The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ 2016-17 season was nothing short of shocking.
Expected to conclude the campaign as one of the NHL’s least successful teams given their influx of young talent, the Leafs set a high and somewhat unrealistic expectation for themselves regardless. Aiming to clinch a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season, Toronto accomplished the feat a day earlier and, in doing so, secured their presence in the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13.
Despite their incredibly surprising ascension to the postseason in virtually the first year of their rebuild, Toronto faces a tough if not menacing road ahead – especially so if they wish to consume the valuable experience which the Stanley Cup Playoffs have to offer. Yet, dropping a 3-2 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Apr. 9, certainly didn’t help matters, as it forced the Leafs into a first round matchup with the Presidents Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.
No stranger to playoff failure, the Capitals are a team possessed as they head into the 2017 postseason. Aiming to exorcise their demons and advance past the second round for the first time since 1997-98, Washington has, in fact, failed to surpass the Conference Semi-Finals in an incomprehensible 11 consecutive attempts.
— HockeyNightInCanada (@hockeynight) May 11, 2016
However, in 2016-17, the Capitals are a much different team. No longer is it strictly Alex Ovechkin leading the charge, but, instead, a deep cast of others who are equally capable of inflicting damage. With seemingly endless depth, lethal offensive players and a strong defense-core, the ‘Caps are not just the team which the Leafs must defeat, but arguably the team to beat in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So, does Toronto stand a realistic chance of upsetting the NHL’s most successful team? Or, are the Leafs simply the first instance of competition which Washington must sweep away en route to more meaningful playoff success?
If the Capitals held the ability to select their first round opponent, they undoubtedly would have chosen to take the ice against the Leafs. Outclassing Toronto in virtually every relevant statistical category, Washington’s opening series pits them as the overwhelming favorite and for good reason.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Goals per Game
|Goals Against per Game||2.16||
|Penalty Kill %||83.82%||
Further, the Capitals claimed the season series with the Leafs, posting a 2-1-0 record in three games played. Although Toronto defeated Washington in their opening contest by a score of 4-2, the Capitals displayed their depth and lethal offense in the final two meetings, claiming a 6-5 overtime win as well as a 4-1 victory.
As displayed in the statistics above, Washington’s high level of skill in contrast to that of Toronto’s is abundantly evident.
Scoring, on average, a far greater number of goals per game than the Leafs while allowing far less, the Capitals’ all-around game will be incredibly difficult for Toronto to contain and especially so given their potent power play and effective penalty kill. In addition, the ‘Caps’ impressive play is supported by incredibly strong goaltending, as the team’s GA/GP mark of 2.16 – the best in the NHL – was accentuated by a .937% save percentage at even strength.
So, although Frederik Andersen and Braden Holtby will surely put on a fantastic goaltending display, the Capitals’ stronger defensive play, in combination with their potent offense, will ultimately compliment their netminder in a way in which the Leafs have yet to understand.
Lethal Offensive Threats Abound
Although the Leafs are overmatched across the board, one area in which they may hold a slight advantage comes on offense. Yes, the Capitals were the more lethal offensive team during the regular season, yet not by a wide margin. While Washington netted 261 goals during the campaign, good for third overall, Toronto trailed closely behind with an impressive 250 – a mark which ranked fifth best.
Of course, it goes without saying that the Capitals’ forwards have a considerably larger amount of postseason experience, however, if the Leafs’ 2016-17 campaign taught us anything, it was to never underestimate the ferocious attack of the team’s young guns. While the postseason will present a new challenge for the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner, it will also present new obstacles for the youngsters to overcome, if not shatter.
Auston Matthews’ 39th goal gives him the Leafs rookie scoring record at 67 points pic.twitter.com/QeqCSLAnN9
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 3, 2017
Sure, the Capitals are, as we have seen, one of the NHLs strongest defensive team’s, however, it is important to point out that in the three games played between the two teams this season, the Leafs’ rookie trio combined for nine points – not bad production versus the league’s top team.
However, if Toronto’s young guns succumb to the pressure of the postseason and the Capitals’ overwhelming attack, the series could quickly turn ugly for the Leafs.
— theScore (@theScore) April 6, 2017
As one of the deepest team’s in the NHL, the Capitals’ success in 2016-17 was founded on the reception of contributions from throughout their lineup. Boasting five players with over 20 goals and 50 points, Washington’s offensive attack fails to relent, as all four forward lines have the proven ability to put the puck in the net. Further, with one of the highest scoring and most lethal blue lines in the league, the Capitals can expect significant contributions for their back-end if, for some reason, the team’s forwards fail to bulge the twine.
Distinct Defensive Differences
As mentioned, the Capitals’ defense-core is one of the NHL’s best. Arguably boasting seven top-pairing defenders, Washington’s blue line is seemingly unsurpassable. Penetrating their defense is an incredibly intimidating task, as the team features players of varying size, skill, and temperament. If the Leafs do hope to bypass the ‘Caps’ defense, it will come as the result of quick puck movement and a hard forecheck.
Then, Toronto can attempt to penetrate the brick wall that is Holtby.
On the other hand, there is the Leafs’ blueline.
