In recent exit pressers involving the Toronto Maple Leafs, we've been able to glean certain things from what is mostly just uncomfortable dialogue. These bits of information, or pockets of truth often uncovered through uncertainties, hesitancies or reluctances, can be picked up through the coded, brand-protective and/or mostly unproductive chitchat. For example, the seeds to a Nazem Kadri trade were planted on locker room clean-up day a few years ago, it seemed, and the deteriorating relationship between Mike Babcock and the management team appeared most obvious in those raw moments as well.
Beyond that, it's mostly a time to show support or express gratitude for the support received. That's box-check stuff used as required filler to distract from the point, which is to unpack the most pertinent information after the most recent in a long line of failures.
The Leafs went ahead with the charade again on Wednesday, or two days after the most crushing loss of their incomparably painful recent postseason record. As predicted, the chain of support was strong, from Brendan Shanahan to Kyle Dubas, to Kyle Dubas to Sheldon Keefe, from the hockey operations department to the entire roster, most notably the core four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander.
In fact, there wasn't as much of a single kink to detect, as in their visceral aggregate response, the Leafs still portrayed this image of the team uninterested in making a major decision to either change the composition of the team or the group charged with assembling it.
Reports that ownership has become frustrated with the lack of success went unacknowledged. Errors made by Dubas and Keefe were hardly discussed. And most notably, the suggestion that trading a high-priced asset to alleviate the pressure on a squeezed management team trying to build a winning hockey program with allowance money was labeled "foolish."
Maple Leafs management indicated that no major move was coming, and that the plan was to run back another version of the same team, and using the same penny-pinching tactics, that has failed in seven successive opportunities to eliminate an opponent.
There's precedent to suggest that the Leafs aren't making the wrong decision, here. It took forever for the Washington Capitals to win with Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but they did. The Tampa Bay Lightning continued to underperform in the postseason for many years before finally breaking through in the bubble last summer.
Disappointment disproportionately outweighs the total euphoria every season, because sport is designed that way. There is an element of turn-taking, and the Leafs might be wise to wait on theirs.
That said, what their apparent inflexibility fails to acknowledge is the change to this team's financial and team-building reality.
As we know, the league's continued recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the salary cap — to the extent that the Leafs are working with close to a William Nylander salary ($6.9-plus million) less than they believed they would be at this point.
It's entirely possible that what the Leafs planned could and would have worked, and that the $40 million tied up in four players wouldn't be a deterrent. But with all the work that needs to be done, all the turnover that's expected and the infinitesimal room to manoeuvre, it may be more likely that unplanned events, or more specifically the pandemic no one asked for, render it impossible for those plans to work.
At worst, the Leafs have to be open to that possibility. Perhaps they are behind closed doors, but in ridiculing the suggestion that a player like Marner could be moved, and saying that a seven-game sample shouldn't influence anything when he hasn't performed in the playoffs in four tries, it was suggested that the Leafs aren't entertaining what many fans believe they are seeing clearly.
Famously, Dubas said "we can and we will" keep the big four after signing Tavares, now their captain, in free agency three summers ago.
Is this the hill he dies on? Will pride get in the way of logic?
Or will the Maple Leafs core finally repay the executive that has to this point catered to their every desire (with up-front dollars and desirable term), and fulfill expectations of yesteryear with even a basic amount of success in the postseason?
It's all still on the table, it seems.
That is, except for a major shake-up.
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