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Why the Maple Leafs failed again, and so spectacularly

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At some point Wednesday, either in the late morning or early afternoon, Kyle Dubas will log into Zoom to discuss the latest and most extreme failure so far in the era that was advertised and always intended to eliminate the anguish. His explanations, his ideas, his narratives, his direction — it all might be twisting in the wind as we speak, like most fans of the cursed franchise are. But the Maple Leafs general manager will organize his thoughts by then and, as he's done, likely restore some level of confidence in a fanbase that seems as ready as it has ever been to move on with their lives entirely. 

This isn't the end of the Maple Leafs; in a strange way, pain makes the organism grow into something much stronger, at least off the ice. Promises to become apathetic, to not care anymore, will be invalidated the moment the Maple Leafs make a semi-impactful trade this summer. 

Leafs fans care, and they always will.

I guess the big question is: will the franchise continue to take advantage of that teetering but undying support? Will it operate with its best intentions in mind, or will it finally do right by the heartbroken legions of supporters that deserve better after nine consecutive losses in chances to advance one stinking round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Will it learn from its mistakes and change for the better?

Will pride get in the way?

We won't have all the answers tomorrow, but we'll at least be witness to a window into management's thinking, and I think it's reasonable to reserve some judgement until then.

That's right: just another column awaits on a team that demands its media men and women to write the same thing over and over, every spring and summer.

For now, let's look exclusively at the colossal seven-game defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in the first postseason meeting between the storied franchises in over 40 years, and to try to explain what went most horribly wrong.

Toronto, ON- May 31  - Toronto Maple Leafs center Mitchell Marner (16), Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) and Toronto Maple Leafs center Jason Spezza (19) on the bench late in the game as the Toronto Maple Leafs fall to the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in game seven in the first round of the NHL play-offs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. May 31, 2021.        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The Maple Leafs are drowning in questions with no clear answers in sight. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

1. The John Tavares injury

Research shows that it's nearly impossible to win in the postseason with one player earning an eight-figure salary, let alone three. You know what's more unlikely? Winning when one of those $10-plus-million earners is knocked out of the series before it begins.

To be honest, Toronto's success shouldn't have hinged on Tavares. He's still a tremendous player and asset at this point in his career, but now he's more of a luxury, a creator of mismatches — not the fire the Leafs need, or choose to use, to fight fire. Tavares and the Tavares unit is what the opposition doesn't have time to strategize for because all its energy is being channelled into game-planning for Toronto's suddenly-maligned superstar duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

Suffice to say, Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme's job became exceedingly easier the moment Tavares was knocked out of the series after devastatingly stumbling into the path and raised knee of Corey Perry early in Game 1.

It wasn't immediate and seemed to take some convincing, but Ducharme gradually became more comfortable with the idea of actually trying to win the series when the Tavares injury happened. He re-inserted Jesperi Kotkaniemi, then diminutive dynamo Cole Caufield, and eventually the Canadiens starting winning a larger and larger share of the shifts with their clear advantage in depth as Ducharme's top line and defensive pairing relentlessly frustrated Matthews and Marner.

The tides began to turn the moment Tavares went down, it just took some time — and an abhorrent giveaway in overtime from Alex Galchenyuk — to reach the point where Montreal could make use of it.

Had Tavares not went down, the Canadiens may have never discovered the ambition used to win the series, and instead may have sat back and allowed the inevitable to happen.

2. Matthews and Marner couldn't crack the triangle

I must be honest, I'm relieved to have only seldom witnessed on-ice shooting percentage referenced as an excuse or reason for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner after having their worst total performance in a postseason up until this point. Yes, misfortune is normally part of the postseason story and often the primary reason why a team fails to advance in the postseason. It happens all time, because these games are so close. 

But after watching Matthews and Marner, who won the Rocket Richard Trophy and placed top three in league scoring, respectively, through an entire 56-game schedule, before witnessing them both face-plant across 123-plus total minutes in the seven-game loss to Montreal, it's simply preposterous to suggest that this duo was a victim of circumstance.

They weren't nearly good enough. Again.

Two of the best hockey players on the planet and arguably the second-best offensive partnership in the entire league turned in their most unrecognizable total postseason performance in their best chance to avoid first-round humiliation. The question is, why?

I do truly believe there's a mental block, that when the prospects of failure increased from impossible to highly likely, that it influenced their performance. To lay it all on that, however, would be gleefully missing the forest for the trees. The mental aspect could became relevant, if at all, because Montreal's layers of resistance held firm. 

More or less tasked with following the Leafs top line over the boards, centre Phillip Danault and the defensive pairing of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot formed an impenetrable defensive triangle in front of Carey Price, who stopped basically everything within reason in the series. What worked all season for Matthews and Marner, simply didn't versus Montreal, and the duo, and its coach, chose to assume the breakthrough would eventually happen, rather than executing even a basic adjustment. 

As we know, that strategy failed spectacularly. 

Marner is receiving most of the heat, for reasons both related and unrelated to his seven-game sample. Having managed to combine both ineffective offense and self-destructive individual plays, Marner deserves all the measured criticism he's facing, but after managing just two assists in five games after Game 2, with one coming with less than two minutes remaining in Game 7 with the Leafs trailing by three, Matthews should shoulder just as much of the blame. 

As well as Marner is paid, Matthews is the guy.

3. Depth not what it was thought to be

I still stand by the opinion that Kyle Dubas' best work in his executive career came this season. He managed to flip a flawed roster into a first-place program, while in the process re-stocking the prospect system. What I tend to believe now is that he built a great regular season team, not one that was ready to compete in the playoffs.

No, it's not because they weren't tough enough or any of that nonsense. It's because they very quickly became one note. As already mentioned, that has a lot to do with the injury to John Tavares, and an injury that changed the complexion of the series. However, it's always been understood that it's impossible to survive the rigours of the Stanley Cup Playoffs without injury, and without having players from the depths of the lineup step up and play major roles.

Truly, the difference between the Leafs and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender like the Colorado Avalanche is who is tapped to fill the void. In Colorado for example, it's a former 10th overall selection like Tyson Jost moving up to spell an injured Nathan MacKinnon. They don't miss a beat. 

In Toronto, it's more often than not an aging veteran struggling to keep up.

Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and, to a lesser extent, Nick Foligno were nice stories this season. It was fun when they were having fun, throwing on old ball caps, and contributing to a team that was easily best when competing at that default 85 percent regular season standard. But when it came to the remaining 15 percent, they, just as much as the players they came to play with, couldn't hold up their end of the bargain.

As long as the Maple Leafs employ the strategy of having local legends return deep into the back nines of their career, in lieu of having roster spots open for hungry, energetic kids and prospects dying to make an impact, there will be inherent risk. 

Because these grey beards all can't be Jason Spezza.

(But they could have been Corey Perry).

With Matthews and Marner shut down, the options just became so limited. What seemed like an embarrassment of riches was merely just a collection of brand names. 

And that's not enough to win in the postseason.

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