So what do the Maple Leafs do now?

After their crushing first-round exit, and their fifth in as many seasons, Justin Cuthbert and Julian McKenzie try to make sense of the Maple Leafs' future.

Video Transcript

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I'm not sure what the Leaves-- I'm not sure what to do. You know? And thank God I'm not paid to figure that out for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But I'll say this before the series started, I said the Leafs need to win that series because next year, with all the expectations and everything that's going to get talked about them, it is not going to be fun to endure. That is a lot of pressure that's going to get thrusted on this core. And with the core, I don't know what you do. I've seen a lot of people in the last how many hours say you have to run it back with the same players there. Those same players have lost in the first round how many years in a row?

I can understand people saying that guys like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are not completely at fault for this team not getting past the first round since 2004. They can't be responsible for all of those series or moments that couldn't get them to that point. But they've been through enough of these together, with Nylander and Tavares, that they have to wear a bunch of that. But I don't know if you move on from that core because, at least in this playoff series, those players played great. Marner stepped up after he was invisible last year. Auston Matthews-- remember Game 5? He scores the game-winner-- probably his best moment of the series.

If it weren't for that weird call-- the pick on Justin Holl, which I understand is interference. It is, by letter of the law, the rule. But considering the game and considering what's been let go before in a Game 7, that's what stunned me. If it wasn't for that, John Tavares steps up in that game. And he didn't have a half-bad series either. William Nylander was the biggest thief who showed up last year. And he also showed up this year. What do you do? How do you move on from that court? Morgan Reilly-- also having his moments as well. What do you do with that? I don't know what you do. It's wild.

Of course, you're going to have to move around some big pieces. You have to figure out Jack Campbell's contract situation. But you did this against the Tampa Bay Lightning. If this was a Stanley Cup Finals series, do you do you overhaul everything? No. You say, OK-- you need an extra piece, and you go back out there. But this is in the first round-- a round you haven't been able to get past. It's a very complicated situation to maneuver if you are the Toronto Maple Leafs. Maybe we'll find an answer as we talk about this, but I don't know what you do.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, it was the first round, obviously. But that game, that series-- I mean, we're talking about Eastern Conference Final-type stuff-- M the Stanley Cup Final in a year like last year where two teams from the Eastern Conference could actually meet in the Stanley Cup Final. The level of hockey was beyond anything that we've seen in this run of futility for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And you mentioned it. It's hard to pick out anyone to be at fault. I honestly look at it, and I cannot come up with someone or something that didn't work.

Really, the Leafs were, across the board, very, very good in the series and very, very good in Game 7. It just came down to a coin-flip scenario that went the opposite way against what could be the best team in hockey right now-- clearly, the best team over the last three, five, seven, 10 years-- the salary cap era. It's possible that the Leafs are the second-best team in the NHL, and they just didn't get past the first round.

I am team run it back because I don't think you can ignore the context. What's more important? What just happened-- what we just saw, which was a team that lacked confidence gain confidence, push the Stanley Cup champions to the brink, have them thinking before the game that, hey, maybe we don't have it. John Cooper openly talking about the fear of losing, the possibility of losing, before the game. We've seen coaches in the past plant that seed, right? Like, this is a good team on the other side. If we lose, it's not all on me and this team because they're really, really good. We saw some of that. And yet the result is the same.

It's really, really difficult because what is right in front of them-- the growth of this team, how good they were in the regular season, again, five wins better than their previous total in 100-plus years of the franchise, the way that they played-- is so much more important than what happened in the previous five seasons. And yet you can't eliminate that. You can't get rid of it. But I was just so impressed by this team's growth. They were so much better, and had so much more fight. The way that Mitch Marner played in that third period-- it was almost as though they did change. They proved it to themselves and to everybody else. And to me it was almost surprising that they didn't come up with the equalizing goal because it was a different team. It was a far different team, far different scenario, and yet the result is the same.

