It was sometime around Boston’s fourth, fifth or seventh goal in Game 2 — who could keep track on a night like this? — when someone on Twitter reminded the hockey world that Toronto defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who was on the hook for four goals in the 7-3 loss, had six more years and $27 million remaining on his contract.
It was another way of saying that if you think the Maple Leafs are in bad shape right now, just wait until next year … and the year after that.
That’s sort of the way it goes in the playoffs. Whatever goodwill and optimism was created out of a record-setting season in which the Leafs set franchise benchmarks in wins and points has now been tossed out the window as the team heads into Game 3 on Monday trailing 2-0 in a best-of-seven series.
Today, Toronto no longer looks like a Stanley Cup contender. After being outscored 12-4 in back-to-back losses to Boston, it doesn’t even look much like a playoff team.
In a matter of days, Zaitsev has gone from being one of Toronto’s top defencemen to not knowing how to skate backwards. Mike Babcock is not the coaching genius you thought he was. He’s now just a guy who can’t seem to figure out how to stop David Pastrnak or even challenge an offside. As for Frederik Andersen, Auston Matthews and the rest of the team: they’re apparently not as good as they seemed to be for the past five months.
The Leafs, who had relied on a high-octane offence to secure the sixth-best record in the NHL, now need to play with more grit. They need Matt Martin — and maybe Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren — back in the line-up to hit, punch and intimidate the big, bad Bruins. They need better goaltending and better defence and players who won’t wilt under pressure or, in the case of Tomas Plekanec, disappear under their turtlenecks.
If there’s anything to learn from a pair of lopsided losses to the Bruins, it’s that whatever had worked in the regular season certainly isn’t working right now. The Leafs are too soft, too inexperienced and too much of a pushover to have success when it matters the most.
As some fans have joked, it’s time to blow it up and start over again. As for the Leafs, who appear to be halfway to getting swept out of the first round, the challenge is trying to make sense of it all.
Here’s what we know: the Bruins, who might have the best forward line in the NHL, are proving to be a logistical nightmare for the Leafs. If Babcock cannot find a way to keep Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand off the scoresheet, the next game Nazem Kadri plays will be in October.
But how do you judge a best-of-seven series where Toronto is without one of its top centres for three of the first four games? Does the team need to drastically upgrade its defence? Does it have to balance all that skill up front with what Brian Burke used to describe as “truculence and belligerence”?
Or has this team simply been playing its worst hockey at the worst possible time?
It’s the same question that the Winnipeg Jets faced a few years ago after getting swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. Back then, fans were calling for coach Paul Maurice’s head and wanted GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to remake the roster.
Instead, Cheveldayoff stayed the course and today the Jets, who had a 2-0 series lead headed into Sunday’s Game 3 against the Minnesota Wild, might be the closest thing that Canada has to a legitimate championship contender.
Others have not shown the same restraint when it comes to knee-jerk solutions.
After collapsing in Game 7 to the Bruins in 2013, the Leafs added David Clarkson and Dave Bolland for the expressed purpose of avoiding a similar fate. It sort of worked. Toronto didn’t suffer another collapse. Then again, they spent the following three years out of the playoffs.
It might not look it right now, but the Leafs are trending in the right direction.
Since hiring Brendan Shanahan, this has been a model franchise. They’ve drafted well, shown patience in developing players, and made smart trades and signings. Last year, they went from last in the league standings to winning a wild card spot. This year, they finished with as many points as the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals, who also happened to lose their first two games of the playoffs.
Who know, maybe the Leafs, who beat the Bruins three out of four times and had the second-most wins at home this season, will hold serve and send the series back to Boston tied 2-2. But even if they don’t, there is reason to believe that next year could be better.
Even with Zaitsev in the line-up.