It’s been quite a dry spell for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The franchise last won the Stanley Cup in 1967 and in the intervening years they’ve never made it back to the Finals, and only reached the conference finals a total of four times. An even bigger mark of ineptitude is the seven straight years they’ve missed the playoffs—let’s call it the ‘Curse of Gary Bettman’, since that covers the entire period since the 2005 season was cancelled. Today though, Toronto is hanging in the NHL Eastern Conference playoff race, in the #7 position. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis today will focus on whether the Leafs are finally for real as a playoff team.
Let’s begin by looking at the foundation point: the play of last year’s Leafs. They finished 13th in the Eastern Conference, five spots and 12 points out of the postseason and were never really a contender. The defense was awful, the second-worst in the NHL at allowing goals. On a directly related point, the ability to kill penalties was non-existent and on the offensive side, Toronto tended to rely on the power play. They were one of the NHL’s worst teams in standard five-on-five play, meaning their chances of winning games basically depended on how a game was going to be officiated.
Everything in the sport of hockey ultimately points to the goaltender, so it won’t come as a shock to note that the biggest factor in Toronto’s improved play is much better work by the goalies. James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have split duty, and while neither is going to remind anyone of Jonathan Quick anytime soon, the Leafs are at least getting competent work. The penalty kill now ranks in about the middle of the league.
Toronto’s offense is an upper-third unit in terms of overall rank in the NHL, just as it was last season. What’s more important though, is that the Leafs aren’t nearly as dependent on the power play for producing goals. They now rank in ninth in the NHL in five-on-five action, giving them a much better hope for consistency each night.
When you break the offense down individually you find a unit that doesn’t have star power, but does have pretty good balance. Nazem Kadri at center, and flanked by forwards Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk and all rank in the top 60 of the NHL in points. Kadri and Kessel have done it by passing, while van Reimsdyk has scored 11 goals. If you dig into the second, third and fourth lines, you find contributions from two left-wingers, Clarke MacArthur (five goals) and Nikolai Kulemin (10 assists), right-winger Matt Fratton (seven goals) and centers Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovksi, who have combined for 11 goals and 10 assists.
And when we say Toronto has no star power, that’s based on current production. Kessel is a very talented offensive player and if he were to break out and elevate his game, it brings a whole new dimension to the Leafs’ offense.
That’s all the good news. The bad news is this—we’ll start with the number of games Toronto has played, second-most among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference. In a league where the standings are done by point total rather than winning percentage, additional games skew the results. The Leafs have played three more games than the nearest contenders just outside the playoff bubble. In fairness, they have a five-point lead, so that means teams that aren’t playing well would suddenly have to win all three. Nonetheless, it means that while Toronto’s play to date is legitimately playoff-caliber, it’s closer than the point standings alone would indicate.
The second concern is how much of the play to date is going to be sustainable. The stats that concern me the most are that Toronto is 24th in the NHL at both generating shots on goal and preventing them. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to continue scoring enough to win at that rate, and on the defensive side it puts a lot of pressure on Reimer and Scrivens on goal—pressure neither has show the ability to handle for a full season.
You can tell I’m skeptical of seeing Toronto finally break their playoff drought this year, but next week will be an important testing time for them, with four games against legitimate playoff-caliber competition. The Leafs host New Jersey on Monday, then play back-to-back games against Northeast Division rivals Ottawa and Boston, the latter of which is on the road. Then on Saturday Toronto comes back home to face Pittsburgh. By late Saturday night, Leafs fans will have a good sense of whether to get their hopes up, or just to redirect their attention to baseball and the new-look Blue Jays.
But whether you’re skeptical or not, whether this team meets its test or not, at least the Toronto Maple Leafs have given the fan base some hope as the season reaches the halfway point. That, in of itself, says plenty.