A Return to Play: How the Maple Leafs Stack Up Against the Blue Jackets

Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fans, there’s news. The NHL has proposed a 24-team “bracketed” playoff structure to the players and teams. And, if all the issues can be worked out, the plan will eventually lead to the NHL awarding a Stanley Cup.

Although a variety of details and approvals must be ironed out, on May 22 the players association voted to give a green light for continued talks. In short, they agreed the plan was workable.

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Specifically, the NHLPA Executive Board authorized further negotiations with the NHL over how a 24-team return to play scenario would play out. The exact wording went like this: “The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup.”

There’s still plenty of conversation to have, but the speed of the NHLPA’s approval for the plan seems to suggest that there’s at least a possibility these conversations won’t be immediately grounded in the minutia of details.

How Does the Proposal Look for Each Conference?

In making the decisions about who plays whom, the NHL agreed on a format where each conference’s teams were organized based on points percentage. The plan calls for four top seeds and then includes a play-in round contested between seeds 5-12 in each conference. The top four seeded teams in the West and the top four in the East would be given byes from competing in the first round, but would likely play each other before the playoffs begin (although that remains part of the conversation).

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In the East, the Boston Bruins (1st in East), Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd), Washington Capitals (3rd), Philadelphia Flyers (4th) would all have byes for the play-in round. In the West, the St. Louis Blues (1st in West), Colorado Avalanche (2nd), Vegas Golden Knights (3rd) and Dallas Stars (4th) would all have byes for the play-in round.

Pat Maroon, Alex Pietrangelo
Last season’s Cup-winning St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo hands the Stanley Cup to Pat Maroon during the Blues’ Stanley Cup celebration. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Under the proposal, the Eastern Conference opening round would look like this:

Seed #5. Pittsburgh vs. Seed #12. Montreal (winner plays the fourth seed)
Seed #6. Carolina vs. Seed #11. Rangers (winner plays the third seed)
Seed #7. Islanders vs. Seed #10. Florida (winner plays the second seed)
Seed #8. Toronto vs. Seed #9. Columbus (winner plays the first seed)

And the Western Conference opening round would be as follows:

Seed #5. Edmonton vs. Seed #12. Chicago (winner plays the fourth seed)
Seed #6. Nashville vs. Seed #11. Arizona (winner plays the third seed)
Seed #7. Vancouver vs. Seed #10. Minnesota (winner plays the second seed)
Seed #8. Calgary vs. Seed #9. Winnipeg (winner plays the first seed)

The play-in round would be a best-of-five. From there, each round would be a best-of-seven series. Similar to the NCAA’s March Madness-style bracket system, there will be no re-seeding once the playoffs begin.

Obviously, this proposal only deals with the format. It has not yet engaged such serious issues as medical procedures and testing, cross-border travel, hub cities, etc. Those are serious issues; however, I can’t imagine the NHL would proceed unless it thought solutions might be possible. In the end, although there’s much to talk about on all fronts, this plan is the closest the NHL has come to moving toward a Stanley Cup-ending season.

How Do the Maple Leafs Stack Up vs the Columbus Blue Jackets?

As noted above, the proposed plan calls for a first-round, play-in series where the Maple Leafs face the Columbus Blue Jackets. If that happens, how will the Maple Leafs stack up against the team from Ohio?

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First, hockey is hockey. There are always upsets; but, of course you don’t have to tell the Blue Jackets. And that’s exactly what Blue Jackets’ head coach John Tortorella will remind his team. During the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, his team pulled the upset of the decade when it derailed the vaunted Tampa Bay Lightning from their own playoff mission.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Second, playoffs – especially ones as odd as this season might be – are always subject to hot goalies. If a goalie gets hot, who knows what will happen? From the Blue Jackets’ perspective, goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were a fantastic duo during the regular season. However, the prevailing wisdom is that regular-season starts are more easily rotated than playoff starts.

Would Tortorella continue to rotate goalies? Or, would he choose one of his two goalies for the playoffs? And, if he decides on one, which goalie would he send between the nets in Game 1 against the Maple Leafs?

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, if things happen as they should, that goalie conversation is moot. The Blue Jackets are in tough against the Maple Leafs. Toronto might simply be the best team playing in the play-in round and certainly has the offensive firepower to tear apart even the Blue Jackets’ respectable defense.

Although both Toronto and Columbus finished the regular season with the same point total (81 in 70 games) that doesn’t make the match-up as even as it sounds. Mark Nov. 21 on the calendar, which was the team’s first game playing for new head coach Sheldon Keefe. Since that date, the Maple Leafs were a new team that played a different game than it did under former head coach Mike Babcock.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

After Keefe took over, the Maple Leafs were the eighth-best team in the NHL. And that happened even after sustaining some of the worst injury luck of any NHL team during 2019-20. As both teams face the play-ins, it matters that the Maple Leafs are – with the exception of Andreas Johnsson – completely healed. That, in my mind, puts their talent a notch higher than the Blue Jackets.

Why the Edge Goes to the Maple Leafs

Here’s four reasons why I give the edge to the Maple Leafs in a five-game series:

Point one: The Maple Leafs have a core of fantastic NHL players in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander (who’s been great in summer hockey), Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly.

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Point two: Frederik Andersen is a better goalie than anyone the Blue Jackets can put between the pipes.

Point three: The Maple Leafs start the playoffs without (except for Johnsson) injury. That’s a first for the season.

Point four: There’s the psychology of facing the Boston Bruins again in round two. Although the entire workings of the playoffs have not yet been settled, there’s a possibility that the design of the play-ins pits the winner of the Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets series against the Bruins. That’s all Maple Leafs fans need to know. I believe the players are hungry to have another go at the Bruins.

What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?

Although I usually end my posts with this question, it’s been a bit difficult for the past two months. Today, there’s something to look forward to. That said, the NHL has a plan but there’s no promise the league can pull that plan off. So many things must be settled that it seems the NHL and the NHLPA will be playing Whac-A-Mole with those issues for the next while.

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For Maple Leafs fans, if these issues are engaged and beaten down and the play-ins actually begin, obviously there’s no guarantee the better team will win the playoffs. The Blue Jackets proved that before. And five-game series prize underdogs.

All that said, if you’re a hockey fan but are upset with the format, TSN’s Maple Leafs commentator Kristen Shilton put it nicely when she tweeted that hockey’s like pizza, even if it’s not from your favorite place, it’s always good.

Maple Leafs fans, it might be time for pizza.