The Leafs’ recent playoff exit makes it clear: Shanaplan’s time is up

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

The Leafs he inherited had a reputation for chasing trends rather than trying to establish them. To constantly change course whenever the wind blows in another direction. Being good enough to miss the playoffs every spring but never bad enough to draft and accumulate game-breaking talent.

The guiding principle behind what became known as the “Chanablan Plan” was actually just establishing a culture in which process was valued over results. “The challenge here in Toronto is not to come up with a plan; “The challenge in Toronto is sticking with it,” Shanahan famously said in April 2015.

When judging this original goal, his time as team president should be viewed as a success. They certainly did not hesitate.

Except as we sit here now, with the Leafs having lost their eighth playoff series in nine attempts under Shanahan after being sent in another game-breaking overtime game by the Boston Bruins, it seems like it’s time for results to start forcing a shift in overall approach.

Sure, you can find all sorts of ways to twist the details of a best-of-seven team that was bookended with losses Saturday night at TD Garden and featured a bizarre string of injuries in a form of defending the Leafs’ “yeah, but” program. But the fact remains that they were once again one shot away from going ahead and saw that shot go into their own net. They’ve lost two other playoff games on home ice along the way, going 2-7 at Scotiabank Arena the last two springs, and blew a 1-0 third-period lead in Game 7 for good measure.

“It’s pretty clear that when teams play the Leafs, they’re setting the game up for the Leafs to beat themselves,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said.

No matter how close they look at the end, they always do.

This remains a group that has never been close to a long playoff run. A team needs 16 wins in a single spring playoff game to hoist the Stanley Cup, and you would need to combine the Leafs’ past five seasons to calculate that number of wins.

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They were a young group when they lost to Washington in 2017 and then dropped a seven-game winning streak to Boston the next two springs. After Game 7 in 2019, coach Mike Babcock said, “I think we are already taking steps and moving in the right direction, but we have to move forward and get past this.”

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

It was a familiar solemn march for veterans to the bus Saturday night on the third floor at TD Garden. Some ate pizza after another stressful, soul-crushing loss. They all wore long, blank stares as they no doubt relived the sight of David Pastrnak freezing up the clock in overtime on a Bruins set-piece that caught defenders off guard.

“I mean this is as tight a group as I’ve ever been a part of here,” Auston Matthews said. “And I feel like we say that every year, but I mean it was a really great set. Incredibly tight.”

“Look, I don’t think there’s a heart problem,” added William Nylander, who scored Toronto’s last three goals of the season. “I think we were there the whole series. We battled hard and got to Game 7 and overtime. It’s a great feeling.”

After all these years and with so little collective success in the playoffs, the Leafs carry deep scars and a significant amount of baggage and self-doubt.

The recent loss to Boston should be viewed as a step in the wrong direction compared to the losses that came before it, even considering that Matthews was limited in three games and missed two others entirely due to illness and injury, and that Nylander missed the game. The opening three games of the series are plagued with eye migraines.

This is part of the risk you take when creating a program that allocates half of the available space to four attackers. Because of this approach, the Leafs have always found themselves lacking some wiggle room to fill out the rest of the roster while stockpiling enough depth to sustain themselves when one or more members of the Core Four go down with injury, underperformance, or a string of bad luck.

While that conclusion has arguably been staring the Leafs’ front office in the face since a 2021 first-round loss to Montreal, the team has resisted any action. In fact, Shanahan stated unequivocally two days after the Game 7 loss to the Canadiens that none of his front-line forwards were under consideration to be moved: “I think any team in the league would love to have any one of them. But we want them. We like them, we want to keep them here.”

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And so they stayed.

This was another spring in which a team built around elite offensive talent didn’t score enough, as they averaged a league-leading 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 of any postseason — while captain John Tavares finished with just 1 goal and 1 assist, though that contributed directly to victories in Game 2 and Game 5, respectively. .

Add that up and the Leafs have now played 14 straight playoff games without scoring more than three goals. Even with the improved level of defensive play they showed in their rally to push this series to its limits, their fundamental flaw remained.

The team’s core may have been shaken up last spring if former general manager Kyle Dubas had remained in charge. He expressed concern about scoring issues when matches are more important, saying: “We have to find a way to take advantage of those opportunities and we have to find a way to build on different attacking principles that can allow us to produce more in those crucial moments. he is too He indicated an openness to considering a roster shakeup at the start of the summer in which Marner was granted a no-movement clause on July 1 and new extensions for Matthews and Nylander needed to be considered.

“Maybe the path needs to shift a little bit,” Dubas said last May. “It has to be adapted a little bit. You’re caught between perseverance and having complete faith (in the process) versus being a little tough and tough.

Dubas was fired three days later and replaced by Brad Treliving, who will no doubt look to make his mark on an underwhelming blue-line squad as they try to bolster the Leafs’ goaltending situation this summer. He must also consider core changes, as both Marner and Tavares are about to enter the final year of their contracts and the starter has just added another notch of disappointment to their belt.

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How can this group reconvene 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 don’t have anywhere near the number of modest successes that Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals or Steve Yzerman’s Detroit Red Wings had before eventually clinching the Stanley Cup.

These examples are often cited as justification for keeping the basic 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 athlete in March. “So until you do, you’re always going to be thinking, ‘Oh, well, here we go again.'”

Under Shanahan, the Leafs have enjoyed an incredible run of regular season success, playing at a 100-plus point pace over the past seven years while Matthews has captured multiple individual awards that no member of the organization has won in decades. Matthews, Marner and Nylander put their names in the team’s record book while Tavares provided the group’s signature playoff moment, eliminating Tampa Bay with an overtime goal last spring as the Leafs earned their first series win since 2004.

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

Under the guidance of three different GMs and two head coaches, Shanahan’s Leafs have steadfastly refused to change the plan in response to the familiar and premature finish they keep meeting in each postseason. They essentially played the longest, hardest roster-building game imaginable while trying to eliminate organizational shortcuts.

That game is certainly over now.

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

(Photo: Steve Russell/Getty Images)

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