Maple Leafs’ series with Blue Jackets comes down to talent vs. structure

Sheldon Keefe offers his thoughts on what Jake Muzzin and William Nylander bring to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and states that the team will watch the Columbus Blue Jackets play their exhibition game to do some scouting.

TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe believes the unique nature of the NHL restart will cut down on the amount of time a team needs to fine-tune its systems play.

On the surface, this is obviously a good thing for his Toronto Maple Leafs as they look to make some defensive improvements.

But if Keefe’s instincts are correct, it could also wind up complicating the task the Leafs face in the qualifying round because there might not be another NHL team that matches the structure of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

There’s little mystery as to how they’ll look to put a vise-grip on this best-of-five series: By finishing checks and blocking shots and taking away the middle of the ice. The message from John Tortorella will be about making life hard on Toronto’s offensive threats, much like the Blue Jackets did last year in a shocking first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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However, with this unprecedented Stanley Cup tournament set to kick off following a break of more than four months, there’s an even higher degree of unpredictability than usual. It only stands to reason that the Leafs would benefit from games more closely resembling October hockey — when the play tends to be wide open and free flowing and full of mistakes.

If talent winds up deciding the series, the Leafs are likely advancing.

Which is why it was interesting to hear Keefe’s thoughts on how long it should take for teams to dial in their systems under these unusual conditions. If anything, he feels they’ve added some urgency to the way his players are going about their business.

“With what’s at stake, and given that we’re playing very meaningful hockey games starting on Sunday, there’s a heightened awareness in everything that you’re doing,” Keefe said Thursday. “So my expectation is that we’ll pick it up quicker than normal.

“We’re not going to make any excuses here or anything like that, we’ve had plenty of time to practice and everything, and we’re expecting our guys to be prepared to execute.”

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Part of his own preparation for the season restart involved going back and watching Columbus’s games from last year’s playoff run. The organization has since waved goodbye to Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky, among others, but Keefe noted that the core remains intact.

They are still built from the back end out — with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski sure to log major minutes against Toronto’s top players — and they are still committed to sacrificing their bodies, as evidenced by the fact they blocked more than 30 per cent of even-strength shot attempts against this season.

Coming out of the coronavirus pause, it remains to be seen how close they’ll be to their best. Tortorella sounded a few warning shots about his team’s readiness throughout camp, saying last week: “My concern is some of the people that we are going to need to make a difference for us to win a series, I don’t think they’re ready right now,” but that felt like a motivational ploy as much as anything else.

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The Blue Jackets are a “we before me” crew, capable of being much greater than the sum of their individual parts. Remember that they managed to squeeze the exact same 81 points out of 70 regular-season games as the Leafs did despite scoring 57 fewer goals.

Pierre-Luc Dubois led the Blue Jackets with 49 points this season. Four Leafs players comfortably eclipsed that mark, with Auston Matthews leading the way with a career-best 80 points.

After the longest run-up to a playoff series we’ll ever see, Keefe has chosen not to spend much time briefing his players on the Blue Jackets tendencies. The priority has been on getting their own systems sharp.

“If you worry too much about the other team or seeing how the series is going to go I think you get a step behind,” said defenceman Jake Muzzin.

“I think early in the series you just worry about yourself,” added Jason Spezza.

Unspoken was the fact that it’s impossible to know what any team might bring after this long gap between games. And just how structured the games themselves will end up being.

Structure clearly works in favour of one team over the other in this series.

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