It’s been just short of 20 weeks since the Toronto Maple Leafs last played. It’s been seven weeks since the doors at the Ford Performance Centre first opened for coordinated workouts to begin.
It’s been a long, long time coming for the franchise as the NHL inches closer and closer toward successfully restarting its season amid a global pandemic.
And it could all be over, just like that.
You know by now that the Maple Leafs must survive the Columbus Blue Jackets in a five-game, midsummer qualification series to advance into the traditional phase and format of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Aug. 1 will mark the start of the first play-in round in the league’s history, and it will last, at most, eight days.
That’s all the time we’ll need to determine whether it’s the potential start of a legitimate title charge and lengthy hub city hotel stay, or if the Maple Leafs will have to wait — potentially for another four months — for the next opportunity to play hockey.
So much is riding on something so completely unforgiving.
And yet, there’s an argument to be made that the Leafs are better positioned now than they have been at any point this season.
Let’s dive into the key details of an undeniably critical matchup and moment in time for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Styles make fights
While circumstances have encouraged both Sheldon Keefe and John Tortorella to drift toward the middle, the two head coaches in this series typically operate at different ends of the philosophical spectrum. Keefe would be considered new-age, and a coach that encourages creativity and skills development, while his counterpart appreciates the simplicity and grind from decades-old hockey strategies and will happily suck the air from a game in order to dictate terms.
Naturally, this clash of style begs the question: wherein lies the advantage in a meeting between one team built on high-end offensive focus and another that calls often-punishing zip-tight structure its hallmark?
It proved to be the latter two springs back when the Blue Jackets shocked the historically-dominant Tampa Bay Lightning in four games. But while that series presents useful context when breaking down this one given the similarities between Toronto and Tampa, the more important variable after four-and-a-half months, it seems, is the short time these groups have had to prepare themselves to effectively implement their tactics.
So, if it all comes down to preparation, it seems noteworthy that there are two different messages emanating from the two camps.
In Toronto, there has been a strong sense that the Leafs have created an advantage for themselves in Phase 2 and 3. With strong attendance and full dedication tracing back to the first optional skate on June 8, they seemed to cruise through the required conditioning work and recaptured useful chemistry before even immersing themselves into the new tactics Keefe is aiming to implement in his first opportunity to run an NHL training camp.
While new schemes could potentially complicate matters for the Leafs, there is no evidence that points to the coach and players being on separate pages.
The same might not be said about the Blue Jackets.
The second week of training camp took on an air of no such positivity, with Tortorella tearing strips off his players mid-practice, and both spurning the media and using his sessions in front of reporters to question the readiness of his group.
If this series was won on optics alone, it might already be a three-game sweep in favour of the Leafs.
A real talent discrepancy
When Zach Hyman was forced to miss two practices near the halfway mark of training camp when he took a shot off the boot from Jason Spezza in a power play simulation, Keefe stirred up excitement when he put his three best offensive players — Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner — on the same line for practice and scrimmage.
Naturally, the trio tilted the ice in a serious manner against some clearly inferior competition down deeper in the Leafs training camp lineup. But an even more encouraging sign from those scrimmages was that William Nylander wouldn’t be outshined in tandem with camp standout Ilya Mikheyev, standing out just as much as the unit Tyson Barrie coined as the “All-Star Game Line.”
It was another reminder of just how much talent the Leafs have at their disposal — as well the divide between these two teams when it comes to premium assets.
Now again, that wasn’t an issue for the Blue Jackets last season versus the Lightning, who might boast the most talented collection of players in the league. But it’s worth a reminder that the Blue Jackets counted on five goals and 12 total points in their four-game sweep from recent Hart Trophy nominee Artemi Panarin and No. 1 centre Matt Duchene, two players who chose to exit in free agency last summer.
Questions in the crease
There likely isn’t a single-more important factor in a five-game postseason series between two teams that achieved similar regular season records than goaltending. And for different reasons, there could be cause for concern on both sides.
In Toronto’s Phase 4 training camp, if there was one player who stood out in a negative light, it was expected starter Frederik Andersen. Some of his issues seemed a touch unforced, as the club chose to stack the deck against him in four of the five scrimmages. But when you factor in his habitual slow starts to most seasons, there is reason to be concerned about Andersen’s form entering the qualification round, and his ability to out-duel his competition.
Opposing Andersen for the Blue Jackets will either be the unproven Joonas Korpisalo, the rookie Elvis Merzlikens, or possibly a combination of both. It’s not without question that one of these goaltenders will step in and perform at or above the level of the competition, but it’s on the coaching staff to make the correct decision, and there is little room for error.
There probably isn’t a team included in the NHL’s restart plan that’s in worse standing when it comes to their health, but Toronto and Columbus are two teams that will have certainly benefitted.
Few teams, if any at all, were hit harder with injuries than the Jackets, who really did limp to the finish on the league’s abbreviated season. Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Alexandre Texier have all healed up from their various ailments, however potential X-factor Josh Anderson will not be ready for the play-in series.
Toronto, too, will receive some important reinforcements. Mikheyev isn’t just healthy, but appears to have grown significantly as a player in his return to regular training during the pause. Jake Muzzin is also fit after missing the end of the regular season with a broken hand, while Morgan Rielly will be 100 percent, perhaps for the first time all season, after being rushed back to appear in just a single game before the league shut down. For the meantime, Andreas Johnsson will remain unavailable for the Maple Leafs after undergoing what was supposed to be season-ending surgery in February.
To fill the voids left by Anderson and Johnsson, respectively, the Jackets and Leafs have tapped into the prospect reserve. It seems Liam Foudy will slot into Tortorella’s lineup, while Nick Robertson will have the chance to crack the Leafs’ top 12 forwards as a teenager.
Toronto and Columbus met twice in the regular season, with both clashes coming in October — and before Keefe took over for the dismissed Mike Babcock.
The Leafs won 4-1 in Columbus in the second game of the season, before the Blue Jackets answered on an overtime goal from Gustav Nyquist only 16 days later.
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