How concerned should Maple Leafs be as playoffs approach?

6 Comments

There is no team in the NHL under more immense pressure to win, and win big, this postseason than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There probably is not even a team that is a close second when it comes to the expectations this team is carrying around.

Not only are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, which always brings immense pressure just because of who they are and where they play, but because this team is built to win now. Not tomorrow, not two seasons from now, not five seasons from now, but right now. This season. And then every season that comes after it. But especially this season.

This is not a team that was constructed to simply make the playoffs and give their fans a little bit of a thrill for a couple of weeks in the spring.

This is a team that is built to win championships, end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back to the Original Six days of the NHL, and take part in championship parades. Not a parade. Multiple parades.

The roster is loaded with All-Stars at the top of the lineup that are tying up a significant chunk of their salary cap situation for years to come (and that does not even include Mitch Marner‘s new deal that will be coming through this summer). It is no doubt an overstated concern, but this is the core they have tied themselves to and are locked in with for the next eight years.

So far, that core has produced nothing but two first-round exits in their only postseason appearances. They are now headed for another first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, a potential nightmare scenario against one of the league’s best teams (that might finally be healthy come playoff time) that has given them fits over the past two years and knocked them out in the first round a year ago in a series that probably went a game or two longer than it deserved to go.

They have the highest paid head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock who has not been out of the first-round since the 2013 season, and only once since 2010. There have been 23 different head coaches that have won at least one playoff series since Babcock last won one, including Mike Yeo, who has won a playoff series with two different franchises during that stretch. Any other coach in the NHL with that postseason track record wouldn’t be regarded as highly as Babcock still is. You can be sure that will change if they bow out in round one again. It should, anyway.

All of that adds up to a situation where anything other than a deep playoff run is going to be looked at as a spectacular failure.

What has to be concerning for Maple Leafs fans is the team doesn’t really seem to be trending in the right direction as the playoffs draw near.

Entering the week they have lost four of their past six games, three of which came against non-playoff teams, including an ugly loss to the league’s worst team, the Ottawa Senators.

One of the two games they did win during that stretch required an incredible late rally to steal two points from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

If you are looking for explanations, the injury situation has not been ideal.

Kasperi Kapanen has missed a handful of games and the blue line has been shorthanded without the services of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, a development that resulted in this quote from Babcock on Monday.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said, via Sportsnet. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team that has been hit hard by injuries this season. The team they are chasing in the standings and about to play in the first round has been hammered all season when it comes to their best players, and it’s not like the Bruins were starting with the league’s greatest depth. They have simply played better.

The biggest concern for the Maple Leafs should still be their play defensively because it is just not at a Stanley Cup level.

They are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing shot attempts and scoring chances during even-strength play, currently sitting 27th in the league in total shot attempts against, 30th in shots on goal against, and 20th in scoring chances against. And that is not just because Gardiner and Dermott are out of the lineup, because their numbers were nearly identical prior to their exit from the lineup.

Just for example, here are their 5-on-5 Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers from before Gardiner’s injury (and Dermott’s, which happened two days later) and since.

(CF% = Shot Attempt differential; CA/60 = Shot attempts against per 60 minutes; SCA/60 = Scoring chances against per 60 minutes)

This is, quite simply, who and what the Maple Leafs are defensively.

The total shot attempt differential is still among the top-10 in the league, but the number of attempts and chances they give up are both among the bottom-10. It is awfully difficult, if not impossible, to go on a deep playoff run with that sort of defensive play unless you have elite shooting talent at forward that can score and/or great goaltending to cover up for your flaws.

The Maple Leafs definitely have the shooting talent to outscore their defensive deficiencies, and they have a really good goalie in Frederik Andersen.

The latter is probably the key to what this team does in the immediate future.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto to be their starting goalie Andersen has been masking all of the Maple Leafs’ flaws on defense and giving them a chance to win on most nights. He has been a workhorse in net and a player the team has leaned on extensively. There are few teams in the league that are as dependent on one goalie than the Maple Leafs are on Andersen given the workload he has faced. Since the start of the 2017-18 season no goalie in the league has faced more shots in the regular season than Andersen’s 3,918. The only two goalies that have faced more than 3,600 shots during these past two seasons are Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (3,807) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (3,602).

