What led to another lost Maple Leafs season? Inside the managerial missteps and miscalculations

The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t want Kyle Dubas to speak on locker cleanout day last spring.

They wanted to get his unsettled contract situation sorted out first. But Dubas felt it was right that he stand up with the players and head coach Sheldon Keefe to address what went wrong for the Leafs – yet again – in the playoffs.

Management took a different approach this year, one that swerved away from past precedent: They would speak on Thursday, three days after players and Keefe. (Who exactly will speak was left unclear. GM Brad Treliving is a given. Team president Brendan Shanahan not so much. He’s spoken only sporadically throughout his decade in charge.)

Which makes for three days of uncertainty about which direction the Leafs plan to take, including whether Keefe will return next season.

What we do know is that more than a year’s worth of missteps from the people in charge are partly to blame for another lost Leafs season.

It’s probably best to start way back with the decision not to extend Dubas’ contract before the beginning of the 2022-23 season.

Regardless of whether you thought Dubas did a good job or not as GM of the Leafs, not extending his contract set up just the kind of situation any well-run organization should seek to avoid. Which was the need to negotiate a new deal for the GM at the outset of the offseason.

When those negotiations went awry and Shanahan decided to fire Dubas suddenly, the Leafs were left without a general manager weeks before the draft and start of free agency. Which meant they had to hurry to find someone new. Which meant that the someone new, Treliving, hired less than two weeks after Dubas was fired, would have only an outsider’s view of the team and its needs on the eve of the most important roster-building time of the year.

Which showed in Treliving’s early transactions as GM.

His first move was to sign David Kämpf to a four-year contract, with a cap hit of $2.4 million, days before the start of free agency. His second and third moves (minus a new contract for Pontus Holmberg): Sign Ryan Reaves to a three-year contract, with a cap hit of $1.35 million, and John Klingberg to a one-year contract, with a cap hit of $4.15 million.

In the end, that was nearly $8 million spent on three players who contributed almost nothing (and literally nothing in the case of Klingberg) to the Leafs in the postseason.

Money that could have been spent elsewhere — on the blue line, say, or centre ice.

Reaves was scratched when the team’s season was on the line in Games 6 and 7. The Leafs were outscored 2-1 when he was on the ice with a problematic expected goals mark of 32 percent. His playoff goal drought sits at 70 games. (The last one came on May 28, 2018.) Reaves turned things around in the regular season, but the likelihood that he – at 37 – would play a limited role in the playoffs was entirely foreseeable.

Kämpf was costly for a fourth-line centre who contributed nothing offensively. He scored the first goal of the playoffs for the Leafs and did zero offensively after that. Which wasn’t surprising. Kämpf did have some effective minutes in the back half of the series with Boston, buried in the defensive zone with Connor Dewar.

But ultimately, getting next to zero offence from the bottom six proved to be costly in a series that saw the Leafs score 12 goals total. Kämpf was the only player on the bottom two lines, in fact, to score in the seven games against the Bruins. Dewar and Reaves were the only other players to register even a point – an assist each on Kämpf’s goal in Game 1.

Holmberg went point-less in the playoffs. So did Nick Robertson, Calle Järnkrok, and Noah Gregor.

The Leafs had only two lines that were even conceivable threats to score and one of those lines, John Tavares’ unit, had to spend the entire series playing up against David Pastrnak in a matchup-style role.

Tavares’ offensive zone faceoff percentage in the series: Just under 34 percent. Tavares lined up for nearly double as many defensive zone faceoffs (53) as offensive zone faceoffs (27) at five-on-five. The Leaf with the third-most goals during the regular season (29), a 33-year-old in his 15th NHL season, had to start on defence more often than not. He scored once in the series, on the power play.

Mitch Marner, who played alongside him for half of the series after a 26-goal regular season, also scored only once.

Asking two of the team’s four best offensive players to chase around Pastrnak all series was hardly ideal.

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Tavares had to play difficult minutes against Pastrnak all series. (Claus Andersen / Getty Images)

Keefe simply had no better option for those minutes.

That was a result of roster construction, beginning last summer when Ryan O’Reilly, the third centre in last year’s playoffs, decided to leave in free agency.

