Let me know if any of this sounds familiar.
There is a team that is very talented, especially in attack, and has a great regular season. The blue line can be wobbly and goal-scoring a question mark, but when things are going well, they can overcome these issues. Still, they battle the ghosts of an almost unbelievably long drought in the playoffs without even winning a series. They lost to last seasonBlitzin the first round, even though there was ice at home. But this year everything is different. They finally broke through and won the round for the first time in years. They finished with a dramatic road victory in Game 6 overtime. The drought is over. This time it's different.
And then they get easily sidelined in round 2, missing out on a short streak they've almost never been on. Back to number one or worse.
This is the 2022-23 seasonmaple leaves, Of course. But it's also the 2021-22 seasonPantera.
Everything fits - every word. The similarities are unbelievable. And maybe that's good news for hapless Maple Leafs fans right now. Because as painful as last year's elimination of the Panthers, they are now in the Eastern Conference Finals. Heck, they might even be Stanley Cup favourites. What a difference one year can make. There is hope. Panthers are proof of that.
How to do it?
This will be the multi-million dollar question in Toronto this summer. And thankfully, the Panthers are out there offering a plan. The question is whether the Leafs organization will take this into consideration.
How did the Panthers do it? Well, let's talk about what they didn't do.
You didn't return it. You failed the course. They did not pledge unwavering loyalty to the Core, and did not rush to preemptively suppress any thought of imminent change before they could even begin. They did not gossip that the results were unacceptable, but made it clear that nothing significant would change.
Instead, the 2022 Panthers kicked off the summer withControversial coaching changeand I marked himone of the largest deals in recent history. Not one that focused on draft types, perspectives, or edge depth. They replaced key parts of the core. And in retrospect, they wonMateusz TkaczukApparently I missed a reminder for the rest of us that this is completely impossible to do todayNHL.
Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Reinhart, Josh Mahura i Anthony Duclair. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press umieścił AP-a)
To paraphrase a cliche, they changed the culture. I actually did, instead of just mumbling about it.
And maybe that gives hope to frustrated Toronto fans because the Maple Leafs can still do it. On the other hand, they could have done it in 2020. They should have done it in 2021. In 2022, we all knew the exercise. Now we'll see if the rulers will have a chance to make the same decision again.
We've been told that changes are coming to Toronto. This time there's no way around it. SheI couldn't do it again, and not after a supposed post-season break in which they scored five and six, they were beaten for most of the first round and in crucial parts of the second round.
He will forgive his fans if they believe it when they see it.
After all, staying the course was the Maple Leafs mantra in the Kyle Dubas era. Since Dubas infamously promised "We can and we will", he is willing to stay the course and avoid the heavy off-season traffic that could snap an underperforming team out of a state of near-permanent complacency. Criticize Dubas all you want, but he was consistent; He always supported his team and believed in its core and vision, even when it seemed like no one else did. He did it by his act or omission. But he did it as much with his wordsat the press conference at the end of the season, rubberannual exercise on managing expectations. Don't expect big changes. Don't expect big fluctuations. We can (hang up before it even rings) and we will (we won't call back).
And while this "run back" vibe was frustrating for some fans, many others supported him, albeit reluctantly. In the end, we are told, he chose the only path available to him. You can't just go and make big changes to a disappointing team, not right now. Not without making things worse. It's too hard. Be realistic.
Then there were Panthers. After winning the Presidents' Trophy, which the Dubas Leafs never came close to, Florida decided an early exit wasn't good enough and rushed to make major changes, both off the bench and the Fences roster. Bill Zito did not preemptively close any doors. Instead, he found a way to open a few.
And yes, there are legitimate objections to comparisons. I'm too easy (That's true. The season just ended and there will be time for more detailed analysis in the coming weeks, mostly from people smarter than me). I give Zito credit for the change of coach, which in my opinion has been screwed up all season. (Also true. I thought Paul Maurice was a disaster. He proved me wrong.) Tkachuk's situation in Calgary was unusual, and people like that don't come around every summer. (Absolutely true. But it was available last year and everyone knew it. Did the Maple Leafs even bother to call?)
Most importantly, you may notice that all of the Panthers' big moves almost ended in disaster. The team advanced from first place overall to the playoffs after finishing last in last week's trade by just one point. Zito took the recipe that worked and tinkered with it until it almost fell on his ears. The only way to call the Panthers' moves in the summer of 2022 some sort of success, rather than a reckless disaster, is to ignore six months of the regular season and base your judgment solely on what happened in the playoffs, on what happened in a few weeks.
What... Sure, let's do it. Isn't that a lesson the NHL continues to teach? The regular season serves only one purpose: to divide the league into 16 playoff teams and 16 miss teams. That's it. You're in or out, and outdated concepts like possessor or home field advantage don't play much of a role anymore. ask themBruinshow important is the regular season. This is the six-month answer to the question - in or out? - and that's it. The panthers entered. And now it begins.
And the Leafs were eliminated again, a full round later than usual. Which brings us to the final and possibly loudest objection to the suggestion that they will make any major changes to this team: you can't. It's just not possible. Sure, the Panthers did it right and it worked, but they're the exception that proves the rule.
This is often heard from fans still praising the band. What would you like to do, they will ask, they will giveAustin Matthewsfar? workMitcha Marnerapennies on the dollar? TurnWilliam Nylanderfor a hardened third defender? Take apart everything but the pegs, start over, and be terrible again for who knows how long? Back to the years of Nonis or Burke, Ferguson or even Ballard? Would that make you happy? Is all this an improvement?
And the answer is that there is no answer because we don't have to accept the premise. Yes, the NHL has a salary cap and is fixed. No, you can't just relate to ithe will dieand ask for itConnora McDavida. Of course, there is a risk and every step can turn out to be a mistake. And absolutely: Dubas or any other GM who starts reviewing this roster will have a tough job ahead of them.
Guess what - hard work pays off. If this Maple Leafs organization believes that nothing difficult is worth trying, perhaps that tells us a lot about how they got to this point.
Go beyond Tkachuk. This Panthers team is representedDitto BennettaIBrandon Montoura, two players bought mid-season with the intention of being long-term players rather than just short-term loans. Another key element is Game 3 OT HeroSama Reinhartawho joined us in a major off-season move a few years ago. The Leafs, meanwhile, are revolving doors for low-cost veterans and short-term tenants, and the only significant off-season deal they've made in recent years was the Nazem-Kadri deal, which saw Dubas wait for a key position to be traded. the forward gear to the lowest possible value. Thisit didn't work out well.
Other than that, this Leafs team has the same plan since 2016: lots of choice, turn those picks into good players, call them, then… that's it. That's all you can do. You find your core, make a commitment, and hope it's enough. When all the available evidence suggests that this is not the case, there is nothing else to do but hope.
The Florida Panthers had a different philosophy. It worked. That doesn't mean it will work for the Leafs or anyone else. But that means we should ignore anyone who tells us there's only one way out.
Sheldon Keefe has the highest regular season win percentage in franchise history. The same goes for Andrew Brunette. Mitch Marner is a winger who had the best season of his career. And so it wasJonathana Huberdeau. William Nylander is a well-signed player who goes above and beyond and would suit any team in the league. And so it wasMacKenziego Weegara. The Panthers decided they weren't good enough and weren't happy to keep it that way. You can make difficult decisions.
No, changes are not made just to change something.
No, you're not betraying anyone.
No, it won't be easy.
But also: no, it's not impossible. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. We've seen another team do it. And this team just defeated the untouchable core of the Leafs in five games.
Kyle Dubas or whoever replaces him can get him back one more time at will. But it will be a choice.
You can take big steps and bring your team closer to the Stanley Cup.
You can. Let's see if it will.
(Top photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)