There is an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs ran him into the ground last season more than they needed to and that playing in 66 games (for the second year in a row) didn’t leave him as fresh and rested as he could have been for the playoffs. He will not face quite the same workload this season, but he is still on track to play at least 60 games this season and once again be one of the league leaders in games played, minutes played, shots faced.

He is probably the one player that is going to make or break their season, because that is simply the way the Maple Leafs are built and play.

There is no questioning the high-end talent on the roster. But there are still enough questions on the back end, and what might be the worst possible first-round matchup looming in a couple of weeks, to be concerned about how this spring is going to go.

The expectation is something different, and better, and franchise altering. But there are a lot of signs that it could still be more of the same.

That would not be kind to anyone in Toronto.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers’ season on life-support after collapse against Leafs

Associated Press
6 Comments

It appears that Philadelphia’s plan to tank the first half the of the season only to rise up for an attempted epic comeback into a playoff spot has all but failed.

Mathematically, the Flyers aren’t dead in the water, but soul-sucking losses like the one they endured on Friday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs sting so much more at this time of the year.

The Flyers held a 5-2 lead midway through the second period in Toronto when the wheels began to fall off, followed by the transmission right before the engine blew to pieces. The Maple Leafs scored five unanswered to take a 7-5 lead and then held on as James van Riemsdyk‘s hat-trick goal gave the Flyers some time to find an equalizer late. It would never come.

That’s a tough pill to swallow, evidenced by how hard the Flyers choked in this game. Scoring six goals should be an automatic win. Of course, allowing seven should be an automatic loss.

The Flyers sit seven points back of the Carolina Hurricanes (who lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets. They began the night there, but with 11 games remaining instead of 12 now, the chances to make up seven points in the span are incredibly slim (like two percent slim). And their schedule isn’t a walk in the park, with dates with the Penguins, Capitals, Islanders and Maple Leafs coming up in the near future.

Toronto, meanwhile, pulled themselves to within two points of the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic. The teams are destined to play each other in the first round at this point, but the battle for home-ice advantage is heating up down the stretch here.

Toronto nearly came back from a 5-0 deficit to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, so they had some practice before they went down in this one. Goaltending continues to be an issue for the Leafs, but on some nights, they can outscore all their problems.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks survive late Leafs assault to win fourth straight

11 Comments

Score five straight goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs and hold on for dear life.

It’s a plan that the Chicago Blackhawks executed to perfection (planned or otherwise) on Wednesday night in a ___ win against their Original Six foes. And my goodness did they ever have to hold on.

Chicago came out with the determination of a team needing two points to keep their playoff dreams going. They scored four times in the first period — chasing Frederik Andersen after he allowed four on 14 shots — and added a fifth later in the second period, appearing to seal it with less than half a game to go.

The Leafs have been struggling since beating the Calgary Flames 6-2. And it’s unraveled now, after getting made to look like the JV squad against the Tampa Bay Lightning and then decimated once again against the Blackhawks.

A 5-0 deficit seemed like the next chapter in their recent story, but Andreas Johnsson‘s goal with 1:33 left in the second period seemed to give the Leafs some life.

The Leafs owned the third period, with Chicago looking content to sit back and wait for the final buzzer. It didn’t help Chicago’s cause that Corey Crawford, who was solid through the first two periods, didn’t emerge for the third after falling ill with the flu. Collin Delia had to come in cold and the game became very interesting.

Auston Matthews and Co. went to work in the third. Matthews grabbed his 32nd of the season at 7:57 of the period followed by Morgan Rielly‘s 19th three minutes later to make it 5-3. With the net empty and 1:31 to go, John Tavares clawed the Leafs back to 5-4, banging in a shot from a bad angle past Delia to set a new career high with his 39th.

Toronto fired 30 pucks on goal in final frame, with Delia getting a game’s worth of shots sent his way in a 20-minute span of complete chaos.

The final 90 seconds, particularly, were epic and well worth the watch.

When the dust settled after the final whistle, the Blackhawks moved four points back of the idle Arizona Coyotes for the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference. ‘

The odds aren’t great, but all Chicago can do is keep winning and let the chips fall where they may.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Wednesday Night Hockey: Will Leafs get out of first round this year?

8 Comments

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The biggest question surrounding the Maple