He wasn’t replaced, not in the offseason and not in-season when the need for a capable two-way centre behind Matthews and Tavares became apparent (which was early). The Leafs were left using Holmberg, with 91 games of NHL experience, as the 3C in the playoffs, a role beyond his capabilities at this point.

Management chose not to spend a first-round pick on Adam Henrique as the Oilers did and couldn’t come up with the assets to land Alex Wennberg from Seattle as the Rangers did. Both Edmonton and New York advanced to the second round. The Leafs added only Dewar to the forward mix.

With a more capable two-way centre, Keefe could have loaded Tavares, in particular, up for offence more often than he did. It wasn’t until late in the series that Keefe began to do just that, with Kämpf taking on more of the defensive zone responsibility.

Kämpf’s limitations offensively kept him in the 4C job most of the season. It’s a role that Holmberg could have played for a lot less.

Last offseason, the Leafs lost a whole whack of penalty killers – O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Alex Kerfoot, Justin Holl, Luke Schenn – to free agency and didn’t replace any of them until the trade deadline with depth parts like Joel Edmundson, Ilya Lyubushkin, and Dewar.

It wasn’t enough.

After the power play, maybe nothing was more damaging to the Leafs’ chances in round one than the penalty kill, which yielded six goals in the first four games of the series – three of them losses.

For a large chunk of the regular season, the Leafs’ No. 1 penalty-killing pair on defence was TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano, only one of whom (Brodie) played in the playoffs. There were signs in last year’s playoffs that a Brodie falloff might be imminent.

Leafs’ brass tried to score a boost for the blue line in the fall, but were spurned in their attempts to bring both Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov in from Calgary.

The need to chase serious help at all can be traced back to the offseason when the team decided to take a chance on Klingberg, even though he was coming off two troublesome seasons.

He struggled through 14 games before undergoing hip surgery. Which wasn’t a good look for management. If the Leafs weren’t aware of his hip issues, why sign him at all in light of the other concerns? And if they were aware, again, why sign him?

There wasn’t a lot out there, in all fairness — though the Canucks got Ian Cole for $3 million on a one-year deal and Carson Soucy for $3.25 million annually on a three-year pact. Even when the Leafs got a get-out-of-jail-free card with Klingberg going on LTIR, they opted not to spend that money.

Edmundson and Lyubushkin were No. 5-calibre defenders on a team that already had enough of those.

The Leafs’ unwillingness to spend a first-round pick on Tanev was understandable given his age and injury history. Was there no way to acquire the second-round pick that Calgary was after and that Dallas ultimately paid as part of a package to land Tanev?

Was there no avenue to improving the team ahead of the trade deadline in a way that mattered?

In the end, the Leafs spent five picks on Lyubushkin, Edmundson, and Dewar. The team opted to prioritize the future (holding onto first-round picks and prospects like Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan) and ended up with very little.

Red flags with Ilya Samsonov were also set aside.

Ultimately, a safe and uncreative approach at the deadline came back to bite the Leafs.

So did the status quo approach of bringing the core and Keefe back yet again. Had the organization not had to search for a new GM in the last weeks of May, had they simply kept Dubas, the team could have explored the trade market for someone like Marner before his no-movement clause kicked into effect. They might have altered the team in a way that mattered for the postseason.

At Shanahan’s apparent lead, that prospect was quickly ruled out.

Now, the Leafs can only move someone like Marner with his and his agent’s involvement, if they decide to move him at all. (He can stay if he chooses.)

By not addressing the media on Monday, management left Keefe’s status as head coach dangling, just as they did last summer after the GM change. Keefe was then signed to a two-year extension, while new assistants like Guy Boucher and Mike van Ryn were brought in.

Van Ryn seemed to get all he could from the group on defence. Boucher, though, in his return to the NHL, could not find any answers for a power play that crumbled down the stretch of the regular season.

There was reason to pivot away from Keefe last summer when the Leafs failed to advance beyond the second round in his fourth playoffs as head coach. Doing so now would feel like another one of those decisions that comes a year too late – though it should be said, again, that Keefe’s hands were tied in many respects by problems in personnel.

The fact that Keefe has had the best goalie in a series only once – when Samsonov topped Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first round last spring – is probably an overlooked aspect of his flawed playoff resume. That said, the lack of offence at playoff-time year after year is hard to set aside, as are the bottom-line results.

It all adds up to another lost year for the Leafs.

(Top photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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