10 Playoff Lessons for the Toronto Maple Leafs

2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 13: Tyler Toffoli #73 and Drew Doughty #8 of the Los Angeles Kings celebrate after teammate Alec Martinez #27 scores the game-winning goal in double overtime against the New York Rangers during Game Five of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Congratulations to the L.A. Kings on winning the Stanley Cup. What a great season 2013-2014 was, one of the best playoffs I’ve ever seen, and all that other fun stuff people say at this time of year. Wayne Gretzky high-sticked Dougie and if it was properly called the Toronto Maple Leafs would have won that series.

While Toronto didn’t make the playoffs this season, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any lessons they can glean from watching the games. Here are 10 things that were rolling through my mind while watching the “second season:”

  1. The Stanley Cup champs won the Cup with a center group of Kopitar-Carter-Stoll-Richards. Just an incredible group of talent, size, skill, diversity, and two-way play. The Leafs center group isn’t close to that, obviously, but what’s really troubling is that their top line center isn’t demonstrably better than any of the four LA centers. It is not exactly shocking or noteworthy that a team which didn’t make the playoffs doesn’t match-up well with the league champions, but when the Leafs’ top line center isn’t better than of their four, and he’s reportedly considered untouchable, we have to start to worry.
  2. By the same token, going back to the final four teams (LA, New York, Chicago and Montreal), look at the Leafs second top pairing defenseman and ask yourself if he makes any of those teams’ top 4s. Carl Gunnarsson is a solid defenseman and we have to wonder what the real deal is with his hip problem, but he doesn’t holdup as a top pairing option alongside Phaneuf. To the Leafs’ credit, he did average the fourth most time on ice in their defense group behind Phaneuf, Gardiner and Franson, but he was alongside Dion for the tough match-ups and they really do need to upgrade there. For your consideration: Gunnarsson played 80 games and had only 48 shots on net (although it is worth noting he wasn’t a power play regular). The only defenseman in the League to play at least 50 games while averaging more ice time than him and taking less shots on net was Josh Gorges. Maybe the answer is shifting Gardiner up top and pushing Gunnarsson down the line-up, but one way or another they need to upgrade his holding of that position and lessen Phaneuf’s workload at the same time.
  3. Two-goal leads were blown almost nightly in the playoffs this Spring. Forget game 7 against Boston, no team in the league blew more leads in the third period than Toronto this season. I talked about the flaw in the Leafs construction at the end of the season, and Shanahan has since commented a few times about the “mix” on the team. Their top two lines are all offense and, as noted above, their best defenseman plays with a player who is not top-pairing quality. The Leafs had quite a bit of skill last season, but very few of their players were adept at cycling down low in the offensive zone, grinding teams down, and playing a strong two-way game. There certainly wasn’t a line that made me feel comfortable defensively night-in and night-out. Neither the Rangers nor Kings play sexy hockey; they beat teams down and spend a lot of time in the offensive zone. In the dead puck era, protecting a lead was all about trapping and locking down the neutral zone. It is now all about eating time in the offensive zone and cycling teams down in the modern era. On the surface, signing Clarkson was an attempt at addressing that — and he was actually one of the decent Leafs at cycling even if he didn’t produce much — but they need a lot more than just him.
  4. The Rangers came into the playoffs running a fourth line of Boyle-Moore-Dorsett, the Kings ran Clifford-Richards-Lewis as their fourth unit. The Habs and Hawks played one 4th liner each we could call a fighter (Bollig and Weise), but those two each have some game at least; Weise more so than Bollig, plus Dorsett and Clifford are both fighters, too. A lot has been made about the Leafs using one-dimensional fighters and there’s nothing more to say about it. It just can’t be done. Good teams just don’t do it on a regular basis, and the fighters they do play can at least skate and handle a puck. Even the GM of a successful physical team in Boston’s Peter Chiarelli acknowledged this recently. Taking it a step further: Even more than keeping enforcers and bad players off the fourth line, the Leafs actually need good productive players down there who are going to contribute to the team. For example, Trevor Lewis is a fantastic penalty killer and forechecker for the Kings even if he doesn’t score much. The same can be said for Brian Boyle. This is one reason it will be interesting to see what ends up happening with Leo Komarov, a player who draws penalties, kills penalties, can cycle, and even score a little. The likes of Peter Holland, Carter Ashton and Jerry D’Amigo should all be competing to be on that fourth line, instantly upgrading it from one of the worst L4s in the league to at least a respectable one.
