Hockey fans are ecstatic as NHL teams have resumed practicing ahead of the expected August 1st season restart. Some important pieces are falling into place for the Toronto Maple Leafs, as star Auston Matthews has recovered from COVID-19, some key injuries have been given time to heal, and Jason Spezza’s hands look as good as ever.
With the Maple Leafs set to resume play in their own Scotiabank Arena against the Columbus Blue Jackets on August 2nd, it is time to breakdown who needs to step up to win their best-of-five play-in series.
Maple Leafs Carried by Stars
There is no question the Maple Leafs have some firepower. Matthews and other offensive stars, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares combined for 120 goals and 266 points in 260 games before the season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. While no one is worried about what their superstars can do offensively, the drop off in production after their big four is concerning.
The 34 other players who have suited up in a Maple Leafs uniform this season have combined for just 117 goals, and if you remove Zach Hyman from that group the total drops to just 96 While the Maple Leafs’ top four have been able to carry the offence thus far, the Blue Jackets may present a tough challenge for their superstars.
Blue Jackets Tight Defensive Structure
We all remember what happened last year when the Blue Jackets played the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella’s tight defensive structure and gritty coaching habits wore down the Lighting’s skill players, holding them to just eight goals in four games. This was far below their season average of 3.96 goals per game. For an in-depth comparison of the similarities between last season’s first-round series and the play-in round this year, check out Pete Bauer’s article for The Hockey Writers.
The Blue Jackets were playing a similar style this season, as they allowed only 183 goals in 70 games, tied with the Arizona Coyotes for third in the NHL behind only the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins. The Maple Leafs have allowed 222 goals during the same span, placing them at an abysmal 25th in the NHL. The Blue Jackets have been very effective at limiting shots on goal and keeping the puck out of their net.
One of the key reasons they are so strong defensively is their powerhouse top defensive pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Jones has quickly established himself as one of the NHL’s premier defenders, and his 25+ minutes per game make him a nuisance for the opposition’s stars. Jones will have to play a big role in this best-of-five series if the Blue Jackets hope to get through the Maple Leafs.
The Blue Jackets have also had some spectacular goaltending this season. The tandem of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo provides them with the luxury of goaltending options heading into the shortened play-in series. If one has a bad game, you have a trusted “1a and 1b” goaltender to fill the void.
Both goalies finished the season top-20 in the NHL in goals-against average, with Merzlikins adding a remarkable .923 save percentage and five shutouts in his shortened rookie season.
Key Players Outside Big Four
In order for the Maple Leafs to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth straight season, they are going to need help from their supporting cast. Although their depth players have the skill, numbers were not in their favour before the early end to the regular season.
Kapanen has unbelievable speed, but he has not been able to generate the scoring chances he has in the past. This season, he averaged a full shot fewer per game compared to last, which has been reflected in his goal production. He had just 13 goals in the regular season, and only five since Nov. 30, 2019. The Maple Leafs need some scoring support from players that won’t be matched up with Jones and Werenski, and Kapanen should be expected to produce.
Alexander Kerfoot is another player whose offensive production has been a disappointment. With just one goal in the last 21 games of the regular season, his numbers are far lower than what the Maple Leafs were expecting when they acquired him from the Colorado Avalanche.
He could end up playing with Kapanen on a line that should have some nice matchups while the Blue Jackets’ key checkers will likely focus on the Maple Leafs’ big four.
Rielly, Muzzin and Mikheyev
The last key to the Maple Leafs’ depth is players returning from injury. Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Ilya Mikheyev all missed significant time this season and no one has been entirely healthy since the season started. Adding these players back to the roster allows another player like Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, or Pierre Engvall to slot in a little further down the lineup, likely resulting in more favourable matchups.
A bit of a wildcard among their depth forwards is 18-year-old forward and Maple Leafs second-round draft pick Nick Robertson. He had 55 goals and 86 points in just 46 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes and was selected by general manager Kyle Dubas to join the team’s Return to Play roster. While there is nothing set in stone, Robertson will participate in training camp and could add the bottom-six scoring touch the Maple Leafs have been starving for.
No matter who steps up for the Maple Leafs, it’s crucial they find a way around the Blue Jackets’ tight-checking defensive style and strong goaltending. We all know the Maple Leafs have the firepower, but we will have to wait and see whether it’s checking and grit or speed and skill that come out on top. Game One of the best-of-five series will take place on August 2nd in Toronto.