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The Maple Leafs Lost Again – What Now?

The Toronto Maple Leafs lost another Game 7. Now, their future is entirely uncertain.
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What happens now? 

The Maple Leafs lost. Again. Another Game 7. Their sixth consecutive do-or-die playoff defeat of the current era, and 10th consecutive failed opportunity to close out their opponent. 

The deepest roster the franchise has ever iced, blessed with home-ice advantage, up against the team that has played more hockey than anyone over the past two years, couldn't get it done. Again. 

Not for a lack of trying, of course. The Maple Leafs pushed the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions to the brink, unleashing an onslaught of offensive pressure throughout all three periods and ultimately falling one horrendously called-back goal away from sending tonight's game to overtime. 

But the Leafs aren't in the hypotheticals business. They're in the winning business. And, once again, they have nothing to show for it. 

"We're sick and tired of feeling like this," said Mitch Marner following the game, fighting back tears as he reflected on a season that featured towering highs and, in the end, cavernous lows. 

"The feeling is the same. The outcome is the same" offered Morgan Rielly, a veteran of more of these playoff disappointments than any other Leaf. 

It shouldn't have ended like this. Not with midseason roster reinforcements like Mark Giordano and Colin Blackwell assimilating so seamlessly. Not with Jack Campbell going toe-to-toe with a multi-Vezina-winner for most of the series. Not with the raucous Scotiabank Arena crowd to lift them on home ice, fuelled by a city that was just starting to cautiously fall back in love with the team that had spurned them countless times before. 

Hockey isn't fair. And tonight proved it -- handing an unworthy ending to a worthy team that now thrusts the future into complete uncertainty. 

Which means the question remains: What happens now? 

After yet another loss, the knee-jerk reaction is to want heads to roll. Most will likely want to start with a member of the team's core of players that have failed to get over the hump for more than a half-decade. Perhaps they'll instead focus on the coach that has guided them to three straight season-ending defeats. Some may raise their scalpels even higher, calling for a complete gutting of the management group that has served as the architects all along. 

The passion is understandable. But it's misguided. 

How can you not run this Leafs team back? 

Despite year after year and loss after loss, this current (and now former) iteration of the Toronto Maple Leafs came achingly close to something special. 

The stars showed up when it mattered. Auston Matthews became the first NHLer to score 60 goals since Steve Stamkos, who ended the night celebrating at the opposite end of the rink, did so a decade ago, and ended the series with nine points in seven games. Marner flirted with 100 points in the regular season while further establishing his defensive prowess and skill as a penalty killer. William Nylander reached career-highs in goals and points. Campbell emerged as a quality starter. John Tavares maintained a point-per-game pace through the season and into the playoffs. Michael Bunting went from an unknown to a top-line Calder nominee on a sweetheart deal. Even Pierre Engvall had a coming-out party, resurrecting his status within the Leafs organization and thrusting himself to the top of the team's RFA priority list. 

The list goes on and on. 

There are reasons to be optimistic for next season, even. 

The Maple Leafs will likely have a fully healthy Rasmus Sandin back to log increasingly meaningful minutes alongside Timothy Liljegren, who took a quantum leap in his development this season and seems poised to become an impact defender at the NHL level. Bunting and David Kampf are under contract to return at a combined $2.45 million cap hit. Engvall and Kase are RFAs who likely won't cost a king's ransom to re-sign. The blueline's entire top-four is slated to return. 

These are good things. 

But there are also choices to make. Hard ones. 

Despite the organization's repeated messaging that they believe in Justin Holl, the 30-year-old's cap hit and declining play this season makes him a likely candidate to move in the summer, possibly opening up room for one Liljegren or Sandin to slide into the top-four. 

Giordano and Blackwell played so well after arriving at the trade deadline, each giving the roster exactly what it needed in their respective roles. But as veteran unrestricted free agents, it remains to be seen whether the Maple Leafs can afford to keep them. Giordano will be 39 when the puck drops in 2022-23. Will he still be the same player? 

Jason Spezza will also be 39 on opening day and is coming off his lowest-scoring full season since 2003, watching the first two games of the series from the press box as a healthy scratch. Whether Spezza will re-sign is beside the point. The real question is whether he factors into the Leafs' plans moving forward, with his age-related decline starting to take hold as the Leafs' stable of forward prospects begin to push for roster spots. 

If Spezza were to return, would he be holding a deserving young player back? 

And then there's Petr Mrazek, forgotten in all this mess, who still remains on Toronto's books for the next two years at a $3.8 million annual price tag that management would assuredly rather funnel into a new contract for Campbell. 

There's a very real possibility that Mrazek reports to training camp as a Maple Leaf when it opens in September while Campbell finds employment elsewhere. And while that wouldn't be quite the disaster that losing yet another Game 7 on home ice is, it would be close. 

The easiest way for the Leafs to answer all these questions would have been to keep winning, pushing any uncomfortable decisions further into the future while softening their blows with a Stanley Cup parade. 

Of course, that didn't happen. Now the Maple Leafs must face them head-on, with Sheldon Keefe relaying that he and Kyle Dubas will meet on Sunday to unpack the season and plan for the year ahead. 

The conversations that will take place over the coming months will be uncomfortable and grating. As they should be, especially after an outcome like this. 

But one thing is for certain: Shanahan, Dubas, Keefe, etc. should be the ones having them. At least for one more year. 

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