  5. Couldn’t help but watch the playoffs and appreciate what the Leafs have in Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly even more than before. There was a play in game 7 between the Kings and Hawks where Doughty tried to toe drag a forward at the offensive zone blue line and had the puck taken away from him, sending Chicago down on a 2v1. Doughty was able to turn around, put his head down, and catch up to the far side skater without the puck to neutralize the opportunity. Conversely, in overtime of game one of the playoffs we saw Dan Girardi fall down and give up the puck due to some light pressure, leading to the GWG by Williams. These are two isolated examples, but it was clear throughout the playoffs that the skilled defensemen who can skate and blend in some physicality (Doughty, McDonaugh, Keith, Subban, etc) were excelling, while the less fleet of foot struggled (Girardi, Greene, Murray, etc). It was no coincidence or hot streak that Gardiner was one of the Leafs best players in the playoffs against Boston. He was one of their best players during the collapse this season and arguably their best defenseman throughout the final 20-odd games, too. Both Gardiner and Rielly each make too many glaring mistakes that lead to goals and they won’t be as physical as those aforementioned skilled defensemen, but they will smooth it out over time and have the kind of speed that makes up for their mistakes and being out of position. Develop them, nurture them, and support them properly. It will pay off in the long run.
  6. Drew Doughty summed up the East nicely after winning the Cup when he noted the Stanley Cup Final, “Was still a good series, but the other ones were tougher.” There is one powerhouse team in the East and it is the aging Bruins, who are in cap trouble. Every other relatively good East team contains glaring problems. This is not a good Conference and it is completely up in the air. A team in the West almost definitely has to go through some combination of St. Louis, San Jose, Chicago, and LA. I’ve been banging this drum for a while, but the Leafs were a cap team in a bad Conference and couldn’t finish in the top 50%. It can’t happen. The Leafs and Capitals were the only two teams in the top 10 of payrolls to not make the playoffs. The Capitals completely cleaned house. The Leafs have kept all the top decisions makers and added another. And now we wait.
  7. If there is one thing the East does have, though, it is good goaltending. Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist and Tuuka Rask are all arguably top-5 goalies in the league. One of the weirder things that appears to be happening in Leafs Nation lately is that the good goaltending is being taken for granted. Some fans are dismissing a legitimate good goaltender in James Reimer in favour of draft picks that won’t be seen for multiple years, if ever. Bernier is a good goalie who has yet to establish he is a full-fledged starter. Reimer is in that same boat. It will be interesting to see what Dave Nonis does here; he has said multiple times he has no problem bringing Reimer back, as the Leafs have the pieces in net to be competitive in this regard. Hopefully they continue it forward and don’t ruin the good thing they have going in net.
  8. The other element that stands out as a positive for the Leafs is their power play. It was tied for fifth this year, a season after ranking 14th, and it makes sense it would be a strong unit when it runs through one of the best scorers in the league. Watching the Rangers struggle to even gain the zone, though, we have to appreciate what the Leafs do a little more. You don’t need a good power play to win the Cup, and that is well known, but it will always make life a little easier. With Kessel on the half-wall, JVR in front of the net, and some combination of Gardiner, Phaneuf and Rielly on the point, it should be strong for years to come.
  9. Building through the draft always seems to be the go-to team construction strategy for most fans, but these teams were not built solely at the draft (really, no team is). The Kings drafted Kopitar, Quick, Brown and Doughty, among others, but it was big trades to get Carter, Richards, Williams and a few smaller deals that put them over the top. For the Rangers, it was even less drafting; they drafted Stepan, Lundqvist and Staal while trades and UFA signings netted them St. Louis, Richards, McDonaugh, Nash, Stralman, and so on. It has taken the Leafs years to build some sort of foundation of talent, and now they finally have it: Kessel, JVR, Rielly, Bernier/Reimer, Phaneuf, Gardiner, and Kadri. The key now will be adding that second layer. The same way LA was able to bring in Carter and Richards to push them over the top, or how the Rangers got St. Louis, Richards and Nash.
  10. Good teams do not hide their top lines, but the Leafs do. Kopitar went straight up against Thornton, Getzlaf and Toews these playoffs. The Rangers weren’t quite as dramatic, but Stepan was seeing his fair dosage against Giroux, Crosby and had no choice but to play against Kopitar. It is really hard to acquire players who can do this and that can’t be taken for granted, but that is why Stastny will get big money this summer and why teams are salivating at the mere thought of a Ryan O’Reilly or Ryan Kesler. Over the last few years, Kessel has evolved into a superstar, JVR has been put in place, Kadri has been developed… The Leafs have put in pieces. And yet, Bozak is seemingly untouchable. Bolland is a solid checking center, but bringing him back doesn’t give the Leafs a C who worries a Claude Giroux, or Patrice Bergeron, or Sidney Crosby. Once again, we turn to Drew Doughty for some thoughts: