As the middle of June and Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return To Play Initiative begins, I think now is the appropriate time to start actually looking into how tough of a draw the Leafs face going into their best-of-5 play-in series v.s. the Blue Jackets.
Although these games will be played with playoff overtime rules, I will refrain from calling this an actual playoff series as the league has already confirmed the 8 play-in series will not count towards playoff statistics. Nonetheless, as much as people will say this return to play format will have a giant asterisk… a series win for the Maple Leafs will still mean the world to the fanbase. But in typical Leafs fashion, it isn’t going to be easy and that theme is amplified in the Columbus Blue Jackets as their opponent.
For the first time in 4 seasons, the Leafs will enter their first “series” as the favourite on paper, but don’t think for a second that this series will be a cake walk. On the surface, Columbus is a team who should have finished closer to a lottery pick than a playoff spot this season. The Blue Jackets were coming off a year where GM Jarmo Kekäläinen pushed all his chips into the middle by trading for pending UFAs Dzingel, Duchene, McQuaid, and Kinkaid at the deadline. As opposed to recouping some assets for their own star-studded pair of pending UFAs in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky who both seemed fully intent on leaving for a bigger market in the off-season. It was the most polarizing trade deadline for a GM in recent memory but it actually paid off to some degree as the Jackets pulled off one of the greatest first-round upsets in Stanley Cup Playoff history after sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning.
This year, expectations were low and the roster lacked star power aside from their two young studs on the back-end in Werenski and Jones. It pretty much looked like if they had any chance to do some damage this year, they would need to be healthy, have depth-scoring, be resolute defensively, and have tremendous goaltending. Unfortunately for them, a healthy lineup was a fictitious rumor but thankfully the latter 3 were evident and consistent throughout the entire season. After having to use 33 different skaters this season, Columbus will be coming back with a fully-healthy roster with the likes of Jones, Murray, Atkinson, Bjorkstrand, and Texier all ready to enter the lineup. But fear not, the Leafs will also be bringing back reinforcements when the NHL returns with Muzzin and Mikheyev and not to mention Rielly having an extra 3-4 months of recovery from whatever was ailing him this season.
In order to fully understand the impact of injuries on both teams’ lineups, I felt it would be a good exercise to evaluate Toronto and Columbus’ lineups from their last game before the pause and compare it to what it could look like come Game 1 of the series. With that being said, a statistic that is one of the best in describing a players impact to his team is Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and for goalies it is Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA). Essentially for both measures, a player is perceived to have a positive/negative impact in the lineup if their GAR or GSAA is above/below 0… the further the stat is above/below 0 indicates the greater amount of positive/negative impact while being in the lineup. Please keep in mind, due to the lengthy pause in the season, it is not exactly best practice to assume a player or goalie will have exactly the same impact once hockey returns.
Taking a look at Columbus’ lineup from their last regular season game:
It is clear Columbus was running on fumes and yet still managed to keep a 95 point pace over a pro-rated 82 game season. The job that John Tortorella did with this group should get him some major Jack Adams consideration. Some things that stick out to me hear is how they were able to keep cycling through so many AHL-level names through the lineup and still stay so structured defensively which led to some outstanding numbers from both goalies.
Now let’s take a look at Toronto’s lineup from their last regular season game:
Now the Leafs were not as injured as Columbus when the pause occurred but it is still clear their was some noticeable holes in the lineup with Muzzin and Mikheyev out. My main takeaway from this illustration is just how bad Andersen was this season. Those who follow me on Twitter know that I think Andersen’s numbers are slightly overstated especially when you dig into the excessive workload this team puts him under not only with just the number of starts but also the amount of high danger chances they give up. However, if Andersen was just slightly more average this season, we’re probably not talking about a “play-in series” and instead talking about the Leafs finishing top 4 in the conference. Though, we should all still have complete faith in Freddy to outperform Columbus’ goalie since this is almost like a new season, especially for the goalies.
Lastly, let us look at each teams potential lineups for Game 1 of the series to show how much better each team should be once it starts:
As I look at these two lineups now, I continue to recall how true Mark Giordano’s quote to TSN was back at the end of March when he said this playoff could be the best ever because of all the players having more time to rehab. Each team will get a significant boost throughout the lineup which on the surface seems to benefit Columbus more, however I still think Toronto still has the best 4 forwards in this series across both teams which I think poses a big threat to Columbus’ deep defensive core.
Moving onto the team statistical comparison, I find this exercise will give a great illustration of just how evenly matched these teams are. I looked at numerous statistics (Courtesy of Natural Stattrick) that best explain a teams performance both offensively and defensively in all situations.
When we look at this chart, I felt that this series is going to be all about who can dictate the game’s style of play. The team that can facilitate the pace of play will be the team that wins in my opinion, it is clear Toronto will want to play a high event speed game while Columbus will want to slow the game down and play some low event hockey. Now some of you might recall, this sounds a lot like a preview for a Boston v.s. Toronto series right now, well here is where I think this series will differ… Columbus lacks the offensive fire power Boston had the last two years. In 2018, it seemed like every time the Bergeron line was on… they scored. In 2019, Tavares’ line seemingly shuts down that line at 5 on 5 but Boston’s powerplay torched the Leafs woeful penalty kill. In 2020, I don’t think the Leafs need to really worry about either of the past scenarios as Columbus doesn’t have one of the best lines in hockey and their powerplay is dreadful.
Overall, I think the beacon of optimism for Leafs Nation this time around is that it seems the path to victory is there as long as they stay true to their skillset and don’t let a bigger team like Columbus bully them out of playing their game. Looking back to those Boston series, I think what hurt the Leafs is that Boston could really play any type of game they wanted and it turned the series on its head since Boston could run the star-studded horses like Toronto could but they also had a deeper team to push them over the hump. Columbus really only has one way of winning, and although I think the Leafs will develop other ways to win as this core gains more experience… I still believe the Leafs win this series in 4 or 5 games.