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Maple Leafs stars brought the pressure upon themselves

Aug 04, 2023Aug 04, 2023

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Watching Mitch Marner snap at the media earlier this week was anything but surprising to me.

At the time, the Maple Leafs were down 3-0 in their second-round series against the Florida Panthers and instead of generalizing about the outside noise and the pressure all teams feel this time of year, he summed it up pretty harshly.

"We don't care what you guys say. We don't listen to you guys outside this locker room," Marner said, referring to the media.

Clearly his defence mechanism kicked in knowing full well the frenzy that awaited the Leafs in the event they lost Game 4 and got swept by the eighth seed. While his "us against the world" mentality bought him and his fellow stars within the Core Four more time with a Game 4 win on Wednesday, it all came crashing down in Friday night's loss at Scotiabank Arena.

The Leafs’ improbable series comeback fell short with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Panthers in Game 5. Even if they had pulled off the historic feat, what's clear is this will likely be the final year we see Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares together. With the cap remaining flat and Matthews and Nylander vying for new contracts, it makes little sense to continue to have 49 per cent of the salary cap spent on four players.

If we learned anything in these first two rounds, it's that the insurmountable pressure on the Core Four to deliver offence is too overwhelming. I can hear the arguments now: The Leafs’ star players deserve the backlash if they underperform. Edmonton is no different with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The difference between the two teams is the balance of the lineups outside of the marquee players. It's fairly simple: Edmonton has two high-priced forwards and the Leafs have four.

While McDavid and Draisaitl have the same pressure in Edmonton to perform, their team has found a way to add highly valued assets to their lineup over the last two years without overpaying. Meanwhile, Kyle Dubas and Brandon Pridham were forced to piecemeal to add the support their star players need. The balance was not ideal and it has put a ton of strain on the top players.

Just take a look at the names of players in and out of the lineup over the last four years that Dubas has thrown against the wall in hopes that something sticks: Tyler Ennis, Nic Petan, Denis Malgin, Alex Galchenyuk, Riley Nash, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kaše and Nick Robertson, to name a few.

The real story is Marner and Matthews are putting up the numbers they have without a mainstay left winger. Marner has consistently flirted with 100-point seasons alongside players like Alex Kerfoot, Calle Järnkrok and Malgin on the left side. Can you imagine what he would do with a player like Evander Kane on his line all year? If the Leafs would have had a little more wiggle room to add better supporting players, the team would not be so dependent on the Core Four.

The thing is, they’re partly to blame for this. The Leafs’ franchise players asked for too much money and management made the mistake of giving it to them, which is elevating the pressure they all feel right now and has led to the problems we’re seeing play out in these playoffs.

The mere fact Matthew Knies was asked to step in on the No. 1 line straight out of college hockey is enough to tell you that the imbalance in the way the cap is spread across the roster is almost impossible to overcome. Jake McCabe was brought in at the trade deadline and would make a great bottom-pair defenceman. Instead, he's been asked to be their top shutdown guy. Järnkrok is a solid fourth-liner for a contender; the Leafs had him on Matthews’ wing for a chunk of the season and he played 30 minutes combined in the last two must-win games.

The Leafs may have gotten timely goals from Marner and Nylander in Games 4 and 5, but the fact remains: Running it back next season with the big-four forwards, who combined for three goals in five games in a losing effort this series, will result in those same pressures surfacing all over again.

For the Core Four to have carried the team this far without the true top-end depth it needs to contend is perhaps a victory in itself.

There's talk that the New York Rangers are doing there due diligence on former Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock. Glen Sather, who still acts as a special adviser to Madison Square Garden CEO James Dolan, is apparently a big Babcock supporter. Babcock said publicly last summer he's "retired" from coaching, but an NHL job on a Stanley Cup contender and another Original Six team might be enough for him to change his mind. And while Kris Knoblauch is getting a lot of attention because he coaches the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford, he’d be a tough sell with no NHL head-coaching experience on a team whose ownership deems next year to be Stanley Cup or bust … With Larry Brooks of the New York Post reporting Joel Quenneville won't be an option for the Rangers, it's led many to believe NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn't have much of an appetite to listen to Quenneville, the former Blackhawks head coach, or Stan Bowman, Chicago's former GM, make their case for reinstatement until long after the playoffs are over. There had been questions about their status within the league following the Kyle Beach sexual abuse scandal with both believed to be under unofficial suspension by the NHL … The NHLPA had its player agent meetings this week in Los Angeles and New York and will conclude with another in Toronto next Wednesday. For most, it served as an introduction to new executive director Marty Walsh. But what has also been interesting to agents is the recent climb of former NHL defenceman Ron Hainsey within the ranks. His official title is assistant to the executive director and he is now considered the second-most powerful person in the NHLPA.

On dressing 11 forwards and seven defencemen for games. I hated the idea when Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe first started doing it, for no other reason than how it upsets the rhythm of your lineup. But if your fourth line isn't legitimate and contributing, maybe rolling with your star players is the better way.

Correction (May 12): This is an updated version of an earlier story, correcting the spelling of Leafs assistant general manager Brandon Pridham.

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On dressing 11 forwards and seven defencemen for games. Correction (May 12): Read more about: