Well, this year was another early postseason exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs, albeit later than most of you are probably used to. In a historic year for the Leafs, hometown hero and seasoned captain John Tavares secured the team’s spot in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 19 years, after scoring a historic goal in overtime of game six versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. Fans took to the streets in celebration, which caused major traffic delays in Toronto for several hours.
However, this celebratory mood was short-lived, as the Leafs just narrowly avoided being swept by the Florida Panthers. In the Panthers’ first round series against the Boston Bruins, the odds-on favourites to win the Stanley Cup in the 2022–2023 season, they overcame a 3–1 series deficit, completing a historic upset.
The Leafs’ second round series against the Panthers was fraught with difficulty and controversy — notably, Panthers center, Sam Bennett’s, brutal cross-check left the Leafs’ rookie superstar Matthew Knies concussed and out for the remainder of the series. Bennett was only penalized after also cross-checking Michael Bunting, incurring a $5,000 penalty from the Department of Player Safety and no on-ice retribution from any Leafs players. To make things worse, the Leafs’ goalie, Ilya Samsonov, ended up with an upper-body injury after a nasty collision with his teammate Luke Schenn. This left rookie goalie Joseph Woll in the net to close the series, which culminated in a 4–1 series win for the Panthers, much to the chagrin of Leafs fans.
Nevertheless, the Leafs and their fans have much to be proud of this season; having broken their 19-year curse, fans savoured the sweet taste of victory, which had been foreign to them for far too long.
Media outlets and hockey influencers may be tempted to blame the “core four” — Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander — for the Leafs’ failure in the second round, but their efforts leading up to the second round should not be discounted. Throughout this first series, this so-called invisible core put up a monstrous 34 combined points, featuring a home hat trick and series-clinching overtime winner from Tavares.
However, it is undeniable that this is the end of an era for the Leafs’ core, especially as Tavares nears the end of his prime. As sad as it may be, the Leafs should consider trading him soon for some financial flexibility and a new young prospect in his stead.
Furthermore, this Leaf’s team was imposing, going 50–21–11, finishing second in the Atlantic division behind the record-setting Boston Bruins. Defenseman Mark Giordano set a new NHL record for the most shots blocked by a skater, making history at 2,078. Additionally, throughout the regular season, Leafs players put up 757 points, with 351 of them — 46 per cent — coming from just the “core four.” Hopefully, this serves as a sign that the Leafs will continue to dominate in the regular-season.
On another note, General Manager Kyle Dubas is now officially done with his nine-year tenure in Toronto. This change marks a dramatic shift in thinking for the Leafs’ president, Brendan Shanahan, after Dubas expressed that it was possible he may not be interested in remaining with the Leafs. His departure surely seals Leafs Head Coach Sheldon Keefe’s fate, considering the long history he had with Dubas. Keefe had far too long to get this very ambitious and talented group to go far, and I’m afraid that a second-round exit versus a wildcard team isn’t cutting it for either the fans or the owners. He may have broken the curse, but a change in coaching may be the final push this group needs to go the distance. This off-season will be absolutely critical to the Leafs’ future.
Despite how bleak things may seem, there’s much to look forward to. Breakout rookies like Knies and Woll have made their mark and have the potential to be key core players, especially with the upcoming reshuffle.
So, to my fellow Leafs fans, hold your heads high, be proud of what the boys have accomplished this year, and keep the good vibes coming. GO, LEAFS, GO!