Composed largely of young players, Toronto’s defense is led by the likes of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev. Outside of these three, the Leafs’ defense-core is incredibly thin, and, truthfully, lacks any sort of depth. With Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick manning the team’s third pairing and Connor Carrick slotted in between, Toronto’s back-end remains the major weakness of the team and will require significant attention in the coming years if the Leafs wish to develop into a legitimate contender.
Statistics further re-enforce this perception. Placing 21st in the league in terms of goals against with 234, Toronto was the only team to reach the postseason who ranked in the bottom-10 in this statistic.
Further, recent injuries have decimated Toronto’s blue line, and, in doing so, further exposed the team’s lack of depth. With both Polak and Zaitsev exiting the Leafs’ final game of the regular season due to injury, the team could be forced to play a number of defenders who would arguably be better off logging minutes at the AHL level. Unless Toronto’s blue line can regain its health and suddenly play a comprehensive, shutdown style of game, it goes without saying that the Capitals’ high-flying offense will feast upon each and every mistake the Leafs will be forced into making.
Regardless of how convincingly this series may be won or lost, two sensational goaltenders and their incredible abilities will be on full display come Apr. 13. In one net lies the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, while, in the other, a netminder whose skills could see him challenge for the distinction in the coming years.
In Washington, Holtby has long dominated the crease and, in doing so, has supported his squad with his consistent and stabilizing presence. As the 2016 goaltender of the year, Holtby has followed one sensational season with another, as his 2016-17 campaign produced the lowest save percentage and goals against average of his career to date. Further, Holtby added a career-best nine shutouts, as well as finished tied for the NHL lead in wins with 42.
— Hockey Reference (@hockey_ref) April 6, 2017
An intense netminder who is driven to win and infuriated by his shortfalls, Holtby’s presence in the Capitals’ crease will present the Leafs with yet another major obstacle to overcome.
Conversely, there is Andersen.
In his first season with Toronto following his arrival from Anaheim, Andersen’s play was not only spectacular but, at times, the determining factor in his team’s success. Familiar with carrying the Leafs to victory and having done so more often than not, Andersen has quickly cemented his position as the team’s starting netminder and, in doing so, legitimized his new five-year deal with the club.
Frederik Andersen improved to 7-1-2 in March with a .939 save percentage. Not bad.
— David Alter (@dalter) March 31, 2017
Shattering his previous career-high games played total of 54, Andersen appeared in an impressive 66 contests for the Leafs in 2016-17 despite missing various periods of time due to injury. In those games, Andersen provided the Leafs with confidence and stability – two traits essential to the success of a young, developing team. Although his individual statistics did not best the totals he accumulated with the Ducks, Andersen’s 33 wins and four shutouts were critical to Toronto’s success over the course of the campaign.
Frederik Andersen with an insane save to rob Phil Kessel’s shot on a wide open net, keeping the game close! pic.twitter.com/CS5X6UdKGg
— NHL 365 (@dbrMUT) November 13, 2016
Had the Leafs not possessed Andersen in goal, it goes without saying that the team would not have reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A tireless competitor who has led Toronto to wins in numerous games they had no business claiming, Andersen’s presence and play in goal has the ability to tilt the series in the Leafs’ favor. Yes, the Capitals’ offense is as good as any and Toronto has a thin blue line, but if Andersen can find his groove, the Leafs could become a serious threat to Washington’s cup-run.
The Final Call
So, are the Leafs as good as gone from the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
However, as we have witnessed, there are a number of specific factors which will not only come into play but potentially alter the outcome of this series as it progresses. Sure, the Capitals outclassed the Leafs in every aspect of the game, yet, there remain reasons for optimism on the part of Toronto.
— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) April 12, 2017
As a surprisingly potent offensive squad, the Leafs’ young guns are wildly unpredictable and could factor into the outcome of the series in a greater manner than expected. Having shattered numerous rookie records this season en route to the postseason, the true capabilities of Toronto’s offense remains somewhat unknown. If the Leafs’ youngsters can transition seamlessly to playoff hockey and reach a higher level, the team could slowly meander its way through Washington’s incredibly strong blue line with their highly skilled style of play.
On the other hand, if the team’s offense fails to spark the club, the Leafs hold a wild card in the form of Andersen. As mentioned, the team’s starting netminder has the ability to steal wins from the opposition, and, in 2016-17, did so on a regular basis. Although he suffered multiple injuries as the regular season came to a close, Andersen’s presence in goal, or lack thereof, could sway the series in the Leafs’ direction – although his contributions would have to be staggering.
Having cemented himself as a starting NHL netminder following years of split time in Anaheim, Andersen also possesses a wealth of invaluable playoff experience which could prove vital to not only to him but the success of the Leafs as a whole.
As such, despite facing almost certain elimination, the Leafs possess a number qualities which could allow them to legitimately challenge the Capitals in their Eastern Conference Quarter-Final showdown. Although Toronto will very likely be eliminated, the team stands to gain not only valuable playoff experience but perhaps a win or two in the process.
Ultimately, regardless of the outcome, it is important to remember that this series will be bonus hockey for the Leafs, as at the start of the season none expected Toronto to compete let alone reach the postseason.
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at email@example.com.