In a time of unprecedented circumstances, the NHL has taken unique steps as part of a plan to crown a Stanley Cup champion for the 2019-20 NHL season. The new 24-team format was announced by the NHL on June 4 and involves a 16-team play-in round. With a lot of unique variables in play, can the Toronto Maple Leafs benefit from this never-before-seen NHL Playoffs?
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Since playoff seeding was calculated by points percentage, the Maple Leafs have been ranked eighth in the Eastern Conference and will play the ninth-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets in a best of five play-in series. This draw immediately had some Maple Leafs fans worried since the Blue Jackets took out the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lighting in four games in a shocking first-round sweep during the 2019 playoffs.
Although the Blue Jackets no longer have stars Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene, the team has been performing quite well. The defensive structure led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski has made the Blue Jackets one of the best at keeping pucks out of their net.
Goaltenders Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo were both enjoying breakout seasons before the regular season was cut short — they could ultimately represent the most important factor in this series. During the regular season, Korpisalo and Merzlikins drastically outperformed the Maple Leafs goaltending duo of Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell. If the Maple Leafs can get Andersen at the top of his game, they should be able to find a way to win this series.
Statistically, the Maple Leafs are a much better offensive team than the Blue Jackets — they score a lot of goals and the Blue Jackets do not, it is that simple. The Maple Leafs had the sixth-best power play percentage and were also third in the NHL in goals per game, compared to the Blue Jackets at the fifth-worst power play and fourth-worst goals per game. This is a very lopsided matchup when it comes to offensive production, and the Maple Leafs will have to lean on this imbalance in order to be successful.
That being said, the Maple Leafs also allow a lot of goals, so if one (or more) of the Blue Jackets’ netminders find a way to shut down this high-powered offence, we could see a very interesting playoff series. Ultimately, the Maple Leafs will have a very competitive first series and do not directly benefit from drawing Columbus as their opponent.
NHL Early Season Style of Play
Although approximately 70 games of each team’s NHL regular season have been played, no team has played a game since early March. By the time play resumes, it will have been an entire offseason worth of time passed. Usually when a season resumes, there is a long training camp and preseason process that involves games to prepare players for the upcoming season. This time, players will be thrown into playoff hockey with just a short training camp after four months of no hockey.
Early season hockey can be quite entertaining, filled with defensive breakdowns, odd-man rushes and sloppy penalties. The Maple Leafs are one of the best power play and overall best offensive teams in the NHL. This style of play could definitely benefit the Maple Leafs, as their various skilled players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander (just to name a few) could take advantage of turnovers and power plays that may come as a result of “early season” hockey.
Maple Leafs Could Get Competitive Edge
Because of the amount of time since the last NHL game was played, the 16 teams in the play-in round could have a serious competitive advantage over those playing in the seeding round. While the top four teams in each conference are playing games, they will not have nearly the same competitive nature as a best of five, “do or die” series that the other teams are playing.
The top teams already have their first-round spot secured, so it will be interesting to see if the momentum the winning play-in teams bring to the first round will be enough to get them past the top teams. This definitely works in the Maple Leafs’ favour. With such a young team, any real playoff experience is good experience. Some young players like Justin Holl, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin have been leaned on pretty heavily this year, but do not have much playoff experience. If they can get past the first round and have some of their younger players more comfortable in a playoff atmosphere, we could see them become a force to be reckoned with.
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Overall, this format does seem to play into the Maple Leafs’ hands. Obviously, this first-round series is a tough matchup for the Maple Leafs and it all comes done to whether or not they are ready and in shape for playoff hockey. But looking at some of the intangibles surrounding these unique circumstances, it seems this is shaping up be one of the most wide-open NHL Playoffs we have seen to date.