Sunday night saw the end of the Toronto Maple Leafs season, a heart-breaking 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. As disappointing as it is to be out of the playoffs, being eliminated, especially by the league’s top team, was not the end of the world.
Rookies like William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner now have an idea about what it takes to get to the next level. They found out the hard way that they can’t go far into the playoffs by their skill alone. They realize they need to fight, both figuratively and literally, if they want to become Stanley Cup contenders. They should no longer be satisfied with just making the playoffs next season. Every one of them will now have a huge chip on their shoulder. And that, to me, is a good thing.
There will be some changes to the roster. I suspect Lou Lamoriello will be shopping around for veteran help especially on the blue line where the deficiency was glaring in the last few games of the regular season and in the first round of the playoffs. He may have to dangle a guy like James van Riemsdyk or Nazem Kadri in order to do that. Lamoriello could have acquired that kind of player at the trade deadline. But I believe there is a reason why Maple Leafs management stood pat. They wanted to see how the rookies respond when the game is on the line, when the playoffs are on the line, and whether they have what it takes to win the big game. There was plenty of effort but, as we saw on Sunday, not enough to get over the hump.
Make no bones about it. I was expecting a different outcome in the series. But like I said before, what the Maple Leafs do in the playoffs is gravy. They were playing with house money. For a roster where their best players are not allowed to drink beer in the United States, this Maple Leafs team took great strides this season. I expect to see more of that next season.