As we wait for normalcy – and hockey – to return, I have been looking back at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season and ahead to the future of the organization.
If you missed those articles, here are the first two:
- Travis Dermott’s emergence, the battle for third in the Atlantic Division
- The coaching change and the future in net
I noted in the second piece that I don’t see how the season continues; since then, it appears that it won’t – if able to resume, the league will go straight to playoffs. Provided this format is implemented, the Leafs would play the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five. They would then play the number-one seed decided by a round-robin consisting of Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia. This is an extremely difficult path in the making.
Proposed 24-Team NHL Playoff Bracket
Columbus had the exact same points percentage as the Leafs before the season was suspended. While the Leafs were trending up under a new coach, Columbus was actually eighth in the league in points percentage until Seth Jones went down hurt. Once he was out, the Jackets immediately went 1-5-5 without him, sunk in the standings, and were even out of the playoffs altogether at one point.
Now it’s expected that not only will Seth Jones return, but so will Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexander Texier, and likely Josh Anderson. Even with all those injuries and the mass exodus of talent last summer, Columbus was still hanging in the playoff mix. That’s despite actually leading the league in man-games lost. Now they are going to be healthy heading into a best-of-five series.
— Man-Games Lost NHL (@ManGamesLostNHL) March 12, 2020
Columbus’ 2019-20 season, Strengths, and Weaknesses
The Blue Jackets lack high-end scoring talent — evident in their power play, one of the worst in the league (27th) — but they are deep, physical, and they spread out their scoring. They had eight players in the double digits in goals; a healthy Jones and Texier would have made that 10. The Leafs had six players in double digits, but Jason Spezza and Alexander Kerfoot were a goal away while Ilya Mikheyev and Andreas Johnson would both hit that mark easily if healthy.
While Columbus is deep up front with a bunch of solid, if unspectacular, contributors, their defense and goaltending are strengths. Zach Werenski led all defensemen in goals with 20 (he was four up on the next highest). For my money, Seth Jones is one of the best defensemen in the league. His offense wasn’t there this season — which is why he doesn’t get the recognition — but he’s about as a complete a package as you can find. Last year, in the playoffs, he tallied nine points in 10 games, too, and he has a 57-point season in his past. He can produce at an elite level.
At the time of Jones’ injury, Columbus was leading the league in five-on-five save percentage (they dropped to fifth overall after). While they definitely rode hot goaltending, they had one of the worst five-on-five shooting percentages in the league (fourth last), which actually meant they had a relatively league-average PDO at 5v5, in case you thought they were just riding a wave.
As noted, their power play is weak — that’s good news for a Leafs team with one of the worst penalty kills in the league. Conversely, they hover around the top ten on the penalty kill, while the Leafs have a top ten power play. That’s strength versus strength and weakness versus weakness on special teams.
At 5v5, Columbus was plus-three in goal differential, while the Leafs were plus-one (before the Jones injury, Columbus was +12).
A Matchup of Contrasting Styles
In a few ways statistically, the two teams are quite similar and it should make for an intriguing matchup. Stylistically, though, they couldn’t be more different. Columbus is below 50% in team corsi and they are top five in blocked shots in the league. The Leafs were sixth in corsi and bottom 10 in blocked shots. The Leafs were third in missed shots, while Columbus was dead last. Columbus actually had a better shot differential (not shot attempts), overall at +2.6 versus the Leafs at +1.
The Blue Jackets are, in essence, a classic Tortorella team. They block shots like crazy, roll their lines (no forward was averaging over 19 minutes per game, even with all their injuries), they are physical, and they attempt to grind teams down.
The Leafs and Columbus did play twice in the regular season, but both games were in October (a Leafs regulation win and a Columbus overtime win). I started re-watching those games recently, but realistically, you can’t glean much from them considering the Leafs had a different coach and it was pre-pandemic times. However, what is clear and would be a real factor in a potential series is Columbus’ overall strategy. They got pucks in deep, they finished their checks, and they tried to run the Leafs down. They like to cycle, they want to impose their will on the Leafs, and they want the game to become a grind.
Columbus was seventh in shots against allowed per game and they block shots all the time. Their low missed shots total speaks to their cycling style.
Position by Position Matchups
The Leafs have a definite skill advantage up front. Columbus has depth of note on their bottom lines when healthy – Anderson, Texier, Nate Gerbe, Alex Wennberg, and Riley Nash, to name a few. A healthy Leafs team, though, also has depth scoring throughout their forward ranks in Kasperi Kapanen, Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Pierre Engvall, and Kyle Clifford. Up front, the Leafs have a clear advantage.
In terms of matchups, it’s difficult to say how it would play out. Columbus has been so injured, but their top line was generally Gustav Nyquist – Pierre-Luc Dubois – Cam Atkinson when healthy. The betting is they would match up against the Matthews line (Dubois actually roasted Matthews for a goal earlier this season).
Bjorkstrand also spent a ton of time on that line in place of Atkinson, and with both hurt, Nyquist spent some time with Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno. Whoever is flanking Foligno-Jenner, the unit would likely go head to head with the Tavares line.
On the back-end, Columbus has a high-end top pairing of Werenski – Jones. In Jones’ absence, Markus Nutivaara was also very good. David Savard is a solid veteran, while Vladislav Gavrikov emerged for them this season. The Leafs had an emergence of their own in Justin Holl, who formed a solid shutdown pairing with Jake Muzzin, and they will have Morgan Rielly back, although the makeup of his partnership is unclear (Travis Dermott makes sense to me). That has the makings of an underrated top-four group. Tyson Barrie, Rasmus Sandin, and Cody Ceci are also in the mix. Columbus has the elite talent here, though, along with solid depth. They get the nod on the blue line.
Entering the season, almost everyone would have said the Leafs have the advantage in net. Frederik Andersen has been very good since arriving in Toronto — although not so much this year. As mentioned, Columbus has one of the best 5v5 save percentages in the league. Elvis Merzlikins was sporting a .923 save percentage and Joonas Korpisalo was a .911 before the pause. The Leafs, conversely, had the fourth worth save percentage at 5v5, and Andersen was well below his career norm at .909. The numbers clearly indicate Columbus has the advantage — and I would give it to them slightly — but Andersen has a good history and Columbus still has unknowns in net. A rested Andersen with an opportunity to reset after a bit of a mess of a season for him shouldn’t go overlooked.
Ultimately, this is not the most ideal matchup for the Leafs. A more free-flowing opponent like Florida or the New York Rangers would probably be the best matchup on paper. But this is the type of series the Leafs need to learn how to win (if for no other reason than to prove their doubters wrong). This is a good opportunity for them to play in a physical, grind-it-out series and maybe even gather some winning confidence to take forward into a series against the Bruins in the future.
All of that said, don’t underestimate this Blue Jackets team. They surprised last season and still have reasons for optimism this season, too.