As we inch closer to the qualifying rounds, teams are preparing for Aug. 1. While we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto offer reassurance that the players will be in a safe environment where cases are on the decline.
With everyone’s safety in mind, fans are hoping that the NHL’s Return to Play plan will work out and that they’ll get to see hockey for the first time since the season was suspended in March.
This is also a chance for the Toronto Maple Leafs to prepare for what could be the most difficult road to a championship. In a season in which the team’s coach was fired, their players suffered multiple injuries and the world suffered a pandemic, the Maple Leafs could pave their way to a Stanley Cup.
The journey starts with facing the Columbus Blue Jackets in the play-in round. While this isn’t the same Blue Jackets team that ousted the Tampa Bay Lightning in four games in the playoffs last year, they are still a very good team that will challenge the Maple Leafs. With the intensity amped up, here are three important headlines to get you ready for the series against the Blue Jackets.
Much Needed Time Off to Heal
The Maple Leafs were battered by and riddled with injuries from the beginning of the season and had limited time with their full roster. There were a few moments when everyone was healthy, but those were short-lived. Here’s a list of injuries when players missed a significant amount of time this season:
|Zach Hyman||Knee surgery||min. six months||19|
|John Tavares||Broken finger||two weeks||7|
|Mitch Marner||Ankle||min. four weeks||11|
|Ilya Mikheyev||Wrist laceration||three months||31|
|Jake Muzzin||Broken foot||week to week||10|
|Andreas Johnsson||Leg injury||a month||15|
|Cody Ceci||High- ankle sprain||a month||14|
|Morgan Rielly||Fractured foot||eight weeks||23|
|Andreas Johnsson||Knee surgery||Six months||12|
|Jake Muzzin||Broken Hand||four weeks||6 (before season was paused)|
That is a long list of major injuries that the Maple Leafs endured this season. We know every team goes through injuries, but this season, the Maple Leafs couldn’t stay healthy. The number of man-games lost by their regulars meant a lot of holes to fill in their lineup with countless call-ups.
After a three-month pause in the season, everyone has had extra time to fully heal and be ready for training camp and the qualifying play-in round. While the pause impacted everyone, it was a blessing for the Maple Leafs to have this time for their key players to be 100 percent. This is especially good for Rielly who’s had an inconsistent season, Muzzin who endured back-to-back injuries, and for Mikheyev, who was exceeding expectations as a rookie, and who has been out since December with a serious laceration on his hand.
The same can be said of the Blue Jackets who will have Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Seth Jones, among others, returning from injuries and will be ready for when the qualifying round begins.
Offense vs. Defense
If there’s one thing to take note of in this series, it’s the Maple Leafs’ high-octane offense against the very sound and stingy defense of the Blue Jackets. The Maple Leafs can overpower the Blue Jackets in terms of offensive production, but the Blue Jackets can make up for the offense they lost in the offseason with a smart and balanced defense.
THW’s Blue Jackets writer Pete Bauer wrote an excellent in-depth statistical analysis of the play-in series between the two teams, breaking down their advanced statistics in the process. According to Bauer, the matchup in terms of puck possession favours the Maple Leafs.
In Bauer’s analysis, the Maple Leafs have an edge in Corsi percentage (51.57%), scoring chances for (2,149), high danger shots for (620) and high danger goals for (132). With the players they have upfront, you’d expect them to be leading in those departments. In addition, their 237 goals for rank second in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning and third at five-on-five (158).
On the flip side, the Blue Jackets have done an excellent job of limiting the number of chances and goals against throughout the season. Leading their blue line is Jones, Ryan Murray, David Savard, Markus Nutivaara and Zach Werenski. Columbus can shut it down in their own end, not just with their defense but with their forwards as well.
The Blue Jackets have the advantage in mitigating shots and chances against, as their stats are significantly lower than the Maple Leafs’ numbers. The Blue Jackets rank fourth in goals against (GA) with 183 and sixth at five-on-five (122) compared to the Maple Leafs who rank 25th with 222 GA and 28th at five-on-five with 157.
The Maple Leafs’ defense is weak compared to the Blue Jackets which is why they have the edge in this category. However, the Maple Leafs have the advantage up front. Their offensive depth is a key factor and they’ve managed to get scoring contributions throughout their lineup.
Even if the Maple Leafs do win they’re qualifying series and make it to the playoffs, the defense will be under a microscope. It’s the one aspect that might prevent them from advancing to the playoff round as blue line depth still isn’t strong enough compared to other teams like the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues.
Experiences and Adversity Will Play a Big Part
While players were in self-isolation, Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said that they should use this time to “take a look in the mirror.” Meaning, this was a perfect time for the Maple Leafs to re-evaluate themselves and how they should play going forward.
“When hockey does resume, I think we know that we have to be better and we have to be more consistent,” Rielly said. “And I think that this time is important for the players to really think about that and know what’s at stake.”
A lot of pressure is on the Maple Leafs considering they played some embarrassing games this season. Rielly summed this up perfectly. The Stanley Cup isn’t awarded to a team that just tries to get by.
If there’s one thing on their side, it’s experience. Good or bad. Regular season or playoffs. The list is long and should benefit them when they enter the qualifying round. With postseason losses to the Capitals and Bruins (twice) in the last three seasons, they need to learn what made them successful, but also what led to their playoff exits. A team that learns from these experiences and overcomes adversity, like the Maple Leafs this season, is the perfect narrative to win the Stanley Cup.
The Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since they returned to the postseason with this core in 2017. However, the experience they’ve gained playing in crucial games (despite the losses) should help them succeed in the qualifying round and the rest of the postseason if they move on. Frederik Andersen, Auston Matthews and even Tavares know what failure looks like. Game 7 defeats, collapsing at the worst possible time and their inability to find that gear should serve as some motivation this time around.
It’s up to these players to take charge, lead the team and turn their misfortunes around. They’re a strong team when they can play at their best, they just need to find that consistency and motivation that turns great teams into champions.
With all the troubles the Maple Leafs have endured in the past four seasons, heading into this qualifying round makes for a story that fits a champion. From dealing with playoff failures, a coaching change, injuries and using experience as motivation, if the Maple Leafs can use these factors to their advantage, there’s no doubt they can find playoff success like many other teams.