So I don't know what you do. And I don't know what pressures will be on Dubas to actually make a change. But I think-- and I think it's really clear-- that you just stick with it because there's no better option. Obviously, they've got to tinker because guys will be at the door. Ilya Mikheyev is probably leaving. Maybe that's the end of Jason Spezza. Perhaps Mark Giordano doesn't want to be back on a bargain deal. The Jack Campbell thing has to be figured out. But why would you move Marner, Matthews, or Nylander after that? You can't move John Tavares. You can't really change the core of this team fundamentally. Maybe you could find a way to get underneath the Jake Muzzin contract, but he was really good too.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: He was.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Every single one of the Leafs performed, but they ran into a better team. It really is unbelievable, considering what we were talking about last year at this point, where it's like nothing matters. How do you say that anything matters next year? We just don't know what's going to happen. You could prove so much. You could do everything possible in your power to put yourself in a better position, but you just run into Tampa Bay. It's crazy. It really is.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: And what's wild is that this Leafs team-- I mean, you could tell me if I'm wrong. At least in the regular season, this the greatest Leafs team people have ever seen-- points-wise, a Hart Trophy winner, Auston Matthews scoring 60 goals. You talk about next year not mattering. How are they going to surpass the peaks of this year? That's going to be wild to play through all that. And do you know what hurts the most for the Leafs of that series? They led after Game 1. They led after Game 3. They led after Game 5. The first two wins of that series-- not only were they just wins. They were convincing wins. And in Game 5, when they found themselves in a position where they were down, and it looked as if they were going to be out-- and I had said before the series started that the Leafs really need to show themselves once adversity faces them. They broke through that door and succeeded.

And again, Auston Matthews was the guy at the end-- both Marner and Matthews combining on that game-winning play. They did just about everything they needed to do to show everyone that they were different. And they couldn't close in Game 6 and Game 7-- but not because they were just a bad team. They ran up against the team that has had their backs at the wall before-- has won championships and has played so many NHL playoff games over the last two or three years. They didn't do this against some random squad with no experience. They didn't do this against a team that had no business being in the playoffs. They beat just about the best possible team you can play in the Eastern Conference, with all due respect to the Florida Panthers, who-- congrats to them. They won a playoff series this year. How many teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs, if you look at the bracket, see Tampa Bay and say, oh, I definitely want to play Tampa Bay. Not many people do.

That's what makes this tough. The Leafs had the lightning at different points in this series, and they could not close. So I guess you could say that the next step in their evolution is developing more of a killer instinct. But again, they did this against the two-time reigning champions. That's as good as it could get for that series. You're right. I think it really could have been a coin flip. I expected them to score a tying goal in the third. And I was surprised it didn't happen.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, it's so easy to say that you just had to do this in order to get the better result. I mean, Tampa has a say in this too, and they're so good. All the credit in the world should go to this team-- Brayden Point going out in the first period, trying to come back in the second, and not being able to go-- the fact that Andrei Vasilevskiy has given up one goal in the last six Lightning attempts to eliminate an opponent--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: That's the first time he's allowed a goal in Game 7!

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --and that goal was scored in that game. It is spectacular-- this team's run of resolve. I mean, I don't think there was a coincidence that the only guy or one of the few guys on the team that doesn't have a Stanley Cup ring-- doesn't have two Stanley Cup rings-- was the driver from an offensive perspective. I mean, Nick Paul was the hungriest person, maybe, on the ice, outside of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. I think he wanted it just as much as those two guys because I think some of those Lightning players were asking the question of if they were truly all-in in that game, knowing how good the Maple Leafs were. I mean Nikita Kucherov was terrible in that game-- awful.

But it doesn't matter because if Andrei Vasilevskiy is in net, and a couple guys are going for that team, they just have got the postseason know-how. They just understand how to get it done. And their third period, despite being caved in-- the blocked shots, the way they clogged lanes, the way they protected Vasilevskiy-- it really was remarkable. The difference with the Lightning when comparing them to everybody else is that they can win in multiple ways. They can win by blowing you out. They can win a special-teams game. They can win five-on-five. They can win by just scoring one or two goals because they know that they can protect their own goaltender and that they have the goaltender that can play at that standard.

