Maple Leafs’ peculiar position puts playoff format in question

Nazem Kadri, Auston Matthews and Coach Babcock discuss the challenges facing the Tampa Bay Lightning, with scoring leader Nikita Kucherov front and centre.

TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs are stuck.

With 25 games remaining on their schedule, an unfathomable Leafs surge would have to align with an unimaginable collapse by either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Boston Bruins for them to finish the season anywhere but third place in the Atlantic.

According to sportsclubstat.com, a site that crunches playoff odds, Toronto has a measly six per cent chance of climbing to the second seed. The Leafs’ odds of winning the division or falling out of playoff position all together are less than 0.01 per cent.

There is a 94 per cent chance the Leafs don’t go anywhere, and that number has been rising by the night – despite the fact Toronto has won seven of its past eight games.

The five worst Eastern Conference clubs all hail from the lopsided Atlantic, and that gap could widen further once teams like Ottawa, Buffalo, Detroit and Montreal weaken their rosters leading up to the Feb. 26 deadline.

Already, 18 points separate the third-place Leafs from the fourth-place Red Wings. In the Metro, just 11 points separate first-place Washington from the last-place Rangers.

The Metropolitan race has become a dogfight, and the Atlantic a yawner. Can Boston catch Tampa for the top seed? That’s essentially the only unanswered question with 30 per cent of the season still to play.

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Ahead of Monday’s game in Toronto, a likely first- or second-round opponent, the Presidents’ Trophy front-runners preached the importance of securing that top spot.

“The year we went to the Stanley Cup Final [in 2015], we played Game 7 against Detroit at home [in Round 1]. Who knows who’s going to win that game if it’s on the road?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

“We got that one-nothing lead, and I know that home crowd carried us all the way in. You can’t predict how series are going to go, but if you’re giving me the option, you want home ice.”

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said he’d personally prefer a No. 1 vs. 8 conference-based format in the vein of the NBA. Washington coach Barry Trotz, whose Capitals are tired of butting heads with Pittsburgh so early, said the same thing a couple weeks ago.

Reading between the lines, we’re guessing that would be Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s inclination as well.

“But it would do me no good to let you know what my preference is right now anyway,” Babcock said. “We have to get ready for what the league’s rules are. I don’t make those rules, but she’s a grind all year to get the place you have, and then you’d like to play the right team. How’s that?”

That’s fair. The counter argument, and the reason the NHL switched to a division-based format, is to ramp up divisional hate. Surely, Gary Bettman was dreaming more of a Montreal-Toronto playoff series that’s decades in the making, or a reignited Battle of Alberta, and not 25 games of thumb-twiddling until the playoffs start.

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Even with their playoff fate essentially sealed, the Leafs themselves can’t let complacency set in. They must believe they can make that six per cent chance of seizing home ice grow. Or else, what is there to play for?

“It’s in the back of our minds. Home ice is an advantage in the playoffs, and we want to be looked at as one of those best teams,” said Nazem Kadri, looking at three more dates versus Tampa and one more versus Boston. “We’ve got some work ahead of us, but we’ve got teams ahead of us that we’re playing, so hopefully we’ll make up some ground.”

Toronto has the third-best record in the East. At this rate, it’ll need to go through the teams with the second-best and (likely) best record in the conference just to reach the conference final. Boston is in a similar boat.

“I understand teams in those positions feeling they’re playing higher seeds than they deserve,” Cooper said.

After missing out on the post-season all together last spring, Tampa refuses to take anything for granted. Both Victor Hedman and Cooper pointed to the Los Angeles Kings’ championship run as an eight seed in 2012 as an example of no easy match-ups.

“You can do the 1-16, you can do the 1-8, you can do division rivals,” Cooper said. “Ultimately, to get the big prize, you still have to beat four teams.”

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