Maple Leafs' insanity plan: Do the same thing and expect different results
When Florida's Sam Reinhart scored the Game 3 overtime dagger that all but sealed Toronto's playoff ouster last May, the "Blow It Up" chorus had never been louder for this iteration of the Maple Leafs.
Even those who had long defended the theory behind the roster that general manager Kyle Dubas had constructed - if not the results - had to admit that something was off. Maybe there was a world in which a team could devote the bulk of its salary cap to four skilled forwards, but the Leafs plainly weren't living in it. Just when it seemed like they had finally figured it out with a win over the Lightning in the first round, they collapsed against a Panthers team that had eked into the playoffs.
Something had to change. The coach would be gone, surely. Maybe the GM and team president, too. Whatever combination of new hires came in would have license to reject the Dubas philosophy, which had left the Leafs with a shaky defense and bargain-bin goaltending. That Reinhart goal, in which he circled around, skated past several Leafs, and eventually scored on a wraparound, should have come with a warning label: This Is What Happens When You Spend Too Much on Forwards.
The question wasn't whether the Leafs would change, but whether it would be a volcanic explosion or a controlled demolition.
Six months later, the surprise is how familiar it all seems. Dubas left after a late-breaking power struggle with president Brendan Shanahan, who then hired Brad Treliving, formerly of the Calgary Flames, as his new general manager. Treliving kept head coach Sheldon Keefe, handed him a contract extension, and left the roster largely intact. He didn't blow it up, even a little. Buttons were distinctly unpressed.
If anything, Treliving's moves were quite Dubassian, trying to make up for the lack of cap space by signing Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and John Klingberg to one-year deals and leaving the goaltending duties to Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll, the same pair that finished last season in Toronto's net. He also signed enforcer Ryan Reaves to a three-year contract, which Dubas would only have done if threats and gunplay were involved.
The end result of all that fiddling - there really is no other word for it - is a roster that has similar strengths and weaknesses to its earlier versions and, so far, has produced middling results. After two blown leads over the weekend, the 10-6-3 Maple Leafs have just five regulation wins, or one more than the Sharks and Blackhawks, teams that are in early-stage rebuilds.
Klingberg's Maple Leafs career might have lasted all of 14 games now that he's been banished to long-term injured reserve. Domi and Bertuzzi have struggled to find roles (although the latter is trending up). Samsonov has turned into Russian Jack Campbell, complete with sad, self-admonishing quotes. The toughness that Reaves brings is offset by the fact that he has been largely unplayable, a team-worst minus-11 despite averaging fewer than eight minutes per game. He's reportedly an excellent fantasy football commissioner, though, so that's nice.
Last spring's "Blow It Up" has turned into this fall's "Run It Back," and Leafs fans could be forgiven for wondering if this is really the best that Shanahan could come up with when he surveyed the wreckage of another playoff disaster. The top-heavy Leafs undone by a lack of depth and a creaky defense? Who could have possibly foreseen this?
Adding to the sense of unease is the fact that the shaky results have come amid a career year from pending unrestricted free agent William Nylander and a still-pretty-good year from his 33-year-old linemate, John Tavares. Even if Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner pick up their scoring to match their output of recent seasons, it's reasonable to expect that second line to regress a bit. Line changes at practice on Monday suggest Keefe might try sparking things by moving Nylander up to play with Matthews and putting Marner next to Tavares.
The handy thing about having four high-end forwards is that they can help plaster over a lot of cracks. If Treliving can figure out a way to bolster the blue line, and if a goalie gets into a groove, it's certainly possible for the team as currently constructed to get on a hot streak. That was the essence of the Dubas process: Get enough scoring from the skill players and eventually the vagaries of playoff hockey will break your way. It almost worked, repeatedly. Darn those vagaries.
But the big moves that weren't made last summer will look more attractive as long as the current malaise continues. The Panthers come to Toronto on Tuesday, offering a fresh chance to revisit the most recent playoff flop. The relentless Boston Bruins arrive later in the week, another reminder of playoff woes. (There are, admittedly, many such teams for the Leafs.)
Will Keefe keep his job into the new year if the Leafs keep hovering around the playoff bubble? Will they use a giant contract to keep Nylander in Toronto, or use the cap space that his deal would eat up on someone who's more involved in the goal-prevention business? Will they be aggressive in the trade market, or wait until the summer to retool?
Treliving just got hired, after all, and probably figures he has plenty of runway. He hasn't even overseen a heartbreaking Game 7 Toronto loss yet.
Scott Stinson is a former national sports columnist for Postmedia News.