It’s a question no one wants to think about, let alone ask. But it’s one that needs addressing.
What if the Toronto Maple Leafs once again fail to advance past the first round of the playoffs?
What happens then?
Should Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe both lose their jobs? Should the team split up the $40-million four? Should Jack Campbell be shown the door? Should the playoffs essentially erase what has been arguably one of the best seasons in the history of the franchise?
This has been a banner year for the Leafs, who conclude their regular season at home against the Boston Bruins on Friday night, in a game that may act as a first-round preview. That is, unless the Tampa Bay Lightning finish ahead of Boston in the standings.
Either way, it’s becoming a pick-your-poison type of scenario for the Leafs. Whether they face their demons and get the Bruins again or play the two-time defending champion Lightning, getting out of the first round has not gotten any easier for a team that has approached this season with a sort of do-or-die approach.
As the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Division, Toronto will technically be the favourite in whatever series they get. But let’s get real. There are no favourites, no underdogs, no sure things. Not when all eight teams in the Eastern Conference reached the 100-point mark. Not when all four teams in the Atlantic Division won 50 or more games. And certainly not when your conference contains five of the past Stanley Cup winners.
That being said, if there was ever a team that was built to go all the way, this might be it. This is easily the best version of the Leafs that we’ve seen since Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner made their debuts six years ago.
Only three teams in the entire NHL have recorded more points than Toronto this year. Only two teams have won more games. Only Florida has scored more goals.
Led by Matthews, who has scored 60 goals and positioned himself as the Hart Trophy favourite, and Mitch Marner, who is three away from recording 100 points, the Leafs have arguably the league’s most dangerous offence. With the addition of Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin, as well as the return of Jake Muzzin, their backend has never been as deep or as big. Even with the question marks in net — and let’s not forget that Campbell was rightfully named to the All-Star Game in February — there is a reason why the Leafs set a single-season record for wins (53) and points (113).
And yet, there is a very real chance that this could be another one-and-done again.
That’s because as good as Toronto is, Tampa Bay might be just as good if not better. And if it’s not Tampa Bay that Toronto plays in the first round, then it could be Boston, which hasn’t lost a step since reaching the final in 2019.
This isn’t like two years ago, when Toronto lost to Columbus in the bubble. Or like last year, when Toronto was in the All-Canadian division and was upset by a Montreal team that squeaked in as the final seed. Back then, the Leafs had every reason to feel angry with blowing a 3-1 series lead and losing in Game 7.
This year, no one squeaked in.
The Leafs might never have been better. But the East has never been this deep. Every team is a legitimate contender. And half of them are going to lose in the first round.
It could be Toronto. It could very well be Tampa Bay or the first-place Florida Panthers, who will either face a Washington team where Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals this year or a Pittsburgh team that has Sidney Crosby producing at a 110-point pace. Or it could be the Carolina Hurricanes, who will get either the Lightning or the Bruins as a reward for winning the Metropolitan Division.
In other words, get the tissues ready.
“For sure, we felt that the other night when we played Washington,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. “I guess you could call them the eighth seed … but you’re playing against them and this is a 100-point team. You look at the roster of the players they have.
“It is a very competitive conference for sure this season. As we look at the number of points that teams have, there’s definitely a separation. But inside the games, it’s just so competitive.”
That’s not meant as an excuse to be used later. Rather, it’s something to consider if the Leafs go out early and you’re wondering where it all went wrong or who should pay for it.
That being said, the end goal is the Stanley Cup. Anything short of that will be deemed a disaster. And rightfully so.
At the same time, there are a number of markets where the expectation is the same. It’s just that if you’re in Calgary, where the Flames will either face a wild card team in the Dallas Stars or the Nashville Predators, the road to the final — much less the second round — looks a lot easier.
The same goes for the Edmonton Oilers, who are looking at a first-round match-up against a past-their-prime Los Angeles Kings team that will be without Drew Doughty.
For the Leafs, their first-round series could look more like a Stanley Cup final. And if they are finally able to advance to the second round, the reaction from fans will probably look like they won a championship.