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How do the Toronto Maple Leafs Cure Their Choking Problem?

Almost every member of the team singled out a lack of 'closing ability' as the reason they can't escape the first round of the playoffs. Does management have to go out and find killer instinct – or cultivate it from within?
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All that was missing was, “My fellow Torontonians.”

Brendan Shanahan, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, stared at the camera with the earnestness of a politician trying to calm a population during a time of crisis. He hadn’t even begun taking questions during the team’s season-ending press conference. He felt compelled to speak first, to reassure an apoplectic fan base that better times lay ahead after a fifth-consecutive season bombing out in the first round of the playoffs.

“We understand the disappointment that everybody feels year in and year out,” he said. “The support that we get from you is so vitally important and so appreciated by us in the team every year. This year in particular, with the restrictions that are going on around the world, but specifically here in Ontario and Toronto, we really wanted to be a beacon of happiness for you. We want to do that for you every year, but certainly this year it was even more important for the players. So, starting with me and Kyle Dubas, our management staff, our coaching staff and all of our players, we take responsibility for disappointing you, letting you down and not getting the job done. Our players, I’ve seen them, in recent years, very disappointed after first-round playoff defeats. I’ve never quite seem them as despondent as they were Monday night.”

In the context of a hockey-obsessed market, Shanahan’s urgency was justified. This is a time of catastrophe in Toronto. The fan base had absorbed one gut punch after another in the decades since last celebrating a Stanley Cup victory in 1967, from the Wayne Gretzky high stick in the 1993 Campbell Conference final to the blown 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in 2013’s first round. Leaf Nation developed a degree of tolerance in the era of regular-season success that commenced when Toronto selected Auston Matthews first overall in the 2016 draft. The 2017 first-round defeat to the Washington Capitals was a young team’s first taste of playoff action. The 2018 first-round loss to Boston included a blown lead in Game 7, but it came on the road against a superior foe. The 2019 first-round loss to Boston cranked the dial on the frustration meter after the Leafs blew a 3-2 series lead and came out pancake-flat in Game 7 but, again, they were the underdog. In 2020, Toronto didn’t have the jam to grind with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but the bubble tournament made the entire post-season unpredictable.

This season? After winning the North Division handily, boasting the Rocket Richard Trophy winner and two of the league’s top five scorers and leading the underdog Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in the series? The choke job was a breaking point for the fan base. It didn’t matter that Toronto lost No. 2 center John Tavares to a horrific head injury after he played just 2:53 in Game 1 or that important two-way defenseman Jake Muzzin tweaked his groin in Game 6 and bowed out of the series. Given how dominant the Leafs looked in winning Games 2, 3 and 4, the time for excuses was over.

Fans did the virtual equivalent of rioting, essentially trying to book Mitch Marner a bus ticket out of town with scalding social media posts after a series in which his most memorable contributions were puck-over-glass penalties and glaring giveaways. How fed up are the fans? Franchise legend Doug Gilmour, who took his final NHL shift 18 years ago, was pleading with them on Twitter to calm down after watching footage of them burning his jersey. So, yes, within a hockey context, this is a crisis. Shanahan knows it. General manager Kyle Dubas knows it. He expressed Wednesday that it’s normal and pales in comparison to what soccer players face in Europe. And, growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe understands it as well as anyone on the team.

“I do understand the fans’ anger, and it’s justified,” Keefe said. “We failed to deliver yet again for a team that had earned the confidence and the expectations that the fans had put upon us this season. We were excited to play in the playoffs with the opportunity to erase history and push past it. We obviously failed to deliver on that. We own that. I as the coach in the organization own that. Every ounce of criticism or doubt that comes from our results is justified, and we own that. We have to continue to work as a team and organization to build something that will sustain itself through difficult times in the playoffs.

"Part of the disappointment in this loss that the fans feel and we would feel within the organization, and that the media would be portraying here, is because of the work that the team put in this year, because of how the players came together, the regular season that we had, our ability to win the division and finish as the first seed and to gain control of a playoff series. That’s the same group of people that didn’t get it done in the end. It feels so disappointing because the belief in the team was there.”

So what went wrong for a Toronto team that controlled 5-on-5 play all season and, for the first time in the Matthews-Marner era, graded out as a solidly above-average defensive team in 5-on-5 metrics such as shots allowed, scoring chances allowed and high-danger chances allowed? The first places at which fans can point fingers would be the power play, which struggled so badly to establish the zone and generate in the post-season that it was difficult to even glean that Toronto was on the power play. The unit went ice cold in the regular season after a strong first quarter of the schedule – for the second consecutive season. One could argue that the injuries to Tavares and, in the early part of the series, Nick Foligno, exposed a lack of forward depth. The Leafs shipped out younger, faster forwards Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen last off-season to make room for the (highly successful) signing of defenseman T.J. Brodie and a parade of respected greybeards, from Wayne Simmonds to Joe Thornton. The truth is that the needle swung too far the other way, and the Leafs went from young, fast and inexperienced to, in the bottom six of their forward corps, old, slow and incapable of putting a scare into icy-nerved Habs goaltender Carey Price.

Yet this Leaf group still led the series 3-1 and still outshot the Habs 13-2 in the overtime period of Game 6. The series win was sitting right there. Toronto's faults still didn’t explain the inability to finish off a wounded animal. A quick perusal of quotes from Leaf players during Wednesday’s Zoom interviews reveals a remarkably consistent theme:

“To answer bluntly, we have to learn how to a close a series out.” – Morgan Rielly

“The urgency to close games, to start the game with that urgency that we play with when we’re down, we have to find a way to bring that every night.” – Jake Muzzin

“Teams that go far, they start on time, they start fast, they close out.” – Joe Thornton

“We didn’t close. Good teams, when they smell blood, they finish them off right away.” – Wayne Simmonds

“The difference was we weren’t able to close.” – Jason Spezza

“We couldn’t close it out, so there’s no excuse as to why we couldn’t do that. When things unravel so quickly in such a short period of time, when you have had such a great year going up until that point, it’s heartbreaking.” – Zach Hyman

For the Leafs, almost to a man, the quagmire is less about what’s happening on the ice. No one mentioned needing to get to the slot more or limit odd-man rushes. Aside from acknowledging the power-play woes, there was little hockey strategy mentioned among the players as the source of their struggles. It’s something less tangible.

“I’d say it’s more the mental side, realizing when you’ve got a team in that position to get the job done and close them out,” Matthews said. “That’s what great teams do, and we failed to execute in that department.”

Another Leaf said “close.” Take a drink. So the question for this franchise now is: how do you add “closing ability?” Is it something you can manufacture with roster turnover? Must you to take the problem literally and acquire more players with Stanley Cup rings? Those are questions Dubas admits he often ponders.

“On our team, we’ve had a few guys that have won (Muzzin and Zach Bogosian), but if you go back to the previous couple of winners, they didn’t really have players that had previously won before," Dubas said. "In fact, they had groups of guys who had major disappointment. So I bounce back and forth in terms of, ‘Do you need four, five or six guys that have won?’ Or ‘Do you need guys that are desperate to win that can instill that extra bit of push in bigger games?’ And I think the reality is that the answer probably lies within the room right now, finding a way to, when we’re in those big moments, continue the way we were meant to play. Not reverting to safe or cautious, which is the word Sheldon has used, and asserting ourselves. Going for it. Playing on our toes versus sitting back and waiting for a counter-attacking style of hockey. That’s really, to me, what I see.

“…I’ve seen the group after elimination every time, and this was the most devastated I’ve seen the group by far. In talking the last couple days to people in different sports and people in hockey that have guided their team through moments like this on to winning championships, unfortunately, and I know it’s not what people want to hear, moments like this are a part of the story that preludes success most of the time. That’s what I believe and am banking on here as we guide this ship ahead.”

Supporting Dubas’ point: Shanahan won three Stanley Cups during his Hall of Fame = career, playing on three Detroit Red Wings teams that were “closers” to the end. but it took half his NHL lifespan to raise his first Cup. He doesn’t think killer instinct is a trait you can only find by adding players from outside the organization. It’s also something a team can cultivate organically over time.

“It can be both," Shanahan said. "When you have an opportunity to add players like that, it’s great, but it certainly can be cultivated from within. I didn’t win my first Stanley Cup until my 10th year in the NHL. It’s something that can develop. There are players throughout the history of our game that are elite, elite players that took years and years and years to get that closing ability. The one good thing I would say is, once you do it, it becomes sort of a learned experience. Once you do it for the first time, it’s something you don’t forget how to do. It’s no guarantee that it’s going to happen for your team every year, but I think it’s something that can be developed. And you just can’t quit on these guys. You just can’t quit on players that care so much. And they do.”

So where do the Leafs go from here, then? Do you blow it up or stay the course with the idea that every experienced winner was once an inexperienced player who hadn’t won yet? The Washington Capitals of 2017-18, who hoisted the Stanley Cup in Alex Ovechkin’s 13th season, hadn’t even escaped the second round of the playoffs in his career until that point. So does that mean Dubas, whose job seems secure based on how Shanahan spoke Wednesday, keeps the $40-million-plus forward core of Matthews, Marner, Tavares and William Nylander intact? That seems to be the plan according to Dubas’ comments Wednesday. Referring to Matthews and Marner specifically, Dubas expressed that it would be foolish for any GM to dump star players based on their performance in the second half of a playoff series after they showed so much in the regular season. Dubas even pointed that Marner was one of the team’s best players in his first couple post-seasons with the team in 2017 and 2018.

Then again, even if the Leafs intend to shop Marner, it’s good business to talk him up rather than trash him. Still, the smart money is on the core getting another shot. The question is whether the Leafs can get more from the bottom half of their forward corps. Veteran Jason Spezza showed enough moxie that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get another league-minimum deal for one year, but Thornton and Simmonds were almost glorified motivational speakers by season’s end. They are tremendous dressing-room presences by all accounts but appear to be out of gas, and there’s no shame in that. For Toronto, then, it’s a matter of finding a way to create killer instinct. Maybe that means getting younger and faster again, allowing the team to win more races to pucks. Maybe it means bringing in veterans who, unlike Thornton and Simmonds, actually have Stanley Cup rings. Maybe it means giving the majority of this team another chance. No particular path guarantees success.

It’s clear that, with the wounds still fresh, the organization doesn’t yet know what it wants to do. But it knows it wants to do something. Particularly from the management side, there was an air of accountability Wednesday, as if Shanahan and Dubas understand they’ve tiptoed to the edge of the pirate ship’s plank. If this is indeed their last chance, the biggest question they need to answer this summer is whether they’re a deep enough group to persevere through the playoff grind. If not, they’ll have to sacrifice one of their stars in a major trade to create more cap space.

“The goal here is to win, and changes will happen,” Nylander said. “That’s just the business of it.”

After five years without progress when it counts, it’s not like the Leafs have a lot to lose.

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