Why are the Maple Leafs losing another series? The Bruins are just better


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t show up on time, they briefly got going with an offensive outburst, and then came the stupid penalties and the defensive miscues and the non-existent big save when it was needed most. Now they’re embarrassed, in disarray and looking over their shoulders at ghosts.

OK, I’ll admit you have heard it before, from me, because that’s almost exactly how I started my column after Game 1 of last year’s postseason, a 7-2 loss in front of the same fans who just booed them off the ice on Saturday. So yes, you’ve heard it, from me and everyone else, in some form or another. But I don’t need you to stop me this time because I’m stopping myself. For one night at least, after a humiliating home loss to the Boston Bruins that put them down 3-1 in the series, I’m going to do the opposite of what you might expect. I’m hitting pause on all those Maple Leafs narratives we’ve all run into the ground over the last few years.

You know the ones: The Leafs don’t want it bad enough. The not-so-young-anymore core is overpaid and entitled. The leaders and the coaches don’t have the right message, and if they do then nobody’s listening. You need all-star numbers in January, they’ve got you covered, but if you need the sort of heart-and-soul shift that can tilt a series, look elsewhere. No killer instinct. They don’t show up, they don’t start on time, and they don’t want any part of the big kid hockey that gets played in the postseason.

Sure. Some of that could be true. Maybe even all of it.

But maybe it doesn’t matter, at least not this time. Maybe the Bruins are just better.

After all, they were better in the regular season, when they dropped 26 points from their Presidents’ Trophy-winning 2022-23 campaign but still finished comfortably ahead of the Leafs. They were better head-to-head during the season too, winning all four meetings without ever trailing. They were better for just about all of Game 1, long stretches of Game 2, all the important moments in Game 3, and pretty much all of Game 4 on Saturday night.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How things went from bad to worse for the Maple Leafs in Game 4: 5 takeaways

There’s a pattern here. We’re used to talking about the Leafs as some sort of powerhouse, at least during the regular season, as if their undeniable top-end talent means that they have to be an elite team, no matter what the record says. But this team barely cracked the top 10 this year. They were the third-best team in the Atlantic, never really in serious contention for so much as a round of home-ice advantage.

Now the playoffs are here, and they’re facing a team that finished ahead of them. Four games in, the gap is clear, it’s been wide, and it feels like all that’s left is the inevitable end on Tuesday.

There’s a simple explanation for that, and it has nothing to do with heart or compete or whatever else: The Bruins look better because they are.

They’re more experienced. They’re better coached. They’ve got far better goaltending, by a mile; we all knew that, even as you’re never really sure how much it will matter in a short series. They’ve got the better blue line; we all suspected that, although the Leafs’ infusion of deadline depth was supposed to make a difference. On paper, the Leafs are far better up front, especially down the middle. But so far, the Bruins are comfortably outscoring them too. They’re getting the ugly goals, but they’re flashing the skill too.

They’re doing all that for a simple reason: They’re just better.

Maybe not. But if the Leafs want to object here, they’re letting the suspense build before they show it.

In one sense, none of this should surprise us, and I’m sure there are already some eye rolls happening out there, especially in Boston. Gosh, the team that won a Presidents’ Trophy last year and went to the final in 2019 and has already beaten this Leafs core in the playoffs twice is better than the team that never wins anything? You don’t say, Scotty Bowman, thanks for the insight.

I’d argue that it wasn’t unreasonable to have doubts. The Leafs outscored the Bruins by 36 goals, they had way more scoring depth, they have Auston Matthews coming off the greatest goal-scoring season of his era. The blue line would be good enough, and Ilya Samsonov’s second-half resurgence had been a fantastic story. They’d even had more playoff success than Boston over the last few years.

All of that should matter. So far, it hasn’t. Why not? Again, the simplest answer is staring right at us.

What if it’s the right one?

The Bruins have been the better team in this series because they’re just better. If you’re a Leafs fan, is that good news or bad?

In one sense, it’s a good thing. If the Bruins are just better, then at least we don’t have to beat all the old narratives into the ground again. Maybe this Leaf team isn’t fundamentally broken inside. It’s not about the shambles in their brains. There isn’t something fundamentally wrong with the entire organization, top to bottom, the way it so often feels like. They’re just a good team that keeps running into better ones. They’re losing because they’re just not quite as good as the other guys, just like in the first round in 2022 and 2019 and 2018 and 2017, and probably 2023 too if we’re being honest. Even the 2020 team went into that weird bubble qualifier tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the standings. The only series they’ve lost to a team they were clearly better than was the 2021 disaster against Montreal. All the other times? Maybe the best team won, and the Leafs weren’t it.

That’s reassuring for a Leafs fan in a weird kind of way because at least it makes sense, and it means this isn’t all happening because the hockey gods hate us. And best of all, we know that the better team doesn’t always win, so there’s even hope.

That’s the optimist’s view, I guess. The other side of the coin feels more grim. This Leafs team has been a work in progress for eight years. They did everything you’re supposed to do. They committed to a rebuild, then they openly tanked when it made sense, then they got lucky in the lottery, then they hit home runs on all their high picks, then they lured the big-name free agent and had the veterans lining up to take hometown discounts. They hired the smart young GM and eventually found the up-and-coming coach. They’ve done a great job of finding cheap depth. They’ve spent the last few years trading away draft picks for the final pieces of the puzzle. They never panicked. They trusted the process.

What if after all that, they’re still just not good enough? Not because of what’s happening in their heads or their hearts, but because all the pieces just don’t sum up to enough of a whole. Leaf fans have been waiting for the light bulb to go off for these guys, and I guess it’s possible that it still could. We know that they don’t bring their A-game anywhere near often enough, especially in the playoffs, and we all go on and on about it because we assume that it matters. What if it just doesn’t? What if their best game still wouldn’t be enough because their best can’t match what the true contenders could do?

That doesn’t let the organization off the hook for the rest of it. Yes, it’s possible that the entire strategy behind how the team was built and cap was allocated was fatally flawed. Maybe there’s a big difference between a team built for the season and one built for the playoffs. And it’s almost inarguable at this point that some of the players just can’t raise their game when it matters. Extending Sheldon Keefe and turning the power play over to Guy Boucher seem like disastrous decisions now. And when we said the Leafs couldn’t keep going into every playoff matchup with the second-best goalie in the series, maybe we should have clarified that that didn’t mean trying it with the third-best instead.

And yes, maybe those brain-shambles are real after all. Maybe the ghosts are too scary. Maybe the hockey gods really do hate us. Maybe we’re all cursed.

But for now, it doesn’t even have to be that complicated. Two teams are facing off in a playoff series, and the better team is winning.

Not the flashier team. Not the team with the most jaw-dropping numbers. Not the team where all the key pieces have the biggest contracts they could get. Not even, necessarily, the better collection of individual players. Just the better team. That’s it. That’s the end of the story.

It will be the end of this Leafs team, too, and I can’t imagine there’s a single Leafs fan left who’ll have a problem with that. But when the firings start, and the trade rumors swirl and the whole thing finally gets detonated a full three years after it needed to be, let’s try not to get carried away with the narratives. They weren’t cursed, and they weren’t snake-bitten, and they weren’t denied a destiny they deserved.

They just weren’t good enough. They never were.

(Photo of Max Domi and John Tavares: Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press via The Associated Press)





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