The Toronto Maple Leafs have been securely buckled into a playoff spot for what seems like forever. They’re probably not going to catch the Boston Bruins (seven points ahead), and definitely aren’t catching the Tampa Bay Lightning (13 points ahead). Likewise, they almost certainly won’t be caught by the Florida Panthers (12 points back).
So, as the 2017-18 National Hockey League season heads into the homestretch, let’s look at how the players currently on the Leafs roster have performed in playoffs past, from the junior ranks on upwards.
Playoff Pedigree of Leafs Forwards
Best Playoff Careers
Newsflash: Leafs’ Best Offensive Players Perform Well Offensively.
Groundbreaking stuff, I know.
Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner are both products of the perennially powerful London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, but their numbers are very impressive nonetheless. Plus, they’ve both contributed during postseason play at the professional level, as well, suggesting their playoff production has a lot to do with their own abilities.
Leafs fans shouldn’t be too worried about Auston Matthews being so far down the list, due to the small sample size involved. James van Riemsdyk’s lacklustre playoff numbers are a little worrying, though; for someone whose major talent is scoring from high-traffic areas, one would think he’d be right at home in the tighter checking and, erm, “relaxed” officiating of the playoffs.
Perhaps most interesting is Josh Leivo. He made a real nice pass to help set up a goal Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and may start to see more playing time as the season winds down. As covered ad nauseum, Leivo, when given a fair shot, has done nothing but perform for Toronto. In fact, that story seems to have been a constant throughout his entire hockey career.
If the Leafs are in need of an offensive boost during the playoffs, a lineup shuffle involving Leivo taking on a more prominent role may be an ace up head coach Mike Babcock’s sleeve.
Best Clutch Performer
For all the crap the San Jose Sharks had to put up with regarding their frequent playoff failures, Patrick Marleau doesn’t seem to have been their problem. Not only does he have a very healthy playoff points-per-game average, he has maintained these numbers since joining the NHL way back in 1997-98, so it’s not as though he just piled up a bunch in junior.
But this section is about clutch performance, and Marleau is head and shoulders above the rest of the Leafs when it comes to game-winning goals per game. Maybe that’s what the Leafs were going for when they signed him to a three-year, $18.75 million deal back in the summer.
Given that 16 of his 17 career playoff game-winners have come in the NHL, it’s clear Marleau, regardless of how his Sharks performed as a team, is a big-game player who scores big goals at big times.
Playoff Pedigree of Leafs Defensemen
Best Playoff Careers
While it’s no surprise to see the likes of Travis Dermott, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly all averaging over 0.60 points per game in the playoffs, Connor Carrick leading the way at 0.83 is very interesting, indeed. After all, Carrick has just eight goals and 26 points in 160 NHL games, including three goals and eight points in 40 games this season.
That said, Carrick has often been replaced – inexplicably, in my opinion – in the Leafs lineup by the likes of Roman Polak, and he also doesn’t often receive time on the power play, no doubt disrupting his rhythm and dampening his offensive numbers.
Whatever Babcock’s feelings about him, Carrick has produced offensively his entire career, indicating he might be worthy of more of an opportunity to showcase his skills with the Leafs. His stellar career playoff production adds even further support to his case.
Obviously, Rielly and Gardiner are better defensemen overall, so it makes sense to give them the most chance to help the team. Nevertheless, if things just aren’t working for the Leafs in terms of offensive production from the back end, Babcock would do well to give Carrick a shot and give him free reign on the offensive side of the puck, where he’s done nothing but produce his entire career.
Best Clutch Performer
Now, obviously, defensemen generally score far fewer goals than forwards, so perhaps game-winning goals are not exactly the best method for evaluation.
One thing does stand out: When you consider the sheer number of combined playoff games played by the Leafs defense corps throughout their respective careers, it is somewhat surprising to see that only two players have scored game-winning goals. It’s especially surprising given that, regardless of their role at the NHL level, each of these players was very likely one of the best (if not the best) players on their teams coming up through the ranks.
Common wisdom is that these players would play more and would likely be at least reasonably competent offensively in relation to the rest of their leagues, making the lack of playoff game-winners on the Leafs blue line an interesting anomaly indeed.
Leafs Goaltending Prepared for Playoffs
You might be wondering why there’s no chart here. The reasons are twofold:
One, I don’t think there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind that Frederik Andersen is Toronto’s starting goalie. Two, even if it was worthwhile comparing him to Curtis McElhinney, I couldn’t find Andersen’s playoff statistics from his time in Denmark. So there you go.
That said, should Andersen falter or get hurt, McElhinney is an intriguing option to fill in for the standout Dane. McElhinney played four seasons at Colorado College (2001-02 until 2004-05), twice taking them to the final of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association). And it wasn’t just his playoff prowess that caught the attention of NHL teams; McElhinney is a highly decorated alumnus of the NCAA, winning a variety of awards during his collegiate tenure.
It was ever such a long time ago but, should the need arise, it would not be totally surprising to see some McElhinney magnificence between the pipes for the Leafs.
Past Playoff Pedigree All Academic
Now, I do acknowledge there are many limitations on the above analysis.
Perhaps the most obvious confound is the chasm of difference between the NHL and, well, literally every other league, whether developmental or professional. These statistics are compiled from a variety of hockey leagues that play at a variety of levels (minor hockey not included). Each separate league, whether it be junior, college or professional (only club team statistics were included, as player deployment can change drastically for international tournaments), is thoroughly unique, and comparing any of them to the NHL cannot be viewed as a direct translation.
Updated translation factors
.43 SM-Liiga, Swiss NLA, NCHC
.33 Big 10
— Hockey Abstract (@HockeyAbstract) May 22, 2017
Just because someone dominated the OHL postseason doesn’t mean they’re going to win the Conn Smythe Trophy in the NHL. Likewise, just because another guy couldn’t score in the American Hockey League playoffs doesn’t mean he’s a choker.
Additionally, many things cannot be measured with traditional statistics. Players could simply have had the misfortune to be on bad teams; hockey is very much a team sport, and the inadequacies of a given squad can sometimes neuter the effectiveness of even the best of players. Players are also used in different roles at different times throughout their career, meaning their overall stats may not correspond to their actual value at a given time. There are also years of progressive maturity and development to consider; not every player lights the world on fire right out of the gate, and others burn brightest early on in their careers.
Playoff Performance Particularly Unpredictable
Nevertheless, while the above analysis should not be taken as prophecy, it will still be interesting to see if those who’ve stepped up in the past, at whatever level it might have been, do so for the Leafs in this year’s playoffs.
Great players generally find a way to be great in all situations. That said, what makes hockey so amazing is the unsung heroes that explode into our consciousness with great playoff performances.
Take Joel Ward or Justin Williams, for instance. Both are useful players, to be sure, though I’m not sure anyone would consider them stars. …in the regular season, at least.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs, however, are a whole different story. Coming into 2017-18, Ward has averaged 0.63 P/GP and 0.05 GWG/GP in the playoffs, against 0.43 and 0.03 during the regular season, while Williams has put up 0.67 and 0.05 in the playoffs, against 0.63 P/GP and 0.03 GWG/GP during the regular season.
Some players just have a knack for getting it done in the postseason.
The Leafs don’t have much NHL playoff experience. They’ve had a great regular season, to be sure. But let’s see who steps up when it counts.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.