Hockey’s back — sort of.
You hate to pump the breaks at a time when there is finally some positive news to be excited about amid this treacherous pandemic, but it should be pretty obvious to everyone that the real decisions are yet to come.
Reaching an agreement on a tournament format — which teams play are going to play which teams, where the cutoff line in the standings resides (i.e. the bottom seven are out) — and the timing of the draft and draft lottery is little more than the window dressing in the grand scheme of this unprecedented situation. Getting the PA on board in regards to the logistics, safety, and livability of the conditions required to actually hold a 24-team tournament in the two hub cities (to be identified), the clubs’ capacity to handle the great number of responsibilities the league has bestowed upon them in regards to medical equipment and personnel, testing and monitoring, and the plan for the handling of any positive tests — that’s the pith of the matter.
That said, Gary Bettman and the NHL wanted to get out ahead of the other major North American sports leagues with an announcement of an official-seeming plan and formalized playoff bracket — and it has definitely given us all the perception of light at the end of one very long and dark tunnel, with the NHL dominating the bone-dry sports news cycle for the past 24 hours.
Assorted thoughts: Nick Robertson, 28-man roster, matchup vs. Columbus
Nick Robertson, on getting called up to join the #leafs this summer: "I don't think it has hit me yet. I've definitely every day been thinking about it … and whatever happens I'm just fortunate for the opportunity and experience."
More to come at @sportsnet
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 27, 2020
– We got some more intriguing news today in the form of 18-year-old prospect Nick Roberton’s inclusion in the Leafs‘ Phase 2 training camp. The Leafs, by Kyle Dubas’ own words, clearly had regrets about not giving Robertson more of a look in camp last Fall. At a minimum, he is going to get a nearly full OHL season of development — an All-Star season in which he won the scoring title handily — a WJC appearance, and an NHL training camp all before he turns 19 years old. Even if it turns out to be nothing more than a good experience for the Peterborough Pete should he not crack the roster for the playoffs (if they happen), that’s an amazing draft-plus-one year of development for a pretty special up-and-coming prospect for the organization.
A point of clarification: As Kyle Dubas outlined on Tim & Sid on Wednesday evening, Robertson will be participating in training camp, but that does not guarantee him a spot on the roster for Phase 4 when the club heads to the hub city for the playoffs.
– Robertson could also shock the world and become a fixture/difference maker in the Leafs lineup in the playoffs. The Leafs‘ bottom-six scoring was becoming a real point of concern as the season wore on. In addition to the pace, puck skills and high-end shot he possesses, highly impressive in the development camp and rookie tournament last summer and Fall was how competitive Robertson was in the tough areas of the ice; he looked like a player who doesn’t necessarily need to play on a top scoring line to be effective as a rookie.
While he’s height-challenged, his motor and determination are high-end and he’s a courageous kid who takes his off-ice work very seriously. He’ll no doubt be in amazing shape for camp if and when it opens. It’s still a big ask of an 18-year-old, though, and it’d be highly premature to assume he’s playing playoff games at this point. It could be quite the storyline in the making — or not should he prove not quite ready yet, which there is no shame in.
– Here is the Leafs‘ 28-man roster — that’s the latest report on the likely roster limit — as I see it:
Hyman – Matthews – Marner
Mikheyev – Tavares – Nylander
Spezza/Kerfoot – Kerfoot/Spezza – Kapanen
Clifford – Gauthier – Engvall
Extras: Gauthier, Malgin, two of Robertson/Brooks/Agostino/Korshkov/Petan
Muzzin – Holl
Rielly – Ceci
Dermott – Barrie
Extras: Sandin, Marincin, Rosen
– Like many others, I had mixed feelings on the playoff format. There are two teams who obviously didn’t earn a play-in opportunity, and one of them winning a best-of-five to make the playoffs would be tough to stomach (one in particular more than the other…). As for Toronto, the Leafs hadn’t guaranteed themselves a playoff spot by any stretch based on 81 points in 70 games, and it was always likely they’d have to play some sort of play-in — be it a round-robin or a short series — to make it. They hadn’t punched their ticket by rights. However, their odds of playing Tampa in round one were looking pretty good, and now it’s a best-of-five against a fully healthy Columbus team after three-plus months off — it can only be described as a toss-up —just for the right to play a tough opponent in round one.
There is no denying the Leafs got one of the tougher breaks in that sense if you consider their playoff odds before the break. Between the Auston Matthews storyline before camp, the horrible start to the season, the coaching change, the injuries, the mystifying number of flat efforts and blowout losses, the season suspension and now a best-of-five versus a healthy Columbus just to make it in — it’s unquestionably the most adversity-filled and unpredictable season in modern Leafs history. And a fascinating final chapter is yet to be written.
– As for the Leafs’ opponent, it’s going to be an interesting series for a lot of reasons. Knowing teams are going to be 3-4 months separated from their last competitive action, how dialed into systems and structure are teams going to be? Is it going to be pick up and go — especially if the line-ups are significantly altered by so many returning bodies from injury? In these conditions, are the teams with the skill, speed, scoring, and goaltending the ones to bet on? Is it the more veteran/experienced teams, or is youth a real asset in this situation?
We know the kind of game the Blue Jackets are going to play against the Leafs — and it was one that had been giving the Leafs trouble just before the break on the California road trip, where they ran into opposition that jammed them up through the neutral zone, checked them hard, and ground them down low in the Leafs’ defensive third. The Leafs left the trip with just one point and two goals in three games.
If the structure is something resembling October hockey except the games are played at playoff intensity, it probably favours the Leafs (?). But we have no reference point for any of this. I honestly have no clue. It all makes the coaching angle — the highly experienced veteran coach in John Tortorella vs. the rookie NHL coach in Sheldon Keefe — and the goaltending angle — how is Frederik Andersen after the reset, knowing he needed the break as much as any Leaf but also knowing his struggles early in seasons? — particularly big for me.
– Under Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs looked like a team flirting with brilliance at times but one that was still too fragile mentally when something went wrong, and the results weren’t any more consistent defensively, even as the team’s offense roared back to life up until the week before the pause. In fairness, though, Keefe hasn’t had the benefit of a training camp while in charge of the Leafs yet. He hardly got any practice days with the Leafs schedule in the first few months in charge. Now he gets that opportunity — potentially three weeks long, with all personnel save Andreas Johnsson present and healthy — ahead of his first NHL playoffs, albeit in truly unprecedented circumstances.
When Keefe took over the Greyhounds in the OHL in 2012, he took over partway through the season, the team went 36-26-3 the rest of way, and lost out in the first round. After his first full camp with the team, the Soo went 15-2-2 to start the year in his first full season. When he took over the Toronto Marlies in 2015-16, they went 15-4-0 to start his first season. That’s not the NHL, though, and there really is no comparison given the current situation especially.