The Toronto Maple Leafs have officially qualified for the playoffs after a full 82-game season for the first time since 2003-04. That sounds great.
They will be playing the Washington Capitals as their reward. That does not sound so great.
Underdogs to make the playoffs in the first place, the Leafs are going to be even bigger underdogs to advance through the first round.
If Frederik Andersen is out for all or most of the series, all bets are probably off. He has been their rock and MVP this year, and although goaltending is maybe the strangest position in sports (i.e., anyone is capable of going in the net and having a few out-of-this-world weeks), it is hard to imagine the Leafs competing without him.
Now, if Andersen is healthy and ready to go, how do the two teams stack up?
The side-by-side comparison is startling if you’re a Leafs fan looking for hope. Even the areas the Leafs excel in – goals, shots for, special teams — the Caps are right there with them. Their defense is deep, and all three of their right-handed defensemen (John Carlson, Kevin Shattenkirk and Matt Niskanen) would be top-pairing players on the Leafs. Their starting goalie, Braden Holtby, is coming off his third straight 40+ win season and is a perennial Vezina candidate.
Up front, the Capitals roll four lines pretty evenly – Brett Connolly has the lowest average ice time of any regular forward at 10:41 per night followed by Tom Wilson at 12:53. They matched the Leafs with five 20+ goal scorers (and a 19-goal scorer in Evgeny Kuznetsov, to boot), although the Leafs had five 60+ point-scorers to Washington’s two.
They basically run three scoring/two-way lines and a pure checking line. Here is their player usage chart as a team:
There will be no place to hide for the Leafs’ young players. Kadri will likely draw the Ovechkin matchup as much as possible, while we’ll have to wait and see who Matthews primarily lines up against, whether it’s Kuznetsov or one of the bottom-six lines. One guess is that Kuznetsov will go up against Matthews, leaving the Bozak line to play against a mix of the checking line and Eller’s unit. The Boyle line would play a similar role while mixing in shifts against top matchups in defensive situations.
The key to the series at 5v5 might very well come down to the Bozak line forcing Trotz to pick his poison on who to match up against, possibly freeing up the Matthews line. What makes playing Washington so difficult is that — regardless of what forward line is drawn as a matchup — they can get away with matchup mistakes because their defense is seven deep.
This is the toughest matchup in the East the Leafs could have drawn. It is hard to imagine them winning this series, but it will be a good experience to go up against the best regardless.
Throughout the week, I will be breaking down some video to look at various strengths, weaknesses, and potential advantages.
– There have been a lot of unsung heroes and surprises this season – Curtis McElhinney, Connor Carrick, Leo Komarov, to name a few – but the sports science department has not received its proper due. There are 11 members of the medical staff listed on the Leafs website, led by Dr. Jeremy Bettle, who is listed as the ‘Director, Sports Science & Performance.’ The Leafs just had nine players play in all 82 games this season. Since the full-season lockout, the highest number of Leafs players to feature in all 82 games was six in the 2006-07 season. Even in the lockout-shortened season, only seven players played in every game. Last season, only Morgan Rielly played all 82.
– One of the biggest reasons the Leafs have had success this year, particularly compared to some of the teams chasing them down the stretch, is that they managed to stay relatively healthy throughout the season and avoid any sort of major injury. Even when Mitch Marner or Morgan Rielly were hurt — and Babcock was publicly campaigning for them to play — they were sat out until ready and the injuries were a non-issue once they returned. There is also a more recent example with Andersen getting hurt, Babcock wanting him to play Sunday’s game against Columbus, and McElhinney getting the start with Garret Sparks backing up.
– That department’s biggest tasks of the season are upcoming between Andersen’s injury and perhaps a shaken up Nikita Zaitsev as well.
– It’s safe to say the Matthews-Boyle-Hyman unit is the go-to line in shutdown situations. They closed out the Pittsburgh game for the win and Babcock has been using them more and more in late in games. It is a nice apprenticeship for Matthews; he gets the playing experience, can learn from a veteran in Brian Boyle, and he doesn’t have the pressure of taking the faceoff.
