Euphoria returned for Toronto’s hockey fans in 2013, as the Toronto Maple Leafs ensured they would be included in the playoffs after a nine year disappearance. Thousands were huddled in Maple Leaf Square to witness matches on a gigantic screen, while many others were either glued to their televisions or dishing out an abundance of hard-earned cash to see the team in person.
With the introduction of a postseason berth comes much joy, but it also brings the possibility of a heartbreaking loss. Unfortunately for Toronto, a club packed with youth and inexperience, it discovered just how painful that defeat can be.
For all the criticism and blame the Maple Leafs will endure for letting their supporters down in an agonizing fashion, there are plenty of factors within the organization to be pleased with.
Toronto’s front office is picking its spots better when finalizing deals.
Finished are the days of John Ferguson Jr. handing out no-trade clauses like they were Halloween candy, and remember, it was his brilliant mind that concocted the trade which sent prospect Tuukka Rask to Boston in exchange for Andrew Raycroft.
Brian Burke may no longer be the general manager in Toronto, but his fingerprints are all over the club. This is the team he envisioned when he was introduced as GM in 2008; he wanted a group that resembled his Anaheim Ducks squad which won the Stanley Cup in 2007 – one which could score, while also adding a heavy dosage of grit and toughness (the Maple Leafs led the league in penalty minutes and fighting majors).
Before his association with the Maple Leafs ended, Burke initiated a couple of shrewd trades in 2011.
First, he released Francois Beauchemin back to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner and two draft picks. In the long term, Toronto stands to be the larger benefactor from this transaction because Beachemin, despite coming off a fantastic year that saw his name surface in Norris Trophy conversations, is approaching his 33rd birthday.
Lupul, at the age of 29, is in his prime years and should his body remain intact, he will be eclipsing 30 and maybe even 40 goals per season.
Gardiner, who did not even suit up for Game One of Toronto’s series, showed a maturity and array of talent that is beyond his years – he’s still just 22-years-old and only going to get better.
Burke also nabbed Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson from Nashville, while giving up Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney. Lombardi’s move to Toronto was short lived, but the same cannot be said for Franson who, as you may have heard, had a breakout year both in the regular season and playoffs, showcasing his booming shot and defensive smarts.
Perhaps the best decision Burke and his successor, David Nonis, agreed on was the reluctance to trade forward Nazem Kadri, who finally solidified his place on Toronto’s roster.
James Reimer was the backbone of it all, as he did not let the big moments faze him.
Legitimacy and a winning mentality have been restored within Toronto, but Nonis will be busy this summer as many of his players are at the end of their current contracts and others, notably Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and Reimer, are entering the final year of their deals.
While Toronto’s Game Seven collapse was bitter, let’s not lose sight of their opponent. The Boston Bruins are a battle-hardened squad, one that knows what it takes to win, whereas the majority of Toronto’s players were getting their first sniff of playoff hockey. Their mistakes simply come down to inexperience.
Still, the Maple Leafs sacrificed and played with a lot of guts for the entirety of this match-up, pushing the Bruins with their physicality and youthful exuberance.
Boston can relate to Toronto’s current feelings, as they were shocked by the Philadelphia Flyers three years ago. Up 3-0 in their Eastern Conference semifinal series, they were in complete control before losing the next four games, including the deciding one after building a three-goal cushion.
Their players and fans felt just as miserable in the aftermath, if not more so.
Like all great teams though, the Bruins gained knowledge from their mishap and returned stronger the next year, winning the Stanley Cup and on their way, getting a measure of revenge by sweeping the Flyers.
It may not seem like it now, but this is a harsh postseason lesson that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ players will benefit from in the future, which is suddenly looking bright for the club.