For the first time in 21 years, the Toronto Maple Leafs are division champions. They are heading to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth straight season. Toronto has remained at the top of the North Division since mid-January. At times, the Maple Leafs extended their lead in the standings to nine points.
Despite an outstanding season and having the NHL’s leading scorer in Auston Matthews, there is still a lot of uncertainty heading into the postseason. I was invited on THW Live with other writers from division leaders to discuss some burning questions.
Are the Maple Leafs Healthy Enough for a Playoff Run?
Toronto was never healthy this season. I don’t believe Frederik Andersen was ever 100%, and his numbers showed it. He finally got put on injured reserve back on March 19. He is undergoing a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League, and a return to the team for the playoffs is questionable. Nick Foligno and Zach Hyman are on the shelf but expected back in time for game one. While Zach Bogosian is nursing a shoulder injury and is expected to miss the first week of the playoffs. Riley Nash, acquired days before the trade deadline, remains on the injured list. However, he is likely to play his first game for Toronto any day now.
The biggest question for the Maple Leafs has been and will continue to be the goaltender situation. Jack Campbell has played exceptionally well, but he has been dealing with injuries throughout the season. That said, Sheldon Keefe said he wants to be forced to make a difficult decision. He is confident in the depth of the position with the acquisition of David Rittich at the deadline. Keefe also seems sure Andersen will return.
Kyle Dubas has said teams lose an average of one player per round of the playoffs. Toronto has been working their taxi squad, or as Keefe calls it the ‘Stay Ready’ players all season. This practice will pay off by having a lot of depth ready to go for a deep playoff run. Dubas did not touch the main roster at the trade deadline. At the same time, he added three forwards (Foligno, Nash, Stefan Noesen), a defenceman (Ben Hutton) and a goalie (Rittich).
How Do the Maple Leafs Overcome a History of Poor Playoff Performances?
As host Mark Scheig asked this question, the other contributors were hiding their chuckles and grins. There is no hiding from the record, four straight disappointing results in the playoffs. At this point, anything less than a third-round appearance would be a failure. I told the panel it’s a new team. Despite some of those players going through those four disappointments, there are new guys on the team. These new guys and leaders like Foligno, Joe Thornton, and Wayne Simmonds will keep the other players focused.
At times this season, the Leafs have run away with the division and put together significant winning streaks. Nevertheless, they would fall back to earth and into a rut. As soon as a team would get within striking range, Toronto would string together several wins again. This team needs to be challenged to play their best, which will be advantageous in the playoffs.
How Do the Maple Leafs Close the Deal and Win the Cup?
Full disclosure, I have picked the Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup every season. However, I’m confident I won’t be giving my money away in playoff pools this year. I outlined my reasons to the panel. They include an excellent trade deadline performance by Dubas. The depth at every position and the character of the team. Toronto has proven to be the cream of the crop in the North Division. That said, they should win the first two rounds – after that, it is unchartered waters.
Another reason is Auston Matthews. Of course, there are the goals, but he has played the game at another level at times this season. Toronto had also performed well when their top scorer was out of the lineup. This is evidence that Keefe’s game plan, when the players execute it, is sound. Toronto’s roster and results indicate they are closer to being a champion than any other time in recent history, and perhaps all the way back to 1967.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.