– The Leafs acquired Brian Boyle and he helped them make the playoffs, while the Marlies added veterans in Cal O’Rielly and Mike Sislo to help them clinch as well. It was pretty clear already, but the organization definitely places value on playoff experience. Considering Tampa Bay only finished one point behind the Leafs, that trade could very well have been the difference between qualifying and not.
– The biggest surprise of the season for me is Nazem Kadri putting up 32 goals. The 60+ points and a good season in a checking role are not much of a shock – he has shown the ability to do both – but with a previous career of 20 goals and no great shot to speak of, I didn’t see 32 goals coming. A bounce back of sorts was expected given his low shooting percentage, but this high? To Kadri’s credit, he has changed his game and is scoring more greasy goals in front of the net — particularly on the PP, where he has a career high 12 (his previous high was seven). The PP always used to run through Kadri on the half-wall and teams could sag off of him because of his shot (or lack thereof). Now, with all of the talent on the team, it has allowed the coaching staff to move Kadri to the middle of the ice, where he can deflect pucks and bang in rebounds.
– There was an interesting photo circulated Saturday night on Twitter that showed the Leafs whiteboard and the things they are tracking in-game. Some of the items come as no surprise, such as corsi, zone entries, zone denials, shot blocks. Two that were intriguing were heavy shifts and shot retrievals.
A ‘heavy shift’ refers to a cycle shift in which a team dominates the corners, walls and battles in the offensive zone. It is a stark contrast to the run-and-gun style that defined the Leafs pretty much since Ron Wilson took over. Heavy shifts are all about leaning on defenders, imposing yourself physically, and grinding down your opponent.
– Shot retrievals is also interesting because it is so important yet rarely discussed. We know that Babcock values passing off the pads (I wrote about it when he was first hired), but the pass off the pads is only valuable if you keep possession.
– I have recently been reading Ron MacLean’s new book, Hometown Hockey, and there is a chapter in it on Mike Babcock. Two things stood out to me:
1) He also tracks positive/negative plays, which is defined as:
“Mike’s plus/minus philosophy is to ask, when you move the puck – what happens next? If something good happens next, you get a plus. If something bad happens next, you get a minue. Anywhere on the ice, any situation. That’s his system.”
2) He likes two ‘grind lines’ and two scoring lines. It hasn’t been discussed a whole lot, but the Leafs have done that all season. The Kadri line and the fourth line are the grinders (this also shows why players such as Peter Holland, Josh Leivo, etc. haven’t been a fit there), and the two scoring lines are the Matthews and Bozak units.
When the Leafs were running a more skilled fourth line at one point, they used Matthews in a checking role and started giving him the top matchups. The Boyle acquisition has allowed him to get some softer matchups and regain his scoring touch here down the stretch.
– I watched the replay a few times to be sure, but the Jake Guentzel shot at the end of the Penguins game — the one that was blocked before Matthews scored the empty netter to ice the game — actually hit off of Conor’s Sheary skate, not Roman Polak. It would have had a real chance of going in as McElhinney didn’t appear to slide over in time, but Polak still forced the issue by laying out. The Hunwick-Polak pairing was much-maligned throughout the year (myself included at times), so there was some poetic justice in seeing them play a huge part in the playoff-clinching victory. Polak was on to close out the game in the final minute, and Hunwick made a beautiful pass to Kasperi Kapanen to tie the game.
“No, there are 18 skaters. For whatever reason, we didn’t match the intensity. I think we have very good structure. We know how to play our systems. This time of year, usually teams are executing their systems pretty well. It’s a little bit more compete. It’s a little bit more things that aren’t Xs and Os at this time. I think we learned a little bit of a lesson last night, but we still have a great opportunity.”
– Brian Boyle, after being asked about inexperience leading to the Tampa Bay loss
I thought this was an interesting quote. Early in the year, teams are feeling out their rosters, systems, coaches, and so on, but everything is known at this point. In the playoffs, it becomes more about winning your matchup over four-to-seven straight games.
“It’s much different just because in junior you’re often playing on weekends. You’ll have the whole week off and play Friday-Saturday, or Friday-Saturday-Sunday. Just playing every other game after game is taxing.”
