We continue on here with our breakdowns of each of the Flyers’ possible first playoff opponents. After diving in on the Blue Jackets, the Rangers, the Islanders, and the Canadiens, we’ve touched on one half of each of the NHL’s round-robin matchups. Now, we’ll start looking at the other half of those matchups, in the same order, which means it’s time we ask the important question: how does this tournament affect the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Toronto Maple Leafs
Their season, in 100 words:
Well. They began the season with a very public contract negotiation with one of their best players, floundered enough out of the gate to get their $50 million coach fired, showed real signs of life under Sheldon Keefe, managed to lose at home to a team that was forced to play a zamboni driver who works for Toronto’s own minor league team, have been on the edge of the playoff bubble all year, and yet still have shown the potential to be a wrecking ball.
Oh, also, Dave Hakstol is one of their assistant coaches. Seems like something worth noting.
Team Performance: Toronto Maple Leafs
|Measure||Full Season||Since All-Star Break|
|Measure||Full Season||Since All-Star Break|
|Total Goal Differential (Non-SO)||15||1|
|Goals For % (5-on-5)||50.16%||48.28%|
|On-Ice xG For per 60*||2.6||2.68|
|On-Ice xG Against per 60*||2.45||2.45|
|On-Ice xG % (5-on-5)*||51.62%||52.62%|
|Power Play Goals / xG For per 60||8.21 / 6.96||7.35 / 5.67|
|Penalty Kill Goals / xG Against per 60||7.69 / 6.56||6.59 / 6.91|
* 5-on-5 xG numbers are score/venue-adjusted. All statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com.
Projected lineup (courtesy of Daily Faceoff):
William Nylander - Austom Matthews - Zach Hyman
Ilya Mikheyev - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Nick Robertson - Alexander Kerfoot - Kasperi Kapanen
Kyle Clifford - Pierre Engvall - Jason Spezza
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Morgan Rielly - Cody Ceci
Travis Dermott - Tyson Barrie
(Full Phase 4 roster can be found here.)
How they win: By doing a lot of offense. Most of us have a pretty good grasp for what the Leafs are at this point, and their team-level offensive numbers are pretty much what you’d think they are. They’re 3rd in the NHL in goals per game, behind only Tampa and Washington, and their power play is sixth in the league in goals scored per 60 minutes. Sheldon Keefe has got this team playing like a team headlined by Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner should be playing, and it’s why their season took a turn for the better when he took over following Mike Babcock’s departure. Their top-6 can probably run with that of basically any team in the league, their depth guys are fine enough, and while their defense isn’t what you’d call consistent (we’ll get there), it’s got a lot of guys who can take over games.
How they don’t win: By doing very little defense. That defense is certainly capable of greatness, but it can be taken advantage of, too. Tyson Barrie’s first season with the Leafs, for example, has been up and down (though he, like others on the team, seems to have moved in the right direction since Keefe took over). They’ve also used meaningful minutes to play Cody Ceci, who hasn’t been terrible, but still happens to be Cody Ceci. Alas, the somewhat bigger question for them has been the play of the guy in net for them, Frederik Andersen. Outside of an outstanding month of November, Andersen’s been pretty cold for most of the season, and the Leafs’ relative struggles post-All Star Break seemed to often boil down to Andersen not stopping enough pucks. If he’s woken up over the course of the stoppage, the Leafs are going to be a very tough out, but had the playoffs started during the normal course of the season, he’d have been this team’s biggest question mark.
How they fared against the Flyers this year: 1-1-1, with two games that were very close and one that was very close for 50 minutes. The two teams played twice in seven days in early November, and both of those games ended with the road team winning in a shootout. The first time around, the shootout went 11 rounds before Andreas Johnsson finally put us all out of our misery; six days later, Claude Giroux hilariously beat Andersen on a slapshot (something over which Andersen was definitely not mad) before Sean Couturier used some nifty moves to slide one through for the game-winner. A month (and a new coach) later, back in Philadelphia, the Flyers broke through on a strong effort and took a 2-1 lead midway through the third period, and kept pouring it on ... and on ... and on, even getting two more goals after the Leafs had put Andersen back in the game after pulling him for an extra attacker ... in a 6-1 victory. That was fun.
First-round opponent: The Columbus Blue Jackets. Here’s what we said about that matchup when we talked about Columbus a while back:
Talent-wise, few would dispute that they’d be an underdog in that series. But it feels as though Columbus has got more out of its roster this year than Toronto has, it’s not like there was a ton of daylight between these two teams in the standings (none, in fact — they had the same number of points in the same number of games, though Toronto had three more regulation wins), and again, Columbus is getting back more reinforcements than maybe any team in the league. Columbus would probably need Frederik Andersen to remain on the cold-ish streak he was on before the season stopped, but if that happened, they’d have a good chance at a win.
The two teams played just twice this season, splitting a pair of games back in October when Babcock was still coaching the Leafs, so that record probably doesn’t matter much. Again, if you line these two teams up side-by-side and are forced to pick a roster, you’re picking Toronto’s, even with the Blue Jackets on the verge of getting back about a quarter of their lineup from injuries. But how are they going to actually match up on the ice? Purely in terms of record, there was basically nothing separating these teams last season despite Columbus’ absurd rash of injuries. Toronto certainly has more impressive top-end firepower than Columbus does, and if those guys do what they’re capable of and if Andersen can get even a little bit right, it seems like this is theirs for the taking. But a plucky Columbus team giving Toronto fits feels like exactly what should happen in this weird Maple Leafs season, y’know? We’ll see.
Are they a threat? Yes. After a rough start to the year, Toronto under Keefe has looked a lot like the teams they had in the past couple of years, the ones that probably could have gone on a real run had they squeaked out one more win against Boston in the playoffs. It is not that difficult to envision a scenario in which the Leafs’ top-6 dominates, their offensive blueliners make enough big plays to paper over any defensive weaknesses, and Andersen remembers he’s a good goalie. And if the play-in round ends in three or four games with all of that happening, the East’s remaining teams are going to be sprinting to the phone to see how quickly they can get their minor-league team’s zamboni driver up into the bubble. There are no promises here — again, this team didn’t even end the season with more points than the team they’ll be facing next week — but the ceiling on this team is very high.