What’s going to matter most for Maple Leafs versus Columbus

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe and forward Alex Kerfoot discuss what they saw from the team's first scrimmage, Keefe thought it looked a bit sloppy, but is a very important part of the process.

Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three-course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…

Appetizer: The evolution of John Tortorella’s old mantra

In a recent piece on the Blue Jackets plans heading into their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus beat writer Aaron Portzline was describing life immediately after the departures of Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky:

“Safe is Death” became “Safe is Life” for a Blue Jackets club with concerns about scoring goals and with two unproven goaltenders in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, neither of whom had ever been starters in the NHL. It was a logical play. Without Panarin and Duchene, the Jackets couldn’t survive high-scoring games. Without Bobrovsky, they couldn’t accept taking risks to create chances. Essentially, the Blue Jackets’ margin for error left as a free agent last summer, too.

We know how that shook out, with the Blue Jackets’ goaltending being among the league’s best this year.

Portzline goes on to explain how the Jackets were only middle of the pack defensively until around December, when it really clicked for them. They were the best defensive team in the NHL over the ensuing months, which came to be their stylistic hallmark, particularly given all the injuries their roster endured.

That article, and anything you find written on Columbus, and everything the Blue Jackets say about themselves right now, seems to be about the team’s attention to defensive detail, how they’re not cheating the game, and what they can do to replicate what they did last year against Tampa Bay. They want to D-up, they want to be stingy, and they don’t want to get caught out of position (particularly with their third guy high in the O-zone).

In a battle where two groups of people want to establish dominion over the other, it feels like the Blue Jackets are fortifying their castle, sharpening their weapons, and locking the gates. They’re digging moats, and donning armour, and heating oil. They’re preparing to handle what’s predicted to be an offensive onslaught.

But at the end of the day, if the plan is just to defend the hell out of your end, you’re not going to take over anything the other way. You might make it hard for the other side to get where they want to go, but at some point, you’re taking on casualties and slowly moving backwards, not accomplishing anything the other way.

I’m about to go in on how and why the Blue Jackets can beat the Leafs in the main course here, but every time I hear a team enter a strategy with the mindset of defend, defend, defend, I can’t help but think they’re spending a little too much time thinking about one end of the ice.

You’ve still gotta score to win, and Columbus was 27th in the league per game there. I know they had injured players that are healthy now, but they’d be well-served by concerning themselves with creating some action the other way, too.

Main course: The one area of systems play where the Leafs need to excel to beat Columbus is…

To the dismay of many who put together “series previews” as part of their job description, no matchup ever comes down to just one thing. Lord, would that be nice, but that’s just not how hockey shakes out. A playoff series is just a handful of games where teams actually have the time to study their opponent (to better defend against their strengths), so great special teams can look bad for a few games at the wrong time, elite offences can dry up, and bad goaltending can undo the best-laid plans of mice and men.

But heading into this upcoming Leafs/Blue Jackets battle, there’s one area of systems play that will unequivocally have a huge effect on the series outcome: the Leafs’ retrievals and breakouts. There’s no doubt in my mind that goals and games will swing on that single area of play.

When Columbus heads through the neutral zone and puts the puck deep past the heels of Toronto’s D, how successful are the Leafs at getting back to the puck first and turning the play back up the ice the other way? When the Leafs are successful there in general, they thrive. We know they can absolutely dine out on the rush, and no team in the NHL had more possession time in the offensive zone than Toronto (according to SportLogiq data, as referenced in this video by The Point), leaving little question about how they control the game when they get it turned the right way.

That SportLogiq data also reveals a couple other important notes here, for which I’d encourage Leafs fans to brace themselves. If the Leafs struggle at turning retrievals into breakouts, it leads to the opposing team earning possession time deep in the Leafs zone, and no team in the NHL gave up more goals against the opposing cycle than Toronto in 2019-20. That D corps is not built for prolonged bend-but-don’t-break shifts of defensive-zone coverage.

So while excelling on retrievals is important for all teams, it’s crucial for the Leafs because the swings are all the more dramatic.

What makes this hyper-relevant here, and why we’re talking about it, is SportLogiq’s data also shows that the 2019–20 Columbus Blue Jackets were the second-best team in the NHL at creating offensive chances off the forecheck, and the best at creating actual goals. So if the Leafs go back on pucks, get stopped by F1 and lose possession, the equation of Columbus being dangerous in quick-strike from there, and the Leafs being generally weak in those spots, well, that’s some bad math for the boys in blue and white.

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So, then, here’s the crucial question: Are the Leafs able to regularly execute cut-offs and stings?

For those who haven’t heard me use that terminology before, it’s how the Leafs staff describes what – if we’re being honest – is just interference away from the puck to inhibit forecheckers from gaining dangerous amounts of speed.

When Leafs forwards are heading back to their own zone, watch the players who aren’t around the puck, even those behind the play. Skating fast is about momentum. Those Leafs skaters will be trying to step in front of the Columbus players as they move up the ice. They’ll give regular cross-pushes away from the action (those are just cross-checks that lack sharpness to avoid penalties). They’ll do whatever they can to buy those D-men going back on pucks even an extra half-second, which can be the difference between a breakout and a turnover.

Cut-offs take mental discipline (it’s easy just to float on back if the rush against isn’t dangerous), it’s work that’s rarely immediately rewarded, and it’s the type of thing that separates winning teams from those who can’t get over the hump. Do your skill guys still put in work when the they aren’t directly interacting with the play around the puck?

Retrievals-to-breakouts is going to be a battle within the war for Toronto, and their ability to regularly prevail there will determine how much they get to brandish their most deadly weapons at the other end.

Dessert: I got the media version of what hockey players feel when they’re told “Look for a place; it’s time to move out of the hotel”

The tweets say what needed to be said here, but I just wanted to thank those who’ve given me a chance at Sportsnet, and to commit to giving readers/viewers/listeners the best possible hockey content I can in the years to come. SN has so many fun tools I’m pumped to attempt to use (I’m gonna go full Howie Meeker with a telestrator at some point, I promise). I’m just really excited, and assuming all goes to plan here in the coming weeks, there’s gonna be a lot to talk about. Let’s have some fun.

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