– Connor Brown, on the difference between the OHL schedule, and the NHL schedule.
Mitch Marner is the only rookie on the team coming up straight from the OHL, and I think it has shown a little bit down the stretch here. He was also sick and playing through strep throat at one point apparently, so that has to be taken into account. Marner has still been productive, so it’s not like he’s been bad, but there hasn’t been the same jump or dominating play we saw from him in the middle portion of the season.
“[I’m] very impressed. I don’t think anybody thought they’d be in the position they’re in. I think a lot of it has to do with their young guys. Auston has obviously been playing phenomenal. He’s already etched himself as a top-ten center in the NHL. I always thought Willy was a really good player. I compared him with guys like Rickard Rakell in Anaheim, who I played with there. They’ve got very similar skill sets, very similar shots.
I think, with those guys playing together – whoever Willy plays with – if he gets a shot off it’s going to produce offense. They’ve really tightened up defensively, and I think the stability with Freddie… when they acquired him, I used to rave about Freddie to the guys in Toronto when I was here from when I was in Anaheim. He’s a top-ten goaltender in this league and he’s proven that this year.
I think you’ve seen the run they’ve been on since they lost in Florida, and you see it throughout the year as well. If you, realistically, take away their blown leads, they’re well into a playoff position. They’ve lost how many games in OT? It’s like 12, or something. It’s got to be up there. They even get half those points and they’re contending for first in the Atlantic. I think a lot of that had to do with their youth through the first half of the season. I think they’ve tightened that up. They’re a team that teams can’t take lightly. Going forward, they’re going to have a lot more respect.”
– Daniel Winnik, on the Leafs
I don’t think Washington is going to take the Leafs lightly. Winnik nailed it here.
“No one has talked to me in my building since I moved here for two years. People have been talking to me every single second for the last week, so… it must be a big deal.”
– Mike Babcock, after clinching a playoff spot
You have no idea, Mike. This is just the beginning.
Video Tidbit of the Week
If this week’s game was any indication, one thing the Leafs have to do a better job of is pressuring Washington and forcing more difficult breakouts. In this video, the Leafs move up the ice with speed as the Caps send one forward in to pressure, stack two at center, and then put two defensemen in behind.
Washington forces the Leafs to dump it in, and even though Matthews is first to the puck, they swarm him quickly, retrieve the puck, find a wide open winger, and control the puck.
After that — as an example of how good Washington is — they resist dumping and changing, circle back in the neutral zone, and Ovechkin finds a streaking Kuznetsov for a great scoring opportunity.
The Leafs will have to be a lot tidier than this to have a chance in the series.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. If Nikita Zaitsev is out to start the playoffs, I think Martin Marincin would be the next man up for me instead of Alexey Marchenko. I know Marchenko coming in would make it a righty for a righty, but Marincin has proven himself on the PK in this system and he’s had some success with Rielly as a partner (so they could start games together). Marincin also grades out well at forcing dump-ins at the blue line; he’s good at protecting against clean zone entries due to his reach and positioning, which matches well against a high-powered Washington team.
2. If Zaitsev and Polak are out, I think I would make the defense pairings Rielly-Carrick, Gardiner-Marchenko, and Hunwick-Marincin. I would also pair up the Gardiner-Rielly duo regularly to put out a competent top-four pairing as much as possible.
3. I think, when on the PK, I would shadow Ovechkin heavily, essentially make the power play a half-ice 4v3, and see how the Capitals adapt to that. Washington is full of firepower, but Ovechkin is far and away their PP goal-scoring leader with 17 (Backstrom is next at 8). The Capitals have an elite PP; if they are going to beat you, make them do it a different way other than feeding Ovechkin one-timers.
4. If the Leafs are in need of a spark at some point in game one, I think I would reunite the Matthews-Kadri-Nylander line for the odd shift to ignite the team. In the past week, the Leafs have had some flat performances, which I think is largely due to the craziness of their schedule down the stretch, but the playoffs are crazy, too. Sometimes you need a little boost mid-game to turn things around.
5. I think I’m going to enjoy the hell out of the Leafs making the playoffs, no matter how long it lasts.