So… where were we?
Auston Matthews scored his 47th goal of the campaign early in the third period and Frederik Andersen made 32 saves as Toronto picked up a crucial 2-1 victory over Tampa to snap an ugly three-game slide…
That was back on March 10, about four
years months ago, in a game that brought a little hope to Maple Leafs fans who were beginning to fret about the lack of offensive power down the stretch and the fate of the banged-up blue line. Little did we all know at the time, what we all thought was a dress rehearsal for a first-round series between the two Atlantic clubs was ultimately both teams’ regular-season finale as COVID-19 forced the league to shut down operations indefinitely just two days later.
Thankfully, there’s now hockey on the horizon once again, as 24 teams prepare to resume playing in what will be the most unique Stanley Cup tournament on record. The Maple Leafs now have their sights fixed on a five-game qualifying series against the Columbus Blue Jackets as they approach Phase 3’s training camp ahead of a resumption of play — which means we’ve got some catching up to do:
Regular season record: 36-25-9 (8th in East by points percentage)
Goals for: 238 (3rd in NHL)
Goals against: 227 (27th in NHL)
Leading goal scorer: Auston Matthews (47)
Leading point scorer: Auston Matthews (80)
Defencemen Morgan Rielly (fractured foot) and Cody Ceci (sprained ankle) both returned to the lineup just before the season stoppage, bolstering the Maple Leafs’ banged-up blue line. Rielly’s first game back was Toronto’s last game on March 10, while Ceci made his return just one game earlier on March 6.
Ilya Mikheyev: The Russian rookie’s exciting breakout campaign came to a sudden and scary halt in December when he suffered a wrist laceration that sent him to the hospital and called for a projected recovery period of about three months. GM Kyle Dubas confirmed that Toronto’s favourite soup lover will be back in the lineup for the season resumption, and his participation in Phase 2’s small-group workouts was a welcomed sight.
Jake Muzzin: A broken hand for Muzzin on Feb. 25 was yet another blow to the Leafs’ bruised d-corps heading down the stretch. He was still a few weeks away from returning when Toronto played its last game, but is now fully recovered and ready to go.
Andreas Johnsson: The forward underwent right knee surgery on Feb. 19, considered season-ending at the time given his six-month recovery estimate. Unfortunately for the Leafs, that initial timeline means that even with the lengthy stoppage, he still won’t quite be ready to join the team for training camp.
Player To Watch
If there’s a player on the Leafs who needs an amazing post-season — both for his own personal outlook and that of the team — it’s got to be Tyson Barrie.
To say his Toronto tenure hasn’t gone as planned would be a understatement — the defenceman got off to a slow start amid lofty expectations, and struggled to find his footing in the first half of the season. But as much as he’s criticized, his numbers show marked improvement as the season went on — particularly with the introduction of Sheldon Keefe as head coach in November.
After the worst two-month start to a season of his career, Barrie did manage to recover. A handful of goals and 34 assists for 39 points in 70 games wasn’t quite up to his usual standards, but considering the outside factors — a trade, a move, a mid-season coaching change, a banged-up blue line, trade deadline rumours and a global pandemic — his numbers at the time of the season stoppage still look decent.
A strong playoffs for Barrie would go a long way for the Maple Leafs, whose defence has long been a weakness that has historically been exposed during the playoffs. Having another two-way rearguard who can quickly change the pace of a game from their own zone (a la Morgan Rielly) adds another dimension when they need it most.
With his time in Toronto very likely coming to an end after the season, the extended hiatus could prove to be the fresh start Barrie needs — before the fresh start he’ll get come free agency in the fall.
One interesting stat
77.7 — that’s the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill percentage this season, which ranks them 21st league-wide in the category and is the sixth-lowest percentage among teams resuming play. This is a familiar flaw for the Maple Leafs’ special teams unit — especially in the playoffs.
Let’s rewind to last season for a minute, when the Maple Leafs went into the playoffs with a penalty kill percentage very close to what it is today: 79.9 per cent. The Leafs then managed a measly 56.3 per cent success rate on the penalty kill against the Bruins last spring, killing just nine of Boston’s 16 power plays, and were even worse at home: Toronto killed just 28.6 per cent of their penalties at Scotiabank Arena. That cannot happen again this year when they take on the Blue Jackets in the qualifying round.
Columbus, while not known for its special teams (their 16.4 power play percentage is one of the worst in the league), will no doubt look to exploit the Leafs’ potentially fatal weakness just as Boston did.
Possible line combinations
With Mikheyev back in the lineup, it feels likely he’ll be plugged back on the second line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner while Auston Matthews and William Nylander work their chemistry up top.
It’ll be interesting to see if any “black ace” players stand out in camp… a kid like Nick Robertson could find his way into the bottom six at some point and shake things up, should the club need a jolt. On defence, meanwhile, perhaps primetime billing could give Barrie a boost of confidence in the top pairing, while Rasmus Sandin will be ready to jump in — and likely will — to get his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The biggest question facing the team is…
Can Frederik Andersen get off to a hot start? (And can Jack Campbell be the backup they need, just in case?)
Typically, the question facing Freddy as we look ahead to the post-season is whether the No. 1 goalie will have enough gas left in the tank to conquer a long playoff run following a full-season workload as one of the league’s busiest netminders. His schedule this year, combined with the uninspiring options backing him up prior to the Campbell trade, had many Leafs fans calculating just how many starts head coach Sheldon Keefe could tab Andersen for without wearing him out (and risking serious injury) — and how to find that sweet spot between giving a backup the opportunity to prove he’s up for the job without risking another automatic loss on the second half of a back-to-back.
Now, with a months-long hiatus, rest is no longer the question — but rust might be. Andersen isn’t exactly known for his stellar early-season play, instead taking a few reps each October to find his groove. Andersen has accrued a combined 20-13-5 record with a .900 save percentage, 3.14 goals against average, and one shutout in the month of October over the course of his Toronto tenure.
Now staring down a best-of-five series, there will be no time to ease in and recover from a slow start.
And if Andersen falls, is Campbell up to the task? The backup is still pretty new to Leafs nation, having been acquired from the Los Angeles Kings ahead of the trade deadline in February. The 28-year-old won three of his first four starts in blue and white, posting a solid 2.63 goals against average and .915 save percentage behind a struggling defence in six appearances, proving he’s the best insurance policy the Maple Leafs have had all year.