Leafs’ latest playoff exit makes it clear: the time is ripe for the Shana Plan

BOSTON – When Brendan Shanahan took over the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey operations a decade ago, he felt he had to eliminate the organization’s tendency to take “shortcuts.”

The Leafs he inherited were known for chasing trends rather than trying to establish them. Because they constantly changed course when the wind blew them in a different direction. Because you’re good enough to just miss the playoffs every spring, but never bad enough to draft and collect game-changing talent.

In fact, the guiding principle behind what became known as the ‘Shana Plan’ was to create a culture that valued processes over results. “The challenge here in Toronto is not to come up with the plan; the challenge in Toronto is to stick to that,” Shanahan said in April 2015.

Based on that original goal, his time as team president must be considered a success. They certainly didn’t hesitate.

Except as we sit here now, with the Leafs under Shanahan having lost an eighth playoff series in nine tries after being dispatched by the Boston Bruins in another Game 7 overtime breaker, it feels well past time for the results to mark a shift in start to dictate the match. overarching approach.

Of course, you can find all kinds of ways to turn the peculiarities of a best-of-seven, bookended by Saturday night losses at TD Garden and an odd string of injuries, into some form of “yes, but” defense from the Leafs. program. But the fact remains that once again they were one shot away from going further and saw that shot put into their net. They dropped two more playoff games on home ice along the way, going 2-7 at Scotiabank Arena over the past two springs, and they blew a 1-0 third-period lead in Game 7 for good measure.

“It’s very clear that when teams play the Leafs, they set up the game so that the Leafs can beat themselves,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe.

No matter how close it seems in the end, they always do.

This remains a group that has not been anywhere near a long playoff run. A team needs 16 wins in one playoff spring to win the Stanley Cup, and you’d have to combine the past five Leafs postseasons to count that many wins.

They were a young group when they lost to Washington in 2017 and dropped back-to-back seven-game series to Boston the following two springs. After Game 7 in 2019, then-coach Mike Babcock said: “I think we are really making strides and moving in the right direction, but we have to persevere and get through this.”

Five years later, they still haven’t found their way.

It was a familiar ceremonial walk to the veterans’ bus on the third floor of TD Garden on Saturday evening. Some munched on pizza after another energy-sapping, soul-wrenching loss. They all shared long, blank stares, no doubt repeating the vision of David Pastrnak stopping the clock in overtime on a Bruins play that overwhelmed their defenders.

“I mean, this is as close-knit a group as I’ve been a part of,” Auston Matthews said. “And I feel like we say that every year, but I mean, it was really an incredible group. Incredibly tight.”

“Look, I don’t think there’s a problem with the core,” added William Nylander, who scored Toronto’s final three goals of the season. “I think we were playing there the whole series. We fought hard and got to Game 7 and OT. It’s a great feeling.’

All these years and with so little collective playoff success, these Leafs carry deep scars and a significant amount of baggage and self-doubt.

The latest loss to Boston has to be seen as a step in the wrong direction from the previous losses, even considering that Matthews was limited in three games and sat out two others completely due to illness and injury, and that Nylander missed. the first three games of the series with an ocular migraine problem.

That’s part of the risk you take when you build a program that allocates half of the available cap space to four forwards. Because of that approach, the Leafs are consistently left with too little wiggle room to fill out the rest of the roster while building enough depth to sustain themselves when one or more of the Core Four suffers injury, underperformance or setbacks.

While this conclusion has arguably stared the Leafs’ front office in the face since the first-round loss to Montreal in 2021, the team has resisted taking action. In fact, two days after the Game 7 loss to the Canadiens, Shanahan stated unequivocally that none of his frontline forwards were even eligible to be moved: “I think every team in the league would want just one. But we want them. We like them. We want to keep them here.”

And so they stayed.

This was yet another spring in which a team built around top offensive talent simply didn’t score enough, averaging 1.71 goals per game in the playoffs while going 1-for-21 on the power play. Mitch Marner finished with just 3 points – his lowest personal total in any postseason – while captain John Tavares finished with just one goal and one assist, though those contributed directly to the victories in Game 2 and Game 5, respectively.

Add that up and the Leafs have now gone fourteen straight playoff games without scoring more than three goals. Even with the improved level of defensive play they showed in the rally to take this series to its limits, their fundamental flaw remained.

The core of the team might have been shaken up last spring if former general manager Kyle Dubas had been put in charge. He expressed concern about the scoring problems when the games mattered most, saying:We have to find a way to take advantage of those opportunities and we have to find a way to build in different offensive principles that can allow us to produce more in those key moments.” Him too indicated he was open to considering a roster shake-up at the start of a summer that saw Marner hit a motion clause on July 1 and new extensions to be considered for Matthews and Nylander.

“Maybe the path needs to be shifted somewhat,” Dubas said last May. “It needs some adjustment. You come between persistence and complete belief (in the process) versus being a little too firm and rigid.

Dubas was fired three days later and replaced by Brad Treliving, who will no doubt be looking to make his mark on a disappointing Blues squad as he looks to strengthen the Leafs’ goalkeeping position this summer. He must also consider fundamental changes, with Marner and Tavares each about to enter the final year of his contract and the core having just added another disappointment to their belt.

How can that group ever get back together for training camp in September and try to convince themselves that next time will be different?

These Leafs have accumulated more than their share of scars and haven’t achieved nearly the amount of modest playoff success that Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals or Steve Yzerman’s Detroit Red Wings did before finally breaking through with Stanley Cup victories.

These examples have often been cited as justification for keeping the Core Four together. But the more time passes, the less they look the same.

“At the end of the day, until you do it, you haven’t done it,” Treliving said The Athletics in March. “So until you do it, you’re always going to think, ‘Oh, here we go again.'”

Under Shanahan, the Leafs have enjoyed an incredible run of regular-season success, playing above 100 points for the past seven years, while Matthews collected multiple individual awards that no member of the organization had won in decades. Matthews, Marner and Nylander have etched their names all over the team’s all-time record book, while Tavares delivered the group’s signature playoff moment by eliminating Tampa Bay with an overtime goal last spring for the Leafs’ first series win since 2004 .

Even that brief bit of playoff joy was immediately followed by a five-game loss to Florida.

Led by three different GMs and two head coaches, Shanahan’s Leafs have steadfastly refused to change the plan in response to the familiar and untimely end they encounter every postseason. They basically played the longest, most stubborn game imaginable, trying to eliminate organizational shortcuts.

Sure, that game is over now.

Just about everything should be on the table after another season ended early at TD Garden.

(Photo: Steve Russell/Getty Images)

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