Is Maple Leafs’ poor playoff performance bad luck, a fundamental flaw, or a bit of both?

For me, this is the first question the new general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs must answer: Is the core, as constructed, good enough to win?

That’s a bit of a loaded question and one that can spawn a dozen side questions about how reliable the Leafs’ top-end players like Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews can be in crunch time. Both players have just wrapped up their third consecutive playoffs where they scored fewer points per game in the playoffs than their season average, and while that isn’t uncommon across the league (especially since scoring declines in the playoffs with the absence of bad teams to pick on), neither player has broken out offensively in a way that Leon Draisaitl, Matthew Tkachuk, or a host of others seem to in any given spring.

Another thing that happened for a third consecutive playoffs? The team that defeated the Leafs wound up sweeping their next opponent en route to the Stanley Cup Final. It would be one thing if the teams that beat the Leafs kept falling flat on their faces in the ensuing round, but the opposite effect happens: The Leafs seem to bring out the best in their opponents. In fact, in four of five years of the Kyle Dubas regime, the team that defeated the Leafs went on to play in the Final (though three of those teams lost, and we don’t know about the Panthers yet).

It’s overly simplistic to say the Leafs are the victims of bad luck in the postseason, though they have had some, particularly in one-goal games. Since 2021, the Leafs have actually outscored their opponents 75-72 in the playoffs, but are 11-14 over that span. Fifty-six percent of their games have been decided by one goal, and they’ve come out on the losing side more frequently than not in those games (6-8), but before you start to think that’s a reflection on the players, keep in mind that the worst team when it comes to one-goal games in the playoffs in recent years is Edmonton, despite how strong Draisaitl and Connor McDavid have looked in consecutive playoff runs. Sometimes you just don’t get the bounces at the right time.

It’s also overly simplistic to say that the Leafs team isn’t constructed for the playoffs, even as they’ve struggled for offence, particularly late in the series. The Leafs have averaged 3.6 goals per game early in the series, compared to just 2.0 goals per game in elimination and closeout games. Before you think that’s a reflection on the team as constructed, however, keep in mind that the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the 2021 Cup and played for the 2022 Cup, have similarly struggled in those situations, scoring 3.5 goals per game early in a series, compared to 2.1 goals per game in closeout series.

In all likelihood, the answer as to whether the Leafs merely get unlucky in playoff time or are fundamentally flawed probably lies somewhere in the middle, and it’s difficult to prove one way or another. Teams don’t often have the luxury of being able to play long enough to discover whether luck in one-goal games or bad goaltending was the result of random distribution or some tangible, tactical flaw in how the team was built.

One idea I was kicking around was whether the Leafs were actually a good enough team to even be considered playoff disappointments. After all, with the exception of the 2021 season, a 56-game affair played entirely against six other opponents, Toronto hasn’t won a single division title, and finished second in its division just twice, since Auston Matthews was drafted. Over the last three complete seasons, Toronto has seen three rivals from the Atlantic Division win a Presidents’ Trophy over that span, but the Leafs have yet to have that one season where everything falls into place.

Even then, the year-to-year consistency achieved by the Leafs is nearly unprecedented. It’s easier for good teams to underperform in the playoffs compared to bad teams (nobody would have bat an eye if the Panthers, a 92-point team, were out in overtime of the fifth game to the Bruins in Round 1), and the success the Leafs have had over the last three seasons in the regular season is astounding. In the salary-cap era, a team has only earned 110 points per 82 games or better in three consecutive seasons three times: these Leafs, these Carolina Hurricanes, who have similarly gone through playoff heartbreak, and the Detroit Red Wings who did it in four consecutive seasons from ‘05-06 to ‘08-09.

While it’s easy to point to a team like Florida that outperforms its regular-season point totals in the playoff, the reality is the best regular-season teams tend to perform best in the playoffs. I’ve looked at every team in the salary-cap era, grouped them by regular-season points per 82 (rather than points percentage) and looked at the average number of playoff rounds won by each grouping:

(Some high-profile first-round defeats by the Presidents’ Trophy winners show up here, with teams with 116 points per 82 or more doing slightly worse than the previous bucket.)

No team in the salary-cap era has ever won multiple playoff rounds in consecutive seasons while earning under 100 points per 82 in the regular season. Only five sub-100-point teams have even won a single round in consecutive seasons.

What this all means is teams that are good in the regular season are generally good in the playoffs, and the Leafs have been a fantastic regular-season team for consecutive seasons. Clawing that back or dealing productive players may have the unintended effect of making the team worse going forward.

Disappointment is a powerful emotion, but it’s key to keep a level head and not be driven by emotion. Is there a reasonable argument that the Leafs should break up a 111-point team, one of only a handful that has hit the century mark in three consecutive seasons?

No lack of playoff success appears to inhibit growth for the following year. Only a handful of teams in the cap era have won one or fewer playoff series over a three-year period where they averaged 100 or more points. A few of those teams went on to immediate success the following season: the ‘12-13 Penguins and ‘15-16 Blues both made the conference final after multiple seasons of regular-season success followed by playoff disappointment (though you could argue the Penguins, by virtue of winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, get a pass for winning a single round in the following three seasons).

Nothing really guarantees a team a Cup, but being a good team for consecutive seasons and maximizing your opportunities seems to do the trick. Maybe the Leafs will eventually find one season when everything just goes right, and that year hasn’t happened yet. That’s of no comfort to Leaf fans, but any course of major action is likely going to result in one of the team’s better players being sold for 75 cents on the dollar and making the team worse in the short term.

The way I see it, if the new general manager is comfortable with the Leafs being a perennial 105-point team and taking its shot, they should stick the course. If changes are made, though, I’d argue that’s an admission this core is simply not good enough to win, and multiple tear-it-all-down trades become the logical continuation.

I don’t know what course I’d take, but it’s good to remember that being a good team means there’s more potential to disappoint in the playoffs.

(Photo: Claus Andersen / Getty Images)