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Toronto’s big guns fail to deliver again

Toronto Maple Leafs Toronto Maple Leafs - The Canadian Press

Another first-round exit. Another elimination by way of the Boston Bruins. Another Game 7 failure.

You don’t have to have spent 30 years around the National Hockey League to know change is on the horizon in Toronto. The Core Four era has been given, justifiably I would say, a significant number of chances to run it back – to prove their early exits were a byproduct of poor puck luck, shoddy goaltending, or extremely tough first-round draws.

In years past, I would have been the first one filing a column defending the run-it-back strategy. It is hard to win in the NHL. You don’t disrupt reliably competitive teams without clearing a very high bar, and the Maple Leafs — strange as it is to say — have been one of the most successful teams during regular seasons over the past decade.

But this exit feels different. On the surface it feels like the next chapter of the same book, but ultimately I look at this series loss as a failing of the Core Four — the players Toronto heavily invested in to get this team over the hump.

Considering the blistering regular season and obvious health issues, I am more than willing to give super sniper Auston Matthews a pass. And William Nylander’s health was of concern during the entire series. But as a collective, the top of the Leafs lineup – Matthews, Nylander, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly – did not deliver.

At the end of the day, when you command this degree of the salary cap, you need to dominate goal differentials. You cannot go quite offensively. You cannot bleed goals defensively.

I’m going to show you the difference between Toronto’s premium players and what you see from real Stanley Cup contenders. The below table shows aggregate goal differential across each playoff team’s five highest-paid skaters.

Look where Toronto sits here relative to their peers:

On one hand, Toronto’s best players did win the goal differential battle with Boston, but on a very muted basis, and in large part because the goaltending (ironically enough) was solid behind them.

When you look at their offensive production (which includes that horrifying power play), the top of the Maple Leafs lineup was nowhere to be found, averaging just 0.7 points per 60 minutes in the Boston series. That’s close to a fourth of what Colorado’s big guns produced in their series against Winnipeg, for context.

This aggregated cap hit for Toronto exceeds any other team that advanced into the second round. Said another way: The Leafs get weak postseason production for the highest relative cost.

We need not relitigate Toronto’s roster-building strategy. The team committed serious salary to high-quality players, betting on meaningful annual growth against the salary cap. When the pandemic struck in 2020 and seized league growth for a lengthy period, Toronto found themselves with serious cap inflexibility, and the roster suffered as a result.

In fact, it’s perhaps one of the two criticisms I have of former general manager Kyle Dubas (who was fired last season) — aggressively leveraging your balance sheet works until it doesn’t, and it’s kept Toronto from ever delivering a truly great hockey team.

But at the end of the day, would we be discussing any of this if Toronto’s top-end players delivered? That’s where this ending, if nothing else, feels bittersweet. There were no glaring officiating decisions. There was no insane, once-in-a-lifetime bounce that decided a game.

Toronto lost on merit because their best players weren’t good enough against a Bruins team that, frankly, is beatable in 2023-24.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference