The Colorado Avalanche have dethroned the Tampa Bay Lightning as they are the 2021-22 Stanley Cup Champions.
While the Avalanche went 16-4 in the post season, getting to this point wasn’t easy as they have faced their own struggles to achieve hockey greatness. Since the Nathan MacKinnon era started, there was a revolving door of coaches, lineup changes and playoff defeat.
The Toronto Maple Leafs look to be in the same situation as the Avalanche were before they powered through to win the most difficult trophy in pro sports. Although they’re at different points in achieving success, both teams share some similarities in dealing with failure and coming out on top. The Maple Leafs could easily look to follow the Avalanche’s path of success.
Adversity and Struggles
Everyone likes to point to the Maple Leafs’ struggles in the playoffs, but the Avalanche have had their fair share of disappointment; both in the regular season and in the playoffs.
They missed out on the playoffs multiple times with their new found core with MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and the addition of Mikko Rantanen later on. When they made the playoffs, they still faced their low points even when expectations were sky high and were considered the favourites to win. The Avalanche have made it past the first round, but there were multiple second round exits. They came close to advancing to the Finals in 2019-20, but they lost to the Dallas Stars in the playoff bubble.
The Maple Leafs were the favourites against the Columbus Blue Jackets that season but lost to the Montreal Canadiens in 2020-21.
What stands out the most where maybe a major change should’ve happened, was the 2016-17 season as the Avalanche finished dead last in the league. That alone would’ve been enough to make massive changes. They didn’t win the draft lottery, but ended up winning the draft as they drafted Cale Makar fourth overall. They’re already reaping the rewards from that selection, but still they faced disappointment and their loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round of the 2020-21 playoffs served as a tipping point.
MacKinnon wasn’t shy as he expressed his disappointment as he came up empty handed going into his ninth season.
The Maple Leafs star players in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner expressed their frustration after their loss to the Lightning as their dissatisfaction and emotion started to show like that of MacKinnon’s.
If there’s one thing to take from all of this, it’s that the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team to go through tough stretches and face disappointment with a talented lineup. Yes, everyone wants to see results, especially for a fan base that hasn’t seen a championship since 1967. Nothing comes easy in this league and you have to earn it.
The Maple Leafs are already in the same boat as MacKinnon and the Avalanche were as they’re looking to channel that anger and frustration into success. They’re currently in that phase where they keep inching closer to finding success, but still end up on the losing end. Going through this adversity and struggle is all part of the process. While it may seem like it’s taking the Maple Leafs longer, teams that go through these stretches eventually come out on top.
MacKinnon won in his ninth season. Landeskog won in his 11th season. Andrew Cogliano, a 15-year veteran, finally got his opportunity.
Compare that to Matthews and Marner, they’re in their sixth season. Tavares is in his 13th and Mark Giordano is in his 16th. Both teams have a mix of youngsters and veterans who want to achieve success. Winning a championship doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long and difficult path to get to. The Avalanche and its players endured it, the Maple Leafs are doing it now as it’s up to them to dig deep and put forth the effort to do so.
Patience is Key
Even though they haven’t had any success and have had their struggles in the post season, the Maple Leafs are running it back with the core after their playoff loss to the Lightning. As many are calling for change, including myself with a possible “Summer of Kawhi” move, sometimes the best decision isn’t making a major move at all.
With the struggles the Avalanche have faced in the past, they easily could’ve made significant changes after struggling to try and get past the second round of the playoffs. But they didn’t. The Avalanche’s star players remained. They had to wait a little while longer, they finally achieved hockey greatness with a dominating team performance. Even the Lightning had to lose before they found success.
The Maple Leafs are now in the same boat as the Avalanche in regards to still facing defeat and being on the wrong end of things. There were the highs where they were close to ending a series, but the lows remain as they endured a heartbreaking loss. They have an MVP in Matthews and a top-10 player in Marner. While they don’t have an elite defender like Makar, the Maple Leafs have strong depth and stability on the backend with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano.
When the Maple Leafs were eliminated, it definitely hit harder than previous defeats. You can see the emotion on Matthews’ face at how close they were to moving on and dethroning the back-to-back Cup champions. This team had their hearts set on a deep run. Though facing the Lightning is no easy feat as we saw this time around. Much like MacKinnon after their loss to the Golden Knights, Matthews’ post game comments in 2022 might be what this team needed to turn things around and get this team over their current playoff woes.
If every team that went through tough stretches during the playoffs had made rash changes after constant disappointment, they probably would be further away from being a contender than where they already were. Sticking to what you already have and a new found mentality will go along way as it makes them more motivated. That’s what the Avalanche did and that’s what the Maple Leafs are doing.
As much as fans are continuing to see disappointment every season, by taking the patient approach like the Avalanche, the payoff would be tremendous.
Finding Another Gear and Continuing to Build
As management has already stated, they’re sticking with this core group as they have the utmost confidence in them. The Maple Leafs need to continue finding that extra gear and continue to build a championship team like the Avalanche have had over the years. The key pieces are in place, but it’s building around them and adding the right players that continues to be the challenge.
The Maple Leafs are a few pieces with killer instinct away from being where the Avalanche are. The Avalanche brought in Cogliano, Josh Manson and Artturi Lehkonen at the trade deadline. All of which were difference makers and pushed the Avalanche over the top in their Cup run, more notably Lehkonen.
The Avalanche did make some tough moves over the years like trading Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot to bring in pieces that led to this moment. The Maple Leafs could make a move or two that move players out and bring in significant pieces that can have a profound impact.
The Avalanche did a great job trading and signing players. The Maple Leafs signed some key pieces in Michael Bunting, David Kampf and Ondrej Kase last offseason and brought in Giordano at the trade deadline. While they were great moves, they need more help in regards to their middle-six as Sakic addressed that perfectly.
While the Maple Leafs have made moves, some of them haven’t panned in the past. Bringing in Ilya Lyubushkin made them more physical and Mark Giordano brought in a steady and veteran defensive presence. Giordano remains after signing a two-year, $1.6 million contract, but general manager Kyle Dubas needs to continue bringing in high value and impact players at the deadline in order to make a deep run like what Joe Sakic has done with his team. The Maple Leafs have assets, it’s time to continue paying those prices for success. They have talent up front and the key defensemen look to be returning for the 2022-23 season.
Whether Jack Campbell remains with the team for next season, he showed that he can go head-to-head with the best goaltenders in the league as he almost bested Andrei Vasilevskiy. In the series, Campbell had a slightly better goals against average (2.43) and save percentage (.915) than Vasilevskiy (2.47, .913) at five-on-five.
Kuemper overall in the playoffs had a 2.57 GAA and a .902 SV%. Kuemper isn’t an elite goaltender like Vasilevskiy, but still managed to put up an impressive run. Above average goaltending is needed and Kuemper was fantastic for the Avalanche after dealing with injuries throughout the post season. Campbell has shown that down the stretch and into the playoffs that he can provide the goaltending needed to succeed when the team in front of him is on their game.
There still needs to be some tinkering and tough decisions with the roster in regards to the defense and goaltending, but Dubas has the utmost faith in his core, much like Sakic showed with his current group. Showing that faith instils the belief that the players can get the job done. After a disappointing playoff exit in 2021, the Maple Leafs showed that they can play at their best and give the best teams a run for their money in the 2022 playoffs.
Could this postseason be the start of the Maple Leafs turn-around like it was for the Avalanche last season? If they look to the Avalanche at how long it takes to gain success, they need to be patient and stick to the plan as their time will come.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.