I mean, they're just an exceptional, exceptional team. And you mentioned Florida. I mean, they're in for it. They had a really difficult time breaking down a lesser opponent in the Washington Capitals over the course of six games. And now you've got Tampa Bay? Despite what you did in the regular season-- same goes for the Leafs-- I don't know if it's going to apply versus the two-time Stanley Cup champions.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: And those champions, at the beginning of the series, the Lightning-- one of the things we have to point out after that Game 1-- the legs, the wear and tear, the games they had played to get to that point. There were genuine questions about how tired that core was. It could still be the case with Nikita Kucherov. It could still be the case with Steven Stamkos. But seeing a guy like Nick Paul emerge as the hero in Game 7, a guy they acquired just before the deadline from Ottawa-- that's just an example of some of the fresher legs that they have on this team that are going to be called upon to play big moments for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Him and guys like Brandon Hagel as well-- that is going to help them get over the top-- and then occasional production from guys like Victor Hedman.

I have no clue what's going to happen for Brayden Point, but if he's still healthy enough to play in these following games, that is a huge key for them. And then you might still get protection from Stamkos and Kucherov and some of the other players on that team. The Tampa Bay Lightning are-- they are damn good for an reason. And this run-- if they find a way to win the Stanley Cup after all that, you could say it's just as impressive as the first two, which, again, happened within the same 365-day span in different circumstances because of COVID. But winning it in an 82-game season when they've gone through all those runs-- if they find a way to do it this year, it will be the most-- I think I'm ready to call it. It would be the most impressive of any of the three Cups they've won.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Think about the path. 115-point Toronto Maple Leafs. 100 and, what, 28 point-- something like that-- Florida Panthers. Then maybe Carolina or Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round, and then Colorado, , maybe in the Stanley Cup Final.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Sheesh!

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It could not be a more difficult path. The most difficult path forward through the playoffs belonged to either the Leafs or Lightning because they played each other first. That's just the reality of it. Yeah with the Leafs, though, moving forward, it's tough. It really is tough-- the situation that they find themselves in-- because even if Dubas has full autonomy, what does he do? He'll make good moves at the margins again, but he's got to figure out his goaltending.

But he's also got to worry about the fact that this whole grand scheme-- his designs, his view of building a hockey team-- it's very possible that it just doesn't align or that they missed the opportunity when it did align, because of their failures to rise to the occasion previously and the fact that they ran into the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round this year. As much as John Tavares did step up, he was a ghost for the first three or four games. He was bad early in the series. And this is a guy that is getting older. He's got three years left on his contract, making $11 million. We don't have to get into it. But he's an unmovable asset. They couldn't give him away if they tried. They would never try to do that, I don't think, at least-- the captain, the guy who came home, all that. I don't think they would, but they couldn't even if they wanted to.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Not at his full salary.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Not at his full salary-- and you can't, in this position, just give up a couple of million dollars because you want to get out from underneath his contract. They've got to find a way to massage this relationship so that it continues to not sink them. And I worry that when the majority of the team is ready-- Matthews and Marner clearly took a step this year, without a doubt. Nylander-- I don't know if he took a step. I just think he's always sort of a dangerous player but not their main driver. The fact that they got David Kampf in there, the fact that they fixed the defensive corps-- Jack Campbell, I don't know if everyone's sold on.

But everything else coming together and that one key thing-- that sort of centerpiece of it all other than Auston Matthews-- being John Tavares, and it not working in sequence with everything else-- I do really wonder about that. And I wonder if the opportunity was already missed. I think this team can come back and be very competitive. I don't think you can do anything but retool. If you give up on Sheldon Keefe, you're taking a step back because this team plays for Sheldon Keefe. If you give up on one of the other forwards, you're taking a step back because, how are you going to bring in more talent than the talent you already have? I just don't see a path forward other than running it back and hoping that you can extend a window that you haven't even broken through yet. That' really the only option, I think, for the Leafs.

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