This series has a lot of interesting potential story lines no matter the final outcome. The Leafs come into this year’s playoff as perenial one and dones where no one gave Columbus a chance to even sniff the playoffs. The Blue Jackets were by far the most injured team on the season and this pause was crucial for everyone to get healthy. Toronto looked poised and ready to make a run in their exhibition game against the Habs but in their way is the team that swept the Lightning in the first round last year.
Since Sheldon Keefe took over behind the bench, the Leafs have been one of the top offenses in the league. The Leafs finished third in the league in Goals per Game (3.39) and sixth in shots (32.9 per game) which should come as no surprise with names like Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander. The Leafs’ roster is very top heavy both in terms of scoring and contracts, but the rest of their lineup is filled with role players. Mikheyev and Hyman round out the top six and their bottom six include a couple of very good shut down and two-way players like Kapanen, Kerfoot, Spezza and Clifford.
The Blue Jackets on the other hand are more known for their team defense. Columbus did not have a single player score more than 50 points on the season (Dubois had 49) but if you look at their roster, all but three players, who played at least half of the team’s games this season, put up double digit points. Dubois, Atkinson, Wennberg, Bjorkstrand and especially Foligno will need to be the offensive spark for this roster. When it comes to the bottom six, Boone Jenner is the heart and soul, he along with Foligno are incredible leaders and will be relied upon to shoulder more than their fair share.
Sorry Torts, love what you’ve done, but the Leafs have one of the best forward groups in the league.
Just like up front, the Leafs are very top heavy on the back end with Morgan Rielly leading the way. They acquired Tyson Barries (whose contract is absolute robbery) in the offseason to go along with Jake Muzzin who they picked up last season. These guy form the big three in Toronto and are complimented with Ceci, Holl and Dermott but waiting in the wings ready to make the jump is youngster Rasmus Sandin.
Despite all the roster loses in the offseason, the back end of this roster remained relatively untouched. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are easily one of the best all round pairings in the NHL, both of these guys can do everything. David Savard has quietly been a reliable shut down defenseman that is sure to be a favourite with Torts. Ryan Murray is a former second overall pick and this team’s defense is rounded out with Dean Kukan and penalty killing specialist Vladislav Gavrikov
Columbus has the skill to match the Leafs big three, they have better depth and a better overall team defense philosophy.
This is probably a much closer category than Leaf fans would like to admit. Toronto sent the Ducks a first round pick back in 2016 for Freddie Andersen and it has been his crease ever since. He is often left hanging and faces some of the highest quality shots on a nightly basis but when he is on his game this team is near unbeatable. Statistically Freddie had one of the worst seasons of his career, but the Leafs’ game plan is built on out scoring the other team often leaving Andersen to bail out his team.
Columbus has yet to officially name a starter in nets, both Korpisalo and Merzlikins faired well when they got the call but personally I would go Elvis. Merzlikins had better numbers in all statistical categories and more importantly I believe that he provided an emotional spark and a new found confidence in his team. Korpisalo had a good season in his own right but there is something to be said about the added assurance that your goalie will bail you out. I think Merzlikins has more big save ability and has a better opportunity to steal a game or two.
We find ourselves in another scenario where Freddie is the most skilled of the group, but team defense and coaching cannot be ignored.
If you have gotten this far and you are not sure how this is going to go, it will be much of the same. The Leafs had the sixth most efficient Power Play, scoring on 23.1% of their opportunities which is a far cry from the Blue Jackets who find themselves in the basement. Columbus finished 27th in the league at 16.4% on the Power Play, which is second worst among teams that qualified for the Return to Play.
On the Penalty Kill (PK) things get a bit closer but it is still exactly what you would expect. The Blue Jackets narrowly missed getting into the top 10 in the league on the PK finishing 12th killing off 81.7% of their chances. The Leafs are not as far behind relative to the Power Play comparison, but they finished the season 21st at 77.7%. Toronto gave up five more goals on the PK compared to the Jackets, however they also scored two more goals Short Handed, like I said, it’s closer on the Penalty Kill.
That fact that Toronto can keep it this close on the PK makes this clear advantage for the Leafs
Columbus Blue Jackets: Oliver Bjorkstrand
Despite missing time this season with injury, Oliver Bjorkstrand was one of the most improved players under Tortorella this season. Bjorkstrand was well on his way to setting career high in goals and points but more importantly, he had finally established himself as a defensively responsible player. This may not seem important but if you want playing time in this system you need to prove yourself in your own end first. Bjorkstrand is now being given a longer leash on offense and it is starting to show. He and Dubois played some good hockey together and the two will need to become offensive catalysts for this team if they are to win.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Ilya Mikheyev
When I first sat down and started putting this series together, Mikheyev was as the top of my list for the Leafs in this category. As we got closer to the return of hockey it became a clear race between him and Nick Robertson, but I am not convince the latter will even play. Mikheyev on the other hand has been on fire since returning for Phase 3, being named the Leafs best player in the Phase 3 team camp and scrimmages. It was only fitting that he scored almost immediately in the exhibition game against Montreal. He will be playing on a line with Marner and Matthews (tough life right?) and will be asked to play a lot of hard minutes, but if he can provide consistent secondary scoring for a top heavy team then he has a chance to become a Toronto legend.
Forward – Maple Leafs
Defence – Blue Jackets
Goaltender – TIE
Special Teams – Maple Leafs
X-Factor – Blue Jackets
Winner: Toronto in 5
Yes that’s right we have a tie for the first time in a category! This will truly be matchup of offense vs defense for the second time in the Eastern Conference. These two teams finished with the same amount of points and neither established themselves as sellers at the deadline so they are both a full roster. No one has been burned more in the playoffs in recent memory than the Leafs, and as a Habs fan I love it. With that said, the Leafs leadership group have a different feel to them this time around and I expect them to finally close out a series. Their reward, another first round matchup against the Bruins, at least if my predictions are correct.