If you would have told me before the start of Game 7 that the Leafs would score four goals in the game, I would have told you to that the Leafs would be back on TV Saturday night to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Alas, another collapse and blown third period lead leaves Leafs fans in the same spot they were in after the 2013 season. Saying that, the two offseasons can't feel any more different.
Another Game 7 Letdown
It was another crushing blow to a Leafs fan base that has experienced it share of defeats over the years. Leafs Twitter exploded on queue, offering their fair share of blame, myself included (as you can see below).
As you can see, I was pretty emotional, hence why this article is coming out the day after Game 7, and not right away.
Gardiner was the most obvious scape goat from fans last night and tonight, and rightfully so. He had arguably his worst game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. He was an abysmal -5 with only 2 hits, no blocks in just over 24 minutes of ice time. Everybody understands that the Leafs need to shore up their defence core (more to come on that) but to me, Gardiner is, and has been all year, a liability. He just got exposed being on the biggest stage in his NHL career.
I will give him kudos for facing the Toronto media and owning that. I empathize on how empty of a feeling that would be, knowing that most of the blame will be put on you in one of the most crazy NHL markets. Saying that, it hasn't changed my assessment on him. The Leafs need to move on from him and this project if they want to clog the holes on defence, especially the right side.
While blame should fall on Gardiner, it was a team collapse. The offence evaporated near the end of the second period and for most of the third, and "Steddy Freddy" was anything but steddy in this game. Allowing 6 goals while posting an .829 save percentage will not get the job done, no matter what game it is. The Leafs don't get to game 7 without Freddy, but they needed him to get the job done, FredEx just couldn't deliver. Andersen had been stellar for the Leafs all season, and I believe that with a better defensive core around him, this game 7 collapse wouldn't have happened. Sure, he let in some soft goals, but he also did make some A+ saves too.
At the end of the day, Marleau can't be your best forward in a due or die situation. Matthews and Nylander were ghosts all series, but I attribute that more to age and playoff experience over anything else. Marner was outstanding, and will be a future pillar to build around.
Now What? The Offseason Agenda
Well there's really only one massive concern, and everybody knows what it is. This defence has more holes than Swiss Cheese, and in a playoff series where the opponents really focus in on one another with detail, it was clear that the Bruins knew how to attack the Leafs and their defensemen.
I am very pro-Hainsey, but in the right role. He should not be playing first line minutes with Morgan Rielly, but that's what happens when you lack quality right shot defensemen. The Leafs need to address this, by acquiring an elite RHD via free agency or trade. Players such as John Carlson (FA), Drew Doughty (Trade) or Erik Karlsson (Trade) are just a few names that can really embrace that top D pairing on the right side along Rielly. Trades may require a young forward (Nylander maybe...?) but those trade packages are for another day.
It's time to move off of Gardiner and trade him. Move Dermott up to the 2nd defence pairing with Zaitsev. Find a top six D to fill in the left side alongside Hainsey, and cut Polak. Otherwise, there really doesn't need to be any other drastic change. I'm not in the "bring John Tavares back home" camp, because I would rather use that money for an elite defender in a salary cap world.
Someone on Twitter asked me who I thought had played their final game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. My list includes Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, JVR, Domenic Moore, Roman Polak and Jake Gardiner. I've seen many variations of this type of list, so let me know your list in the comments below, or tweet your list to me @TO_SportsViews.
I believe in this front office. They have made the right decisions thus far. I trust that they will get this team to where they need to be next year. There's one thing that's certain...this offseason will be the most interesting in recent memory.