In the 2003-04 season, the NBA reorganized the league into a six-division alignment wherein the top seed in each division automatically received a top-three spot in the conference seeding for the playoffs.
Two seasons later, division rivals Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs fought all season to win their division.
Ultimately the Spurs won that battle, finishing ahead of the Mavericks by three games. That meant the Mavericks could automatically finish no better than fourth due to the division winners placing top three no matter what.
What made that finish particularly strange is that the Mavericks had the second-best record in the conference that season. The Phoenix Suns technically finished second in the conference that season, with six fewer wins than the Mavericks. The Denver Nuggets finished third with a whopping 16 fewer wins.
So of course, in the playoffs, the Mavericks were forced to play the Spurs in the second round despite having the second-best record (Dallas won that series).
Because of a strange playoff seeding format, the Mavericks had a much more difficult path to the finals, where they lost to the Heat. This was despite being the second-best team in the conference.
In the NHL this season, the Leafs are facing the same fate as the Mavericks. They have the third-most points in the conference and the third-best goal differential. But because of the divisional brackets the NHL has implemented, they are slated to play the second-best team in the conference in the first round. If they get out of that, they’d likely play the top team in the conference in the conference semifinal. All of this before even getting to the conference final, let alone the Stanley Cup final.
It obviously makes no sense.
At some point, the league is going to realize how bad this format is and change it. Maybe this year will make it painfully obvious to them, or maybe it will take a few more years of issues like this before they finally come to their senses. It will change, though, because it’s unjust to continue this. It isn’t just a shame for the Leafs; it is for Boston, and even Tampa, too. They will all play in matchups that should have happened later in the playoffs due to this bracket alignment.
It won’t ruin the Leafs’ season by any means — and they absolutely have a real chance to beat either team — but it is a shame. A good team should be playing a weaker in the first round. In fact, it has probably led us to underrate the Leafs at times throughout the season – myself included – despite the fact that they are an elite team in the conference and the league (currently sixth in the NHL).
Hopefully, this serves as a wake-up call to the powers in charge to change this format. They should be using the conference format (without even awarding division winners an automatic top three spot, to be honest).
In the meantime, it is unfortunate the Leafs have to bear the brunt of this format, but it’s the hand they’ve been dealt.
– I wrote last week that I expected the Leafs to make a depth move, so the Tomas Plekanec move did not come as much of a surprise. It is unfortunate that the team signed Dominic Moore to plug that hole in free agency and ended up trading off a second-round pick to upgrade that role, though. This is the second straight year the Leafs have spent a second on a fourth-line center; there just has to be a better way to add a fourth-line center moving forward. Organizationally, they should not have to use draft picks that high to add 4Cs. Perhaps they just bring back Plekanec in the summer, depending on how his stint goes.
– Plekanec played 2:11 per game on the penalty kill this season for the Habs, and just over 16 minutes per night, playing to a 33-point pace with his two most common linemates being Brendan Gallagher and Charles Hudon in a defensive role. In his first game with the Leafs, Babcock placed him on the fourth line in a defensive role, using him to try to free up the Kadri line for softer matchups. After that, Plekanec moved up to center Nylander, and towards the end of the game, he moved back to the fourth line, centering Dom Moore in a more defensive spot. He is an upgrade on Moore and will help the team.
– I went down to Florida and watched the Leafs play the Lightning and Panthers last week. I really tried to zero in on Nikita Zaitsev, as he has been a topic of conversation lately. What stood out more than anything is that he does not move the puck up the ice cleanly or when passing in general. There was one play that stood out to pretty well everyone when, in 3v3 overtime with tons of open ice, he put a puck off the glass right to Tampa, who then proceeded to dominate for about a minute and a half. It happened in both games I was at pretty well all the time. The passes were a little off and his default play is to go off the glass. It’s not surprising that he struggles in zone exits and has a 47 percent corsi-for on the season. Only one player on the team has a worse CF% without him than with him (Leo Komarov). Without power play time, he’s also on pace for only 18 points (compared to 36 last season). If anything, the PP is where he can help the team — they’ve struggled on the power play this season and his right-handed shot is a different look than the two lefties that currently man the points.
– The Leafs power play is now ranked 18th on the season. One striking thing about it is they have completely gone away from the drop pass breakout/entry play. They rarely use it anymore, and I’m not sure why. They had the second-ranked power play in the league last season and basically only used it. They wouldn’t even mix it up on the breakout; it would just be a case of whether they dropped it or not, depending on what the opposition did. Now it’s more of a straightforward breakout where they try to skate up ice and weave through, using the player on the blue line at the boards – usually JVR. The drop pass received a lot of negative attention last season because of how predictable it was, but it worked.
– I found it curious that Josh Leivo went from a consistent healthy scratch to playing on a 5v3 against the best team in the league in a tight game.
– On his first shift against Tampa, Leivo went after a loose puck against Ryan Callahan and got completely outmuscled on the play, which was strange to see because his strength is his board play. But he looked like a player who hasn’t played much this season (because he hasn’t), and he’s not exactly a seasoned vet who knows how to handle that. Plus, he is stepping into the final stretch of the season when the hockey has really picked up. Later in the game, he won some impressive battles – including one on that 5v3 to maintain possession – but his game will need more than the occasional look to really judge him properly.
– Another thing that stood out live is that Jake Gardiner really refuses to go off the glass. I think that’s where both the praise and criticism he receives basically stems from. His possession numbers are ultimately strong because when he does move the puck up ice, it’s clean, on the tape, and it creates offense. But when he can’t make the plays, he holds onto the puck or tries high-risk plays, creating the turnovers that stand out.
– I used to coach with a guy – who I know will read this column – who was fond of saying defensemen need an “oh shit button,” which basically means that every defenseman needs to know when they are in trouble and just pull the plug by firing it off the glass and out. Don’t think Jake will ever have that.
– I had Nazem Kadri pegged for a slight drop in goals after a breakout 32-goal campaign wherein he shot roughly two points above his career average, but he’s shooting an even higher percentage this season and is on pace for 30. It’s unlikely he’ll reach the 61 points he did last year, but back-to-back 30 goal seasons would be really impressive — all the while in a shutdown role, no less. What a player he has turned into.
– With Connor Brown, JVR has a 64 percent goals for. Without him, it’s 43. With and without Bozak, his splits are 58/52. He has added a nice worker element to that line, often first in on the forecheck and first in on the backcheck. It has allowed JVR and Bozak to roam a little bit more freely as Brown does all the nitty-gritty work. Babcock has been fond of calling Brown an honest player; really, that’s exactly what he brings to this line, particularly because the other two are much more offensively-inclined than anything else.
– Good for Travis Dermott taking a run at Tom Wilson to try to spark the Leafs while down in the Stadium Series game. Wilson predictably went after him a few shifts later and Dermott had to expect that. I didn’t really think Dermott had that kind of meanness in him or that he’d even consider attempting to blast a player like Wilson. But the Leafs could use a few players that have the ability to mix in a big hit that could possibly change a game (or playoff series).
“Any time you have a playoff series with a team there’s a little bit of a rivalry left over for a couple yrs. We’ve felt that with Toronto this year … You’ll see a little bit of a rivalry game, probably a little nastiness out there.”
– TJ Oshie before the game
“We just played them last year in the playoffs. They eliminated us. We knew it was a big night. They look at us and they still think we’re kids. It looked like we were kids here tonight. I thought they smacked us around and forechecked us.”
– Mike Babcock after the game
One team came out like they played each other last year in the playoffs – it wasn’t the Leafs.
“We had a couple of additions, too, in the last several weeks that are like trades in Kapanen and Dermott. There are little things that happen that persuade you to go one way or another in how you make decisions.”
– Lou Lamoriello on the trade deadline
I thought this was a fair take and attitude to have about the trade deadline. They still need help on defense — and they are absolutely aware of that — but it will have to wait.
“There’s a couple things, team structure-wise that are different, but it’s normal & it’s nothing complicated. It’s just going to take a couple days, a couple practices to clean it up & I’m sure it’ll be better.”
– Tomas Plekanec on adjusting to life in the Blue and White
At the game against Tampa in particular, I noticed a lot of looking over his shoulders while trying to figure out where to go and position himself, particularly in the defensive zone. He’s a crafty veteran and is looking more comfortable with each game.
Video Tidbit of the Week
I noticed this happened a lot in this game: Tampa turned a stationary, starting-in-their-own zone play into a dangerous scoring opportunity. The Lightning outplayed the Leafs, outshooting them by 12, but to be able to turn plays like this into chances that good off the rush just can’t happen — and it happened more than a few times.
Tampa has a lot of looks and some players that can really fly. Point really gave the Leafs trouble, too. This is a good play by them where the defenseman cuts across and opens up the far lane for a streaking Adam Erne. You see the Leafs confusion there between Brown and Zaitsev as they both follow Gourde streaking in the middle of the ice, then gravitate towards the puck carrier – Erne – when he receives the pass. Gourde then streaks right to the net for a mini-breakaway.
Frederik Andersen was fantastic in this game, by the way.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. With the Leafs firmly in a playoff spot and pretty well locked into their matchup, I think Nylander should be playing center until Matthews returns. Obviously, if his game falls completely off the rails there, he should be moved back – he’s not granted immunity. But otherwise, this is a great opportunity to see what he can do there. Let him play tough matchups. See what happens. If the alternative is moving Plekanec up to the top six (he has 24 points compared to Nylander’s 49), I’m not sure what we’re even debating here.
2. In saying that, I think I’d put back together that Hyman – Nylander – Kapanen line. I think there’s potential this with the speed and what Hyman brings defensively to help cover up that unit.
3. I think Nikita Zaitsev’s minutes need to be reduced – in the last three games, he’s played 23+ minutes each time. He should be in the 19-20 minute range. At some point, they are going to have to look at his results at 5v5 and scale the minutes back a bit here.
4. I think I like Dominic Moore on the wing. Babcock put him there in the third period against Washington and he’s had a few other looks there throughout the year. I’ve mentioned this before, but his speed is effective there and he’s still crafty offensively with some skill to his game.
5. But I also think Josh Leivo should be in right now. Keep the young guy in who is in line to be on this team beyond this season. It’s not like he’s a liability out there or that he actively hurts the team, and he has the skill to chip in along with the big body to work the walls. Again, for a team basically locked into the playoffs, long term, it just makes more sense to take a look at him right now.