since 1967, in search of its first playoff round victory since 2004. Lamoriello goes on, too, currently in pursuit of his sixth playoff series victory since his 2019 move to take control of the Islanders, who for a lot of the past three decades have been the Mets of the NHL.

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