Another season ended earlier than anticipated. Another day of confusion, reflection and resolve. Another sad send-off into summer.
Three days after they were eliminated from the playoffs, the Maple Leafs met formally for one last time on Tuesday. As has become customary, their foray into the postseason ended after one round.
Among the seven Canadian teams in the NHL, they remain the only one not to have won a Stanley Cup series since 2004. Not a Stanley Cup mind you, just a best-of-five or seven or whatever encounter has come their way.
Second verse, same as the first.
The surprise here is that anyone acts surprised. Despite putting together the best regular season in team history, Toronto fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games. Perhaps a better performance was achieved.
In the end, though, nothing changed. Auston Matthews’s 60 goals don’t matter much now. He will be remembered for a great individual accomplishment but the team failed again.
During the post-mortems, one had to feel for Jason Spezza. He is about to turn 39 and has never hoisted the Holy Grail. At his age, he isn’t sure the Maple Leafs will want him back. If not, he appears ready to call it a career after 19 years.
As the 2021-22 campaign wore on, his ice time was limited and he took on a role as a trusty servant more than a future member of the Hall of Fame.
“It was incredibly abrupt and a difficult end to the season,” Spezza said at the Maple Leafs’ practice facility in west Toronto. “We expected to play for much longer than this. You know one of the two teams is going to lose but we didn’t expect it to be us. Things felt different this year.
“When it ends in the first round like that again, it is jarring as an athlete. You want better results.”
There is not much solace in a loss even to a team that has won the past two Stanley Cups. At times, the Lightning looked tired, as if all of those playoff games had begun to take a toll. It will be interesting to see how Tampa Bay fares in its second-round series against its arch-enemy in Florida. The Panthers defeated the Washington Capitals in six games, their first success in the playoffs in 26 years.
Now Toronto has the longest drought in the entire league. To rub a little salt in the wound, Canada’s other two postseason candidates – Calgary and Edmonton – moved on. Both in tense, tight seven-game series.
“It’s really hard to understand,” said William Nylander, the 26-year-old right wing. “We were the closest we ever have been. We didn’t win but the progress was there. I think we are capable of it.”
Nylander had a career-best 34 goals but joins Matthews, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly in having lost in the first round six times in a row. They are considered the team’s core. A half-dozen years ago they were youthful and brimming with promise.
So far it is promise unkept.
Kyle Dubas, the general manager, said he believed in the core. And then he allowed that he would make any move he felt was necessary to improve the roster. He included the core in that group.
His remarks were brief and those of Brendan Shanahan, the alternate governor and club president, were even briefer. Really, what is there left to say?
It sounds as though Sheldon Keefe is safe as the head coach. But there are a lot of tough decisions to be made.
Do the Leafs trade Nylander? Do they sign goalie Jack Campbell to a pricey contract? Do they re-sign Mark Giordano if the veteran defenceman would take a pay cut? Do they move Kyle Clifford, Justin Holl, Ondrej Kase and Wayne Simmonds to create more salary-cap room? Do they pay somebody else to take Petr Mrazek off their hands?
As always, there was soul-searching on locker cleanup day. But these souls have been searched so many times now that it is hard to tell what if anything it means.
“It ended a little too soon,” defenceman Jake Muzzin said. “I felt like we were right there. We just fell a little short. Back to the drawing board again.”
Then there was Spezza – and it was clear to see he had taken this defeat to heart. He is a joy in the dressing room and still plays with the enthusiasm he always had, if no longer the skill.
“I don’t think anyone could definitely stand here and said they had an answer because if they did we would have tried to execute it,” Spezza said. “We talked about a lot of different things throughout the season to push us and keep us motivated and keep us focused on playing playoff hockey.
“Every year it is a different group but every year you have to answer the questions until you break through. To me guys have to dig in and do even more and that is hard because we did a lot.”