TORONTO – Funny, isn’t it?
The Toronto Maple Leafs are wrapping up their winningest season in 100 years of existence and they’re still destined to play a more successful team when the playoffs open on April 11.
Despite having the NHL’s softest schedule in the final two weeks — they draw the 31st-place Sabres twice at home and can sharpen their blades against the appalling Canadiens and Islanders — the Leafs (97 points) have a measly two per cent chance of grasping second seed in the Atlantic Division and home-ice advantage because the Eastern Conference’s two best squads, Tampa Bay (106) and Boston (104), happen to play in the same division.
Nazem Kadri doesn’t like it.
“It’s just beyond our reach. It’s nothing we can really control,” Kadri said.
“I don’t love the new format. I don’t think you should be able to have a season like we’re having and still face a team that’s had a better season. Home ice, how we’re rolling, that plays an important role. I’m not a huge fan. It’s just the hand we’re dealt.”
Kadri’s isn’t the first prominent voice to question the NHL’s division-based playoff brackets, adopted in 2014 to lessen travel and fuel divisional animosity.
Last spring, when the Metropolitan held all the heavyweights, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby said he wasn’t a big fan of how the bracket would be laid out, and Washington’s Daniel Winnik bluntly labelled it “stupid.”
Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan, plus goaltender Braden Holtby and head coach Barry Trotz are among those who have also raised a suspicious eyebrow to the system.
Revamping the structure isn’t yet a top priority for the decision-makers, but the league’s brass could not have anticipated such lopsided divisional strength in back-to-back years. We wonder if the format undergoes a more formal review around the time the NHL tweaks its alignment and expands to include its 32nd franchise, in Seattle.
Kadri sees that the Southern Professional Hockey League is now testing a revolutionary pick-your-own-opponent format, which had success in Austria.
“I don’t think it would pass in the NHL,” said Kadri, who would prefer the NBA-style 1-through-8 seeding. “But it’s certainly a format to look at. I think fans would be interested in that and it would create a spark for playoff hockey. But I think playoff hockey is already trending in the right direction and very fun to watch.”
Earlier this season, Mike Babcock chose his words carefully when speaking on the topic. Reading between the lines, the coach set to guide the winningest Leafs club ever believes they’ve done enough to secure home ice.
“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?” Babcock said.
Now, however, the head coach refuses to go down that road. The time for sidebars has past; the focus is singular.
Even if the Leafs have a great chance Monday versus Buffalo to extend their record home streak to 14 wins, the futility of trying to catch Boston or Tampa won’t dampen spirits at Air Canada Centre.
“I don’t know why you’d be frustrated about anything. It seems like a waste of time to me,” Babcock said. “To me, that isn’t what it’s about. To me, it’s about preparation for the tournament.
“If you’re not prepared, you’re out of the tournament right away. You want to be set up and ready to go.”
In addition to the home streak and home wins record (26), No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen need just three W’s to break the club’s single-season wins mark of 37 (Ed Belfour and Andrew Raycroft). And with the Leafs’ next victory, Babcock will pass Pat Quinn in the one-season wins column for Toronto. Without the luxury of shootout wins, Quinn got stuck on 45 thrice.
“When they fire you in the ground one day, they can talk about that stuff. In the meantime, let’s try and get better,” said Babcock, waving off the benchmarks. “You don’t know how good your opportunity is; you never know when your time is coming.
“I’ve been in this league a long time, thought I had lots of good teams and I like our team. So, let’s get prepared and let’s get better than we have, and you never know.”