It looks like we finally have some NHL action to prepare for.
Fingers crossed, talks between the NHL and NHLPA will continue to trend in the right direction so that the 56-game season expected to start on January 13 goes ahead as tentatively planned.
In order for the season to take place, division realignment will need to be finalized. While there is handwringing on which teams will be in which divisions, the one divisional alignment that is not up for debate at all is the all-Canadian division. When the season does eventually start, we know that’s where the Leafs will play. The question is how we should feel about it.
On paper, the answer appears to be, “relatively good.”
The Leafs have arguably been in the most top-heavy division in the league for a few years now. A team from the Atlantic Division has won the Eastern Conference in each of the last two seasons, culminating in a Tampa Bay Lightning Stanley Cup win in the bubble last season.
For the past few seasons, the Bruins and Tampa Bay have been two of the top-five teams in the league. And while the Leafs have generally been a top-10 team in the regular season, there has been a clear divide between them and the top two. Last season, Boston and Tampa Bay recorded a points percentage of .714 and .657 compared to the Leafs‘ .579 mark. At one point last season, I wrote this about the division:
Every decade, there are a few teams that are simply caught behind other elite teams and they often struggle to get over the hump — early 2010s Washington vs. Pittsburgh, Trotz’s Predators vs. Detroit and Chicago, and San Jose vs. LA, etc. The Leafs are a pretty strong team, but Boston and Tampa are the elite of the elite. Facing the possibility of playing them back-to-back in the first two rounds before getting to a potential Washington or Pittsburgh matchup is just ridiculous to fathom.
The Leafs will now go from looking up at the last two teams to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final to a division where none of the teams can even confidently say they are a top-10 team in the league. Technically, all but one team (Ottawa) made the play-in last year, so there is some depth. There isn’t anyone you can really take lightly, but there are no elite teams.
Based on last season, the Leafs have by far the best offense in the division – and one of the best in the league in general – as they finished third in goals per game in the league last year. The only other Canadian teams in the top 15 in goals per game were Vancouver (8th) and Edmonton (15th).
Of course, the Leafs give up a ton on the other end, too. They gave up the sixth-most goals per game in the entire league in 2019-20. Only the Ottawa Senators had a worse goals-against-per-game average among Canadian teams. That said, none of the teams were particularly stout defensively, as the “best” goals-against-per-game average was Winnipeg’s at 10th in the league.
Overall, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver recorded a positive goal differential for the season. Winnipeg posted the highest goal difference in the division at +13, while the Leafs and Vancouver finished at +11.
Digging a little deeper, only the Montreal Canadiens had better possession numbers (corsi and fenwick) than the Leafs at 5v5.
The one area the Leafs were dead last in? Save percentage at 5v5. There is no question the Leafs received poor goaltending last season. Any sort of return to form for Frederik Andersen would mean serious trouble for the rest of the division.
With Andersen now 31 years old, who knows how likely that is? (Braden Holtby, who Vancouver signed back in October, is the same age and also really struggled in Washington last season.) But at least with Jack Campbell in place, the Leafs have a legitimate backup to lean on, so their goaltending should trend up — in theory. Only Winnipeg finished in the top 10 of 5v5 save percentage last season, anyway (9th). But goaltending is the last thing I’d bet on in terms of repeatability and predictability.
Looking at the landscape after the offseason acquisitions, Montreal generally ranked well in terms of possession but struggled to score – Tyler Toffoli will help there, while I’d label Josh Anderson a wildcard. The Leafs also lost all three of their games against them last season. The Habs are banking on the continued development of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi — which is fine for the long-term — but that center group (which also includes the underrated Phillip Danault) will not come close to a combination of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Joe Thornton.
The Senators made good moves and added a ton of prospects to the fold via the draft, but they are still clearly in a rebuild.
As for the Western teams, Vancouver came off a promising playoff run, lost Chris Tanev, Troy Stetcher (who played every game for them last season and was a bit underrated in his importance), Tyler Toffoli, and Jacob Markstrom. Adding Nate Schmidt was an upgrade, but it’s hard to see Braden Holtby matching what Markstrom did at this point in Holtby’s career. They will miss the scoring of Toffoli as well.
