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Flawed Maple Leafs need real change to avoid more playoff failures

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TORONTO — It turns out the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t break free from the shackles of something spiritual by capturing a moment, and for one night reversing their misfortune. There was no release. No cleanse. No curse broken. Hockey is strange, and weird things happen all the time, but it’s not the work of spirits.

It’s a simple game, a mostly dumb one, where two sides work to implement their basic strategies. And when it has mattered most — for the fourth time in as many years, and regardless of expectations or circumstances no matter how unforeseen — the Leafs have failed to use their chosen means to overcome an opponent.

After earning new life with one of the most remarkable and improbable comebacks in the franchise’s history, order was restored Sunday night. The Maple Leafs crashed out of the late-summer qualification round in the Stanley Cup playoffs, again failing to win a series of any length or degree of importance, with a 3-0 loss in Game 5 versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It didn’t mean anything, that miracle three-goal comeback over the space of four minutes when facing certain elimination Friday night. Because it was the same old Leafs back in their barn two nights later to meet a challenge that wasn’t for a moment all that different than those that have been proven far too onerous in the past.

So it’s worth asking, then.

How long are the Maple Leafs going to do this?

The Leafs aren’t a project anymore. This isn’t a group waiting to tap into its great potential. They’ve now burned through four seasons of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, plus one more for William Nylander. They’ve used up what could quite possibly be the best two years they’ll see from John Tavares inside the seven-year commitment the captain made for the twilight of his career. Frederik Andersen has one year left on his contract after signing on for five seasons. Morgan Rielly’s been at it for seven tours with the franchise, and still hasn’t had a sniff of postseason success.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - AUGUST 09: Mitchell Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs reacts after his team was defeated 3-0 by the Columbus Blue Jackets after Game Five of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round at Scotiabank Arena on August 09, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)
Mitch Marner and the Maple Leafs' high-priced star players didn't get it done again. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

This is no longer eventual; it’s become wasteful. They’ve officially missed the playoffs this season. Missed them!

You can dig up all the excuses. You can point to the fact this team still hasn’t had a full season to work under a coach for which its roster is catered toward. Hell, we’re playing hockey in the middle of a global pandemic. Literally nothing is normal nowadays.

But not that, or any other one thing can excuse the result, or defend a franchise that continues to fail in the same ways. There are no silver linings anymore — only evidence that what they are trying to do isn’t working.

This is now moved way beyond required postseason learning. We’ve reached the point where these postseason losses have become truly damaging.

Look closely at the players’ faces. It’s written there.

Or listen to Matthews:

“It’s obviously a tough pill to swallow,” he said, despondently, in the postgame. “It’s very disappointing.”

So how long, then? How long can a team with this much talent continue to lose the same way?

The Leafs scored nine goals in the series loss to Columbus. They were outscored 10-3 in 275 minutes contested at even strength. They were shut out in the first and last games in the series. They experienced severe outages across multiple periods within those blank bookends, frustrated by two different Blue Jackets netminders along the way.

It’s almost like they weren’t the team with nearly half its payroll reserved for four star forwards.

It is a painfully simple formula when facing the Leafs. If you can limit the damage from Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander, which both the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets have managed in the most recent postseason failures, the advantage lies firmly with you.

That doesn’t mean the Leafs cannot be successful themselves with those four players making in excess of a combined $40 million, even with a flat cap. What it means is that management must build a far better team around them. What it means is that you have to have more than one way to win.

It’s going to be the most challenging offseason yet, and also the one that should define Kyle Dubas’s tenure with the organization.

There is no reason more apparent for the club’s lack of success than the general manager’s clear misevaluations of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, who completed a defensive unit that went on to undermine much of what the most talented forward group the organization has seen in generations could accomplish.

Toronto’s backend was its fatal flaw — in the regular season, and in the playoffs. It was never good enough in the first place, but stood no chance to survive once Jake Muzzin exited the lineup and Martin Marincin was forced in.

It left liabilities, layered, at each pairing, and it allowed the Jackets to key in on their defensive game plan — and Toronto’s quadrumvirate of talent — because the chances would come if they just stayed patient.

Thankfully, Dubas has acknowledged mistakes before.

Just this season he gave up on the idea of rolling out a backup netminder on a minimum salary with the acquisition of Jack Campbell, while in the same trade he changed his tune on grit and toughness, including Kyle Clifford in the deal.

While there is likely no question he will move on from Barrie and Ceci in the coming months, real change might involve more than that. Dubas may have to reconsider what he covets in a defenceman, because his belief and his defence of Ceci in particular this season was questionable at best.

It’s not only about personnel. The Leafs need improvements at the decision-making level, too.

And it has to happen now — or all this will continue to go to waste.

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