The Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster construction in 2022-23 was ‘no stone unturned’ incarnate. Their starting lineup on the day of their 2022 elimination turned over 42.1 percent by the time they were eliminated by the Florida Panthers last Friday. Whether you’re a fan of GM Kyle Dubas or not, no one can say he didn’t try his best to put a team on the ice built to go the distance.
Dubas overhauled his goaltending with an Ilya Samsonov/Matt Murray duo, which wasn’t always consistent but had a successful regular season as a whole. He added cheap but effective depth to the top-nine forward group in Calle Jarnkrok. He swapped in six new lineup regulars at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline in Luke Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Jake McCabe, Sam Lafferty and Erik Gustafsson. The Leafs also got extremely encouraging rookie contributions from left winger Matthew Knies and goaltender Joseph Woll during the postseason.
But all those changes only moved the needle enough for a single playoff series win, which technically constitutes progress but was way short of the team’s expectations, which were, to paraphrase Dubas during Monday’s year-end press day, to win four rounds, not one.
It begs the question…what is left to try at this point? In the seven seasons of the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner era, the Leafs have the third most wins in the NHL, icing the league’s No. 2 offense, No. 3 power play and No. 8 penalty kill. They’ve smashed and re-smashed their franchise’s single-season points record. Yet they still can’t break through into deep-spring playoff contention.
Do you throw up your hands at this point? I asked Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe versions of that question Monday.
What did the Panthers have that the Leafs didn’t? Keefe wasn’t willing to concede a tangible difference. For him it was more about the Panthers just having momentum from their win over the Boston Bruins and, in particular, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s confidence growing as the series progressed and the Leafs struggled to score. Keefe’s logic almost points to the randomness of the sport and the fact that a team can suddenly succeed with the right luck in the right moments any given year.
“I think the minute that you don’t have any ambition or ideas in terms of what to change, that’s probably the time you have to sit and say, ‘Maybe this is not for me’ or ‘This is for somebody else,’ ” Dubas said.
Dubas expressed more willingness than in the past to chop up the ‘Core Four’ forward group of Matthews, Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares. “I would consider anything,” he said Monday. Dubas also believes improvement from within will be vital to the team’s plans going forward.
“We have or are starting to have a group of younger players that are our own,” Dubas said. “Nick Robertson was down on the Marlies at the beginning of the year, he had a really good stretch, he got hurt. He’ll be back in time for training camp. Matt Knies came in, played well in the playoffs, he’ll be here. You’ve got Bobby McMann, who pushed throughout the year, and played well when he was up, and played very well for the Marlies and got injured on Long Island. We’re starting to get to that point where, whether it’s (Topi) Niemela, (William) Villeneuve, (Roni) Hirvonen, (Fraser) Minten, (plus) another first-round pick this year, where those guys are starting to coming along. And that’s really where we need to get to. Adding players each year as we need has been important, but we really need our own guys to develop, jump in and come along. And continue to find good value bets in free agency. Now, we’ll have more cap space this year than in the past, but we’ll have a lot more to address because of the free agents.”
So there’s an understanding in the organization that (a) big changes are welcome, (b) the team is counting on its youth movement to contribute more going forward and (c) there’s a bit of actual cap space to play with as the cap is set to rise by $1 million this summer. But what, exactly, do the Leafs need?
How about two words?
The Leafs obviously aren’t lacking for skill. Their forward group regularly ranks among the best in the league in that regard. They weren’t completely lacking for heavy this spring either, with Acciari adding thump up front and Schenn and McCabe punishing opposing forwards on defense.
But the teams regularly breaking through for deep playoff runs often have players who have the skill to play high in the lineup and the heaviness to their game to make them menacing while playing significant minutes. Schenn, deployed in a top-four role during the playoffs, was arguably the one Leaf who met the criteria. But the Leafs didn’t have anyone playing among their top six forwards who fit the description aside from perhaps the seven-game glimpse of Knies.
The Panthers, meanwhile, had Tkachuk and Sam Bennett wreaking havoc with their bludgeoning forecheck while also threatening to score.
For the sake of a small experiment, let’s isolate a couple qualities that teams need from “heavy skill” forwards in the postseason: the ability to fight your way to quality scoring chances and the ability to dish out pain to your opponents. Among forwards who played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, here are those who ranked top-100 in individual scoring chances per 60 and hits per 60:
Brady Tkachuk William Carrier Evander Kane Carl Grundstrom Ross Colton Tyler Motte Jason Zucker Alex Ovechkin Mikey Eyssimont Yakov Trenin Sam Bennett Andrei Svechnikov Nino Niederreiter Josh Anderson Noah Gregor
Note the absence of any Leafs. Some of the the names on that list are bottom-sixers who generate their chances in easier matchups, but Tkachuk, Kane, Ovechkin, Bennett, Svechnikov, Niederreiter and Anderson stand out as examples of the archetype the Leafs have been missing during these postseason runs, the type of forward skilled enough to have scoring touch but feisty enough to fight through tight-checking environments. Bennett and Carrier are through to the third round, while Kane, Colton, Motte, Svechnikov, Niederreiter and Anderson have all made it to the third round of the playoffs or deeper in their careers.
On ‘D,’ do the Leafs have a horse who can play significant minutes while also driving the play, defending well and sending a message to any forwards to enter their zone?
Here are the blueliners this season who ranked top 100 on average TOI, shot attempt share per 60 and hits per 60:
Bowen Byram Darnell Nurse Marcus Pettersson Brian Dumoulin Kris Letang K’Andre Miller Jeff Petry Mikey Anderson Mikhail Sergachev Dmitry Orlov Adam Larsson MacKenzie Weegar
If that’s not a cross-section of the type of blueliner(s) the Leafs could badly use, I’m not sure what is.
Whoever ends up helming this team in the weeks and months to come, be it Dubas or a new GM…it might not be a bad idea to think about “heavy skill” as a missing ingredient to target. Heavy skill was Bennett personified, the trait that shifted the momentum in the opponent’s favor so early in Toronto’s second-round series that there was no coming back.
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