It has been more than a few days since the Maple Leafs exited the Stanley Cup playoffs, falling to a Montreal Canadiens team that was thought to be utterly mediocre and has demonstrated itself to be a surprisingly strong playoff force. Powerful enough to light up the CN Tower, apparently.
The passage of time should allow for a more serious discussion of the next steps available to Brendan Shanahan’s Leafs. Let’s just say the “trade Mitch Marner for a fifth-round draft pick just to get rid of him” types of reactions don’t tend to be either logical or terribly convincing.
Many will correctly focus on Shanahan’s view that “killer instinct,” whatever that is, is lacking on the Leafs roster. Many see that particular quality as an ability to aggressively step on an opponent’s throat when the opponent is down and out. Most associate it with a physical expression of attitude and feistiness. Knock somebody down. Elbow somebody in the schnozz. The New York Islanders certainly illustrated that kind of team orneriness in their six-game ouster of the favoured Boston Bruins.
Not surprisingly, many Leafs fans are crediting former Leaf general manager Lou Lamoriello for the Isles having that type of personality, along with head coach Barry Trotz. The fact that the Leafs chose Kyle Dubas over Lamoriello, and the Leafs now don’t have that killer instinct, is being viewed by many as evidence that Shanahan made a serious error in his choice of general manager.
It’s more complicated than that. The situation of the two teams, their ownerships, their histories, their fan bases, their salary cap situations and almost everything are very different. Lamoriello inherited some valuable pieces from his predecessor, as, of course, did Dubas. Trotz is also a far more accomplished coach than Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, and Trotz’s preferred style of play is far more battle tested than that of Keefe, who along with Dubas is trying to pioneer a style of play based primarily on puck possession. But Islanders fans certainly have reason to crow, with Lamoriello’s hiring combined with the departure of John Tavares that has seemingly benefitted Long Island more than Toronto.
Killer instinct, if that’s what the Islanders have and the Leafs lack, is also expressed in resistance, in an unwillingness to go down easily, in a refusal to make it easy for the other guy.
In that light, it’s not hard to see goaltending as a big part of a team having a killer instinct. The Islanders’ combination of Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov has been excellent this spring, with both goalies having won four games.
In Toronto, an under-discussed part of the team’s repeated playoff failures over the past five years has been the fact that the team has lost to superior goaltending every single year. From Tuukka Rask to Braden Holtby to Joonas Korpisalo/Elvis Merzlikins to Carey Price, Leaf goalies have come out second best every single time.
Mostly that was Freddie Andersen — a goalie acquired by Lamoriello — and this year it was Jack Campbell. Campbell was a great story all season, and he stood up admirably to the difficult task of going head-to-head with Price this spring. But if you want to talk about Toronto’s lack of killer instinct, you have to be willing to talk about Campbell allowing that soft opening goal of Game 7 to Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher. A goalie hoping to beat Price, or win a Stanley Cup, just cannot allow that goal. It was exactly the kind of soft playoff goal Andersen had been surrendering at critical times in the four previous playoff seasons.
Montreal’s edge in the crease gradually wore down the Leafs. Which brings us to this element of “How to fix the Leafs?,” a beloved parlour game in these parts every spring for 54 years now.
The most direct solution in goal, of course, would be for the Leafs to develop their own goaltending. That takes time. As far as drafting and/or signing young goalies and training them to become No. 1 puckstoppers, the Leafs as an organization have failed miserably for decades. They don’t like drafting them in the first round, for starters. Right now, they have goalie prospects Joseph Woll, Veini Vehvilainen, Ian Scott and newly signed Erik Kallgren. One of them might surprise and become an NHL starter, or they all might turn out to be either Justin Pogge or Jussi Rynnas.
The best one they ever drafted was probably Rask in 2005, also the last goalie taken in the first round of the draft by the Leafs. Which brings us around to an interesting concept now that the Bruins are out and Rask is just days away from unrestricted free agency. Could acquiring the goalie they once traded away to get Andrew Raycroft give the Leafs the edge they need?
In some ways, it’s a similar situation to 2002 when Curtis Joseph fled to Detroit and 37-year-old Ed Belfour was signed as Joseph’s replacement. Belfour played very well for the Leafs, although the team didn’t win anything. He certainly brought intensity and a winner’s attitude to the dressing room.
Rask, 34, is a very different character. He’s a thoughtful type who opted out of the bubble playoffs in 2020 mostly out of concern for his family. It was just another reason for Rask haters to doubt his mettle.
At the same time, Rask is accomplished and intense, albeit in a different way than Belfour. He played injured against the Islanders and wasn’t at his best, but he gutted it out. The Bruins, who turned the page on Zdeno Chara last year, now have both Rask and David Krejci heading to free agency, while Patrice Bergeron will be 36 when the next NHL season begins.
With the team in transition, GM Don Sweeney could be ready to turn the crease over to 22-year-old Jeremy Swayman. Certainly, there’s no intention to keep paying Rask $7 million per season.
Now, the notion of Rask-to-the-Leafs is fraught with obstacles. One, he may retire. Two, he has said he doesn’t want to play for any other team. Three, Campbell deserves a chance next season, and is on a very affordable contract. Four, the Leafs at present don’t have the cap space to absorb Rask, even at 50 per cent of his current salary. Finally, other team priorities may come first.
That said, it should be abundantly clear the Leafs need better goaltending, and that should be a much higher priority than, say, bringing back Jason Spezza. You want killer instinct? Well, look at what Price is doing for the Canadiens.
Rask might not be a realistic option. There would be something poetic, however, about the needlessly sacrificed prospect coming back to where it all started to put that team over the playoff hump.
Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin