Perhaps there are no good days when you’re the richest franchise in the sport’s spiritual homeland and you haven’t won a playoff series in 17 years and counting, let alone a Stanley Cup in a half-century-plus. Even so, it’s been a particularly crappy week for the Maple Leafs.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that a panel of NHL executives and media members levelled another not-so-subtle dig at the Shanaplan by voting former Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello the NHL’s GM of the year for the second straight season. While Leafs president Brendan Shanahan continues to express public faith in Kyle Dubas — the neophyte with whom Shanahan replaced Lamoriello back in 2018 — the 78-year-old Lamoriello just keeps racking up the wins. No doubt there are those in Toronto’s front office who were secretly pulling for the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night, with Tampa needing a win to eliminate Lamoriello’s Islanders from the playoffs and advance to the Stanley Cup final.
It had to sting the Bay Street brain trust, too, that the team that eliminated the Leafs from the playoffs — those pesky forever rivals from Montreal — spent Wednesday one victory away from their first Stanley Cup final since they last won the prize in 1993, this after taking a 3-2 lead in their league semifinal series with the Vegas Golden Knights after Tuesday night’s 4-1 win. Sure, Montreal’s performance against Vegas has been good for Canada’s NHL teams en masse; it’s definitely quieted the widespread pre-playoff assuredness that the North Division was somehow the NHL’s worst division. But on plenty of other levels, Montreal’s success only underlines the egregiousness of Toronto’s perennial failure.
Certainly it’s shone a light on a potential crack in the foundation of the Leafs’ ongoing experiment in team construction. Toronto is built on the notion that a franchise is best equipped to succeed if it invests its limited salary-cap resources most heavily in expensive and highly skilled veteran forwards, no matter that every armchair GM in Toronto has an opinion on the untenability of the inherently difficult math. But while Shanahan and Dubas have insisted they’re committed to the core-four philosophy, Montreal’s top-scoring forward in these playoffs is Tyler Toffoli, who earns a humble $4.25 million (U.S.). Outside of Carey Price, whose magical puckstopping has made his $10.5-million annual allocation look commensurate, the Canadiens don’t employ the kind of “star” the Leafs have built their team around.
And given how the Canadiens have been able to ride Price’s mastery to success so far — with an aggressive forecheck, disciplined above-the-puck commitment to 200-foot defence and penalty kill that amazingly hasn’t given up a goal since Joe Thornton scored for Toronto in Game 4 of the first round — the starless approach makes plenty of sense.
There’s another thing the Canadiens don’t have that Toronto annually claims to need: They somehow haven’t racked up a ridiculously long resumé of post-season failure that’s suddenly leading to playoff success.
Montreal is on the verge of winning a third post-season round this year. It won a round last year — pulling off a play-in upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins. But in the four seasons before that, the Canadiens only made the playoffs once, losing in the opening round to the Rangers in 2017. According to the calculations of Toronto’s math-loving front office, Montreal hasn’t lost nearly enough to be winning as much as they are.
Which only makes a further farce of the season-ending press conference performance of Shanahan and Dubas, who tried to minimize their team’s latest faceplant by insisting with straight faces that the ultimate road to success essentially needs to be paved with repeated failure. As in, they’re pretty sure they’re on the cusp of winning something because so far they’ve lost everything. Never mind that there’s a popular axiom among successful sports executives — something about winning begetting winning — that suggests the precise opposite.
“I know it’s not what people want to hear,” Dubas said, getting something right for once, “but moments like this are a part of the story that preludes success most of the time. That’s what I believe in and am banking on here as we guide the ship ahead.”
Mike Babcock used to make this argument, too, before he was blamed for the club’s woes, insisting a team could only arrive at the ultimate destination after it accumulated years worth of “scars.” Which is, like most of Babcock’s schtick, pure hogwash.
For every Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — who’ve known nothing but post-season failure at age 23 and 24, respectively — there’s a Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. It was a little more than a decade ago that Toews won his first of three Stanley Cups, not to mention a Conn Smythe Trophy, at age 22. That’s the same year Kane, at age 21, became the youngest player to score a Cup winner. Sidney Crosby captained a Stanley Cup winner at age 21. Wayne Gretzky first hoisted the chalice at 23.
Which is only to say, rampant losing is not a necessary prerequisite to prolific winning. It’s undoubtedly antithetical to it.
Here’s what’s for sure. Every opening-round failure is an irreplaceable opportunity lost. Every season that’s squandered is a season that’s gone for good. Every epic Maple Leaf failure is a whiff for a GM who should only gets so many swings.
Just as Shanahan and Dubas keep doubling down on their contention that they’re on the correct track — just as they keep insisting that all these bad playoff experiences will ultimately add up to a good one, just stay tuned! — the Canadiens have only underlined the ridiculousness of this foundational argument. Nick Suzuki, for instance, has been an electric contributor to Montreal’s run. Somehow it hasn’t hurt Suzuki that he’s a scarless 21. Ditto teammates Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, both 20, who’ve both been good for big-moment contributions to the cause.
For Toronto’s NHL team, it’s been a particularly crappy week, indeed. Even one of their highest-profile fans took a doozy on the chin on their behalf. When the excellent Dundas pro golfer Mackenzie Hughes went into Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Open tied for the lead, there was widespread hope that he had a reasonable chance to follow Mike Weir and become the second Canadian to win a men’s major. Golf Digest, at the same time, wrote an article suggesting Hughes’s mere status as a Maple Leafs loyalist — he carries a blue alligator-skin yardage book emblazoned with the club’s crest — essentially disqualified him for a reasonable expectation of the winner’s circle. As though his choice of a favourite hockey team doomed him to fail in the clutch.
“It’s not that we don’t believe in him. We do,” Golf Digest wrote. “But some cosmic forces are too powerful for any one man to overcome.”
So blame the Leafs for Hughes’s Sunday plummet down the leaderboard, which included the inexplicable fluke of a tee shot stuck in a tree en route to a lamentable final-round 77 and a tie for 15th. Or, if Shanahan and Dubas are to be trusted, thank them for the educational agony. If Leafian failure is merely an inconvenient but necessary prelude to eventual triumph, Hughes surely has some bigger victories on the imminent horizon.
Correction – June 24, 2021: This column was updated from a previously published version to correct that the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, not the Chicago Blackhawks, in the 2020 Stanley Cup qualifiers.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk