5 Keys for a Long Maple Leafs’ Playoff Run

The 2021-22 version of the Stanley Cup playoffs kicks off next Monday. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be attempting to get past the first round of the postseason for the first time since 2004 when the Pat Quinn-coached team captained by Mats Sundin defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games to advance to the second round. That was as far as the team would go; and, they lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games during round two.

Related: 3 Reasons the Maple Leafs Will Make a Long Postseason Run

Getting past the first round this season will not be easy. The most likely competition they will meet is the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. If Tampa Bay falters, there’s a chance the Maple Leafs could be their arch-nemesis Boston Bruins. Either way, the team will be in tough winning the first round.

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For the Maple Leafs to get past either the Lightning or the Bruins, we feel five key things need to happen.  

Key #1 Their Maple Leafs’ best players must be their best players.

It’s old news by now that the Maple Leafs have the most expensive top-four players in the NHL. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander have a collective cap hit of $40.5 million, or 49.7 percent of the team’s total cap hit.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Those four players have also accounted for 154 of the team’s 310 goals to date this season. Ironically, that’s 49.7 percent of the Maple Leafs’ goals in the regular season. And, those are only the goals that have come directly off of their sticks. Those top-four players have also dished out a total of 117 primary assists and 203 total assists between them.  

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If we add Morgan Rielly to the group, because he’s the Maple Leafs’ most productive defenseman, we’d add his 10 goals, 31 primary assists, and 57 total assists to the group. We then get a group of five players who have accounted for 164 goals (or 52.9% of the team’s 310 goals), 148 primary assists, and 260 total assists.

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Without looking at each goal, we don’t know how many of the Maple Leafs’ total goals those five players have had a hand in. We do know that it’s well over half and most likely somewhere around 60 percent of the team’s total goal production.

For the Maple Leafs to have an extended playoff run, those five players must be their best five players.  

Key #2:  Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander must stay healthy.

Key #2 goes hand-in-hand with Key #1. For those players to be their best players, they need to be playing. We saw John Tavares go down in the first period of Game 1 of the postseason against the Montreal Canadiens last season. That allowed the Canadiens to key on the Matthews and Marner line. While Nylander, Alex Kerfoot, and Jason Spezza all played well and took up some of the slack, they were not able to overcome the loss of Tavares.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The team might be able to survive the loss of Morgan Rielly. They are deeper on defense than they’ve ever been since the advent of the salary cap. Still, losing Rielly would be a serious blow to the Maple Leafs. Serious injuries could derail the entire journey.

The team would most likely not be able to overcome the loss of any of their top four forwards.

Key #3  Maple Leafs players outside the top five must have strong playoff series.

Like Kerfoot and Spezza did in the last postseason, the Maple Leafs need one or two other players to step up and have a strong playoff series. There are a number of players that could do that.  

Related: Maple Leafs: It’s Time to Sweat the Small Stuff

Take Jason Spezza, for example. After having a quiet season with extended stretches where he was not effective at all, he’s stepped his game up a notch this past week. After tallying only two points in his previous 20 games, Spezza has points in four games in a row and would have had five if not for a close offside.

Players like Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, Alex Kerfoot, or Michael Bunting – if he’s healthy enough to play – all have had career seasons and could step up in the postseason.

Michael Bunting Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For the Maple Leafs to have a deep run, one or more of those players must repeat their regular-season success in the playoffs.

Key #4  The Maple Leafs’ depth players must hold their own.

Because this team is so top-heavy on offense, along with the players in Keys #1 and #2 staying healthy and being their best players, the rest of the skaters need not outplay the opposition. They just need to play as well as the opposition. 

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The Maple Leafs can’t afford the third or fourth lines to give up whatever goals advantage the top two lines give them. Fortunately, this team has better depth players than in any other seasons we recall. This playoffs will be the time to see them play well.

#5  The Maple Leafs need competent goaltending.

As we mentioned in Key #2, the Maple Leafs have more depth on defense than they’ve had in a long time. A healthy Jake Muzzin is almost looked at as a bonus this season, whereas last season his injury might have been considered to be the final nail in the Maple Leafs’ coffin. Barring a complete defensive collapse, the Maple Leafs should be able to limit the opposition’s high danger scoring chances and help the goalie(s) be successful.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If that is the case, they need their goaltender, be it Jack Campbell, Erik Kallgren, or Petr Mrazek, to stop the shots any competent NHL goalie should stop, especially when it counts. Every postseason, we’ve seen pucks get past a goalie that should have never gotten past them. Sadly, that’s been the case most noticeably in elimination games.  

That cannot happen.  

The Maple Leafs don’t need Campbell to be as good as Carey Price was last year, or even as good as Campbell himself was back in November of this season. He, or whoever replaces him if something happens, must simply be competent.

Another Early Playoff Exit Would Be a Major Blow to the Franchise

Before this season even began and before a single Maple Leafs’ player stepped onto the ice at training camp, the final assessment on the season was clear. This team’s season would be judged by how it performed in the playoffs. 

One more first-round loss, regardless of how talented the competition might be, would be a major blow to the franchise and to the way this team is built. 

Related: 4 Reasons Why This Could Be the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup Season

For the Maple Leafs to go on an extended playoff run, all five of the above-mentioned keys need to happen. Even failing in one of those areas could be enough to prevent the Maple Leafs from advancing to the second round.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]