The Toronto Maple Leafs have ironic taste in goal songs.
When a Leaf lights the lamp at home, it’s celebrated to the dulcet tones of 1980s duo Hall & Oates crooning their classic “You Make My Dreams (Come True).”
Never mind that the tune was recorded before anyone on the roster was born. It also plays like a sarcastic nod to the fact that not since 1967 have the Maple Leafs fulfilled their fans’ long-held hopes of another Stanley Cup victory.
It’s a history Toronto is painfully, acutely aware of because — like another ’80s classic by Naked Eyes can attest — there’s always something (or someone) there to remind the Leafs of all the franchise hasn’t achieved since its true glory days.
That sting of unmet expectations has only heightened in recent years.
Is there reason to believe this time will be any different? Or is it the same old situation for Toronto?
A QUICK REFRESHER: The Maple Leafs organization has won 13 Cups since the Toronto Arenas hoisted the first one in 1917-18, and the Leafs picked up their most recent four titles over a seven-year span in the 1960s.
This was all before the NHL expanded past its Original Six era. That came the season after Toronto won its last Cup; the league added six teams and the Leafs embarked on what has become the NHL’s longest active streak without a championship (55 years — and counting).
Fast-forward to 2016. Toronto was supposed to start turning a corner. The Leafs drafted Auston Matthews after a bottom-dwelling 2015-16 campaign, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander were ready to join the NHL ranks, and beliefs were high once again that Toronto could regain contender status.
And they did, sort of. The Leafs have frequently finished high in the league standings and have made the playoffs every year with that core. But Toronto hasn’t won a single postseason round, not in five straight best-of-seven series. (They even lost in that best-of-five play-in opportunity during the COVID-19 bubble experience.)
The Leafs have tinkered. They’ve adjusted. They’ve said all the right things and never made good on them when it mattered. So, every spring the same mantra returns: This is the year they’ll get it right.
Here they are again to find out. Toronto is taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round for a second consecutive season. The Lightning eliminated the Leafs in seven games last time. Both teams are different now, though. Plenty can change in a calendar year.
Such was the optimism in Leaf Land, right up until the puck dropped Tuesday night in Game 1. Toronto fell behind just 1:19 into the first period and eventually lost 7-3. The Internet expectedly exploded with a landslide of takes on how the Leafs are already cooked, doomed to repeat their pattern forevermore.
Will that be the case? Won’t any of that regular-season success Toronto experienced (finishing fourth overall in points with 111) carry over — and potentially guide them through — to a series win?
The Leafs can’t afford any lesser result. General manager Kyle Dubas, a key architect in creating this team, is on an expiring contract that may not be renewed if Toronto can’t show that their postseason shelf life is longer than the average quart of milk.
Here are four reasons to believe:
Toronto hasn’t lacked chances in the past.
The Leafs held a series lead in four of their last five best-of-seven appearances (the lone exception was in 2017-18 against the Boston Bruins). It’s not putting an opponent on the ropes that’s been their problem; it’s failing to land the knockout punch.
The inability to finish in Game 6 and 7 has traditionally been an eyesore. Toronto’s record in Games 1-5 of those full playoff rounds (not including Tuesday’s result) is 13-12, with 3.08 goals per game and a strong 20.3% success rate on the power play.
In Games 6-7? 1-8 record. 2.00 goals per game. And a whopping 4.8% power-play percentage.
That’s not what you want. But perhaps Toronto can learn a lesson about how not only to start, but finish, a series with urgency. Take last season, for instance. Toronto shut out Tampa Bay 5-0 in Game 1, and still would up losing in seven. This year, an opposite scenario could be in the Leafs’ cards.
Toronto was a resilient group in the regular season. The Leafs lost consecutive games in regulation only twice (and not since January) while recording the fourth-most come-from-behind wins (17) in the NHL. That’s testament to how they handled adversity over a long stretch and found ways to win with the odds stacked against them.
The Leafs also tied for the fifth-most one-goal victories (21), another possible indication Toronto is better suited for more tightly contested battles ahead — and closing them out — than in seasons past.
The core of the core
Marner is just one piece of the puzzle. But he’s a big one.
Generally, Marner gets lumped in with Matthews and Nylander under the “Leafs’ young core of perennial playoff underachievers” banner. It’s not entirely inaccurate, either.
Matthews leads the league in goals (299) since he arrived in 2016-17, but entered this postseason 41st in playoff markers (17, through 39 games) over that same stretch.
Marner is 10th overall in points (554) in the same regular-season span. During the postseason, he ranks 59th (33) and has failed to score a single goal in any of Toronto’s elimination games.
And Nylander? He averaged 0.84 points per game in the regular season, dropping to 0.77 come playoffs.
The numbers haven’t added up to postseason success for Toronto. Marner could lead the charge in changing that. He’s already showing why.
Marner paced the Leafs with three assists in Tuesday’s loss, while logging a team-high 23:06 time on ice. Toronto had few positives to take from that demoralizing defeat, but Marner’s performance is worth referencing as a positive.
That’s unsurprising, given the resplendent regular season Toronto’s top-line winger put together. His 69 assists (tied for fourth most in the league) and 99-point effort left Marner one shy of being the fourth Leaf ever to ever 100. The 25-year-old never let up, going without a point in consecutive games only twice all season.
What Marner highlighted most was all the ways he can exploit the competition, not only from a playmaking and scoring perspective but by being a difference-maker in every phase of the game. Marner has blossomed defensively, he’s tenacious on pucks (leading the NHL in regular-season takeaways with 104) and can drive any line — and most teammates — to prosperity.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe will be counting on that ability again come Game 2. Michael Bunting usually skates alongside Matthews and Marner, but he’s been suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak in Game 1. So it’ll be Calle Jarnkrok back in a top-line spot looking for some of that Marner magic to rub off on his game.
There’s so much Marner can do with and without the puck. All that creativity, elusiveness and overall consistency must eventually translate regularly to the postseason, and it’s never felt like Marner was more primed to execute at the most critical time of year than he is now.
A goalie to believe in
The Leafs found a true No. 1 goaltender in Ilya Samsonov. And he had a spectacular regular season. That wasn’t how Toronto drew it up necessarily. It’s also what made Samsonov’s performance in Game 1 so perplexing.
Behind a lackluster Leafs defense, Samsonov was shellacked for six goals on 29 shots for a .793 SV%. That was through only 40 minutes; rookie Joseph Woll replaced Samsonov in the third period.
Keefe is riding with Samsonov for Game 2, though. His total body of work demands it.
When Dubas overhauled the Leafs’ goaltending last summer, it was two-time Cup champion Matt Murray — acquired from the Ottawa Senators with two years remaining on his contract — projecting as the Leafs’ next starter. Samsonov was a free agent signee accepting a one-year deal to bet on himself.
It didn’t take long for Samsonov to steal the show.
Murray has been plagued by injury issues throughout his career and this season was no exception, as hip, ankle and concussion problems held him to only 26 appearances. That would have been a nightmare scenario for Toronto had Samsonov not stepped up.
In 42 regular-season showings, Samsonov went 27-10-5, with a .919 SV% and 2.33 GAA. Those rank in the top 10 among NHL goalies with at least 15 starts this season and are career highs for Samsonov.
Even if Murray were healthy going into the postseason — which he was not — Samsonov earned the right to be Toronto’s go-to guy.
Toronto has been run aground in previous postseasons by unexpectedly poor goaltending. Last year, starter Jack Campbell went from shutting out Tampa Bay in Game 1 to being pulled in Game 4 after allowing five goals, then produced a below-.900 SV% with a chance to eliminate the Lightning in Game 5. Again, it’s not about how Toronto’s goaltender has been early on in a series; it’s how he’ll perform when the stakes are highest that counts.
Samsonov can write a new narrative. Granted, the 26-year-old has only one playoff win to date (he was 1-4-3 through two postseason series with Washington in 2021 and 2022) but he’s also never performed better — or more consistently — than this season.
There’s a laid-back attitude to Samsonov perfectly matched for a city obsessed with getting over the first-round hump. The pressure that might have derailed other goalies doesn’t seem to affect Samsonov the same way. If Samsonov can rebound from Game 1 and be as good — or even better — in this postseason than he was the last eight months, Toronto will have one less (critically important) thing to worry about.
Toronto has tried for years to add impactful depth pieces in the summer and more specifically at the trade deadline. This is when to show they’ve succeeded at doing both.
Dubas spied Zach Aston-Reese in the offseason and offered him a professional tryout. Aston-Reese turned that into a one-year contract and became an integral part of the Leafs’ bottom-six forward group.
Jarnkrok was an under-the-radar free agent signing who quickly morphed into a versatile top-nine piece for Keefe to shuffle throughout the lineup with good success everywhere.
Toronto didn’t waste time during deadline season, either.
Dubas scooped up Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from St. Louis, and both have been valuable. O’Reilly carries Cup-winning and Conn Smythe credentials, and slides around the top nine to give Toronto a variety of looks.
Acciari has been a resounding success in the bottom six. He’s got scoring touch, grit and finishes checks in a way that practically earns a standing ovation on a per-shift basis in Toronto.
Sam Lafferty — brought in with defenseman Jake McCabe from Chicago — has added underrated speed in a bottom-six spot.
And speaking of blueliners, the Leafs have had almost too many bodies to choose from there. Dubas acquired Luke Schenn (the league’s regular-season hits leader, with 318) from Vancouver, and he and McCabe have worked their way into a steadier, more reliable rotation than Toronto has wielded in years (the Leafs ranked seventh in both goals against and shots against this season, a testament to how their blended back end came together).
Game 1 hardly represented that group at their best. Mark Giordano was credited with three giveaways, T.J. Brodie with two. The Leafs could barely manage to clear their own zone — let alone factor into more positive plays up the ice — and hung Samsonov out to dry repeatedly.
It was an uncharacteristically putrid performance. Toronto should improve defensively from here. The Leafs have depth to tap into. Toronto’s newcomers add girth where previously the Leafs had been lean. An infusion of different types of players to the lineup this season made the Leafs more dangerous than the team Tampa Bay saw 12 months ago. While Toronto’s core of talented stars will need to steal the spotlight, they have a robust supporting cast to help avoid bowing out early. Again.
THERE’S ANOTHER IRONIC LINE for the Leafs in that Hall & Oates classic:
“What I want — you got.”
The Lightning are recent two-time Cup champions. They’ve planted flags on the mountain. Toronto has been stuck at base camp, barely able to climb.
Pundits have predicted before that the Leafs would be different. Better. More ready to win a series and go on from there. Toronto has lost before in heart-breaking, borderline-humiliating ways. It could happen again (especially if Game 1 is any indication). But it doesn’t have to.
Toronto has done the work. The Leafs have all the tools. Those years of hardship can finally amount to something positive. The payoff will be that much greater. It’s not too late.
And maybe one day those “plan the parade” jokes will be followed by an actual celebration.