In the latest display that the hockey gods come with a wicked sense of humor, the toronto maple leaves they are now tied for the longest streak of making the playoffs in the league. Thanks to Washington CapitalsPittsburgh penguinsand nashville predators everyone is heading to the cabin of the damned this season, it’s the Leafs and boston bruins tied for seven consecutive years. But ask any Leafs fan if that streak means anything more than a Stone of Shame.
These Toronto Maple Leafs, the greatest collection of forward star power in at least the league, haven’t won a playoff series. They keep getting there and they keep falling at the first hurdle. There’s no more Sisyphean team in sports right now than Buds All Day. No team has promised so much and delivered so little. The difference between them and Sisyphus is that he simply had to roll the same rock up the hill. The fact that the Leafs are doomed gets heavier every April.
This time around, the Leafs are not only saddled with the weight of their past failures and the despair of a fanbase bordering on a cult following in November let alone April, but they also have the idea that this could be it for them. this group. And even if they overcome the hurdle that has defined them for nearly a decade — a fourth playoff win — things won’t be the same after this. Whatever happens over the next week or two, the Leafs will go through a plane of existence.
Looking to the future
First the brass studs. Auston Matthews enters free agency after the next season. He can sign an extension this summer, and the good thing for the Leafs and Matthews is that they basically already know the number. That’s $16.7 million, the maximum salary under next year’s cap of $83.5 million. Is that what Matthews will put up with? Maybe maybe not, but he is the one who will shape any negotiation. Connor McDavid currently makes $12.5, the highest salary in the league under Artemi Panarin. When McDavid signed him, he was 15 percent of the salary cap that year. 15 percent of next season’s salary cap would be $13.1 million. So there’s your range. The low end of that would be a raise of around $1.5 million for Matthews per season.
That is if Matthews wants to sign an extension now. Or he could wait until 2024, when the salary cap should go up a few million dollars, which would raise the maximum salary with it. Players like Matthew simply haven’t hit free agency since teammate John Tavares did, and he could engineer one of the biggest bidding wars in northDK the story in case you feel the need. It becomes even more interesting if your hometown Arizona Coyotes get their new arena and suddenly they are overwhelmed with the responsibility of filling it like never before.
Even aside from Matthews’ question, the Leafs already have plenty of them for next season. They have just 14 players signed for next year and just $7 million in cap space as of now to fill all those holes. Maybe they can take Justin Holl, Jake Muzzin and Matt Murray off the list and fill some of those gaps with kids, but not all. No matter what happens in these four to seven games with Tampa, the Leafs won’t look the same next year.
Of course, if it were another blue-clad ball dance, the long-discussed a major trade could occur. William Nylander and Mitch Marner have seen their names on just about every team in the league when Leafs fans start doing the autopsy, and that’s only going to intensify if they don’t pan out this spring. Nylander hits free agency at the same time as Matthews. Marner next summer. Even with a growing cap a year from now, is there room for all three? Would an aging Tavares suddenly become vulnerable to being thrown overboard? He’s already switched wings a few times to accommodate Ryan O’Reilly. Is he worth $11 million as an aging winger? If Matthews plays hardball with an extension, would those phone lines open up?
another first lap loss could get both general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe kicked in the nearest puddle of mud, despite producing 100-point seasons consistently. How will a new regime view this list? Will Matthews feel better if he stays in the middle of the turmoil? These are just some of the balls the Leafs have to juggle.
be careful what you wish for
There’s more on a spiritual plane for the Leafs this time. another first lap the loss almost makes it easier to do anything. The Leafs would have cover saying there’s something rotten within this group, rather than being the biggest victim of hockey’s weirdness and callousness that’s not bound by reason, and that any decision or move they make makes sense.
But if they put Lightning on the sword, and they really should, then it’s another matter. Now, what is the crutch? Losing to the Bruins in the second round would hardly be any consolation, but the Bs are the best regular-season team of all time., at least based on wins and points, and if we ignore the tricked-out ranking system unlike what came before. Let’s say the Leafs take the Bruins to a tough six or seven games, and then Boston wins the Cup. How far along are the Leafs then? Just half a step. What will the Bruins be in the future? Patrice Bergeron might not be around, David might not Krejci any. And the retirement of none would provide the Bs with plenty of salary-cap relief to replace them. They won’t be the same next year, probably. The Lightning are on the negative side of their cycle. No one is coming on the outside fast enough to pass the Leafs in the Atlantic. The Leafs can’t start over or even change much if they’re that close.
But with Matthews’ free agency looming, running again in some capacity would be even more fraught with pressure and expectations. If the first round has become the name that shisn’t talked about in the TO, so a Cup or Bust campaign will resemble something on the editing room floor from Alice Through the Looking Glass. If Leafs players and fans thought they had it tough before…
The Leafs aren’t promising, nor are they, or shouldn’t be, at the bottom of a window. No team has more at stake in a first round series, and it’s hard to think of any in the past that have done as well. When it’s over, the Leafs will be something different. Wanting a simple playoff series win might seem simple enough in four to seven games. Or it could look like Black Death. The Leafs will never be the same.
To follow Sam’s descent into madness having to listen to John Buccigross call playoff games, follow him on Twitter. @Felsgate.