Groundhog days: Leafs hope grand plan works - this time (2024)

It's tempting to say that the Toronto Maple Leafs, as another postseason looms, are at an inflection point.

It's tempting to say that because the Leafs have been in Cup-run-or-bust mode for years now. April often seems like an inflection point. It's just no longer true.

From the point when former general manager Kyle Dubas built his roster around four elite and expensive forwards, every spring has felt like a test case of that model. Could a team with almost half its salary cap allotted to four high-end skill guys assemble enough talent elsewhere to go on a deep playoff run?

Even though the Leafs kept losing in the first round of the playoffs, the answer to that question from the front office appeared to be: Maybe. That is, it kept resisting calls to trade one of the star forwards, preferring to run the same core version of the roster back again, even as coaches and goalies were changed. The Leafs having a sad early spring exit was about as reliable as the Arizona Coyotes' arena drama.

Last season, they finally got over the hump by knocking off the Tampa Bay Lightning, only to pratfall in a second-round gentlemen's sweep by the Florida Panthers. Surely things would be shaken up. If not a smashing of the nuclear button, at least a controlled demolition. Except the only fundamental change came in the front office, with Dubas leaving even though team president Brendan Shanahan wanted to bring him back.

New GM Brad Treliving wasn't in the job long before he effectively endorsed the Dubas model, eschewing a shakeup and instead making changes on the roster's periphery. Auston Matthews signed for four more years. William Nylander re-upped for eight more seasons after this one.

And so, as the Leafs enter the playoffs, the stakes seem strangely low. They could easily get bounced in the first round again, which would set off an understandable round of exasperated groaning and hair-pulling among the team's fans, Toronto-area sports bars, and the executive suites at Rogers and Sportsnet. An eighth straight playoff disappointment is entirely within the range of possibilities.

It's just hard to see how that would lead to much of a reckoning, even if the fan base sharpens its pitchforks and local media lights its torches. Matthews and Nylander just signed those extensions, and had career years. Mitch Marner may be considered a prime trade asset, a star winger entering the walk year of his contract, except for the fact his deal has a full no-movement clause that kicked in last summer. John Tavares also has one year left on his contract, also has a NMC, and has less trade value to begin with, as he turns 34 in September and is no longer a point-per-game player.

Groundhog days: Leafs hope grand plan works - this time (1)

Barring an extraordinary unforeseen development, today's Maple Leafs will look a lot like next fall's Maple Leafs, no matter what happens over the next two months - or two weeks if it goes poorly. If Shanahan and Treliving were going to give up on the Dubas model, they needed to do so sooner than now.

Marner said it himself last summer, explaining that Treliving reached out within days of landing the Leafs job to give his blessing to the roster he inherited.

"Brad came in and defended us all, really, and our team," Marner said. "It meant a lot to all of us to come in and do that."

It also meant a lot to Leafs fans who were desperate to see one of the star forwards moved.

Of course, the Leafs could make all of the preceding moot by actually going on the long playoff run that's so far eluded them. Matthews is scoring like he's shooting at a net 10 feet wide and Nylander, after an incandescent start to the year, has smashed his previous best points total. Marner missed time with a bum ankle but has been his usual dangerous self when healthy. Tavares has even taken on more of a shutdown role, which isn't normally what's asked of an $11-million center but may well be the best use of that salary.

But the talent of those four was undeniable last year, too. And the year before that, and before that, and you see where I'm going here. Whether they advance will likely come down again to the vagaries of playoff hockey. Will they run into a hot goalie? Will they be bailed out by their own hot goalie? Will they get enough scoring from their stars? Will they get enough big games from the assorted players Treliving assembled on the cheap to supplement the Big Four? If these questions sound familiar to you, it’s because they're the same questions asked around this time for years now.

And they're the same questions likely to be asked this time next April, too.

Scott Stinson is a contributing writer to theScore.

Groundhog days: Leafs hope grand plan works - this time (2024)


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