Calgary improved their goaltending with the aforementioned Markstrom. Tanev is also a nice player when healthy. However, their one addition at forward was old friend Josh Leivo even though their team finished 20th in goals per game last season.
Edmonton has elite talent — it will definitely carry them to some victories — but they also finished 27th in team corsi at 5v5. They struggle to control play, posted the 25th best team save percentage at 5v5, and added Tyson Barrie and Kyle Turris while bringing back Jesse Puljujarvi. You can’t ever count out a team with McDavid and Draisaitl on it, but their formula for winning is not particularly sustainable.
Winnipeg is scrappy and arguably has the best goalie in the division as of today, while they also added a declining Paul Stastny to round out a strong group of top-six forwards. Retaining Dylan DeMelo will help them out on the backend, and they will definitely need to stay healthy. They were outshot at 5v5 and any sort of step back in net for a team that was below average in scoring would be difficult to overcome.
All in all, there are a number of teams in the all-Canadian division that have recently been good but not great (save for Calgary somehow winning the West in the regular season just a season ago before getting crushed by Colorado in the playoffs). For a Leafs team that has been trying to overcome the hurdle of two elite teams in their division — rivals that have been in win-now mode and making countless notable additions to their rosters — it’s a good break.
This is about as good an opportunity as any for the Leafs to assert themselves as favourites for once in the first round of the playoffs.
- The last time there was a shortened season, the AHLers benefitted from playing the first half of the season in the minors while NHLers waited for a lockout-ending agreement. The Leafs made the playoffs that year and a number of their players came flying out of the gate that season – Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin, Mike Kostka, and Mark Fraser, to name a few. At one point, I thought playing in the World Juniors might provide a similar boost, as players could come in game ready while the rest of the league is finding its legs. But with the way timing has worked out, Nick Robertson would miss training camp in order to participate for Team USA. Given how many games he may or may not play at the World Juniors, it’s not worth it.
- The American Hockey League season has an anticipated start date of February 5. That represents an added layer of difficulty to this season. Is a player like Rasmus Sandin going to sit and practice for a month leading up to it? You’d have to think they’ll mix in some games for these younger depth options to keep them active and developing. At the same, it’s a 56-game season, so you can’t exactly take any game lightly.
- I wonder, to that end, if veterans such as Joe Thornton will see some load management this season, particularly if there are a lot of games in a short period of time.
- At the beginning of last season, the Leafs tried to focus on playing defense, using shorter breakouts, and grinding out games. This offseason, Kyle Dubas didn’t quite imply that he and Keefe have a similar aim, but he did say, “It’s going to be through the maturity of the group that’s already there, and our core group embracing the fact that this is a wonderful opportunity if they’re willing to sacrifice a little bit in each of their own individual realms, as all young teams do with young superstars. Players have to go through this.” Dubas is correct, and the players will need to sacrifice a bit here. They’ve all been paid, so they don’t need to worry about needing their numbers to cash in. Every single team that has won a championship has had star players who have acknowledged they have made sacrifices in their offensive game for the sake of defense in order to help the team win games. It is not as fun, but if you want to win in the playoffs, we’ve seen this time and time again. It’s nice to see this acknowledged. Now we’ll see if the players really buy in this season.
- Until the Leafs can feel comfortable matching up their top line against the opponent’s top line, their lineup construction is going to feel a little off. You wouldn’t trust a third line centered by Joe Thornton against, say, Elias Pettersson right now, and you certainly wouldn’t trust a fourth line centered by a player like Pierre Engvall against them. They work as depth scoring lines now, and perhaps with the additions of players like Wayne Simmonds and Joey Anderson, there could be an energy line here. In order for this to work out, a line led by Auston Matthews or John Tavares is going to have to handle the tough matchups well on a nightly basis. The Leafs’ bottom six isn’t exactly filled with a ton of scoring, either.
- Provided Ilya Mikheyev starts the season in the top six (which is a fair bet), the Leafs bottom six will consist of a group that includes but is not limited to Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Alexander Kerfoot, Jimmy Vesey, Pierre Engvall, Jason Spezza, Joey Anderson and possibly Nick Robertson. Not a single one of those players scored in the double digits last season (albeit in a shortened season). There is not a ton of offense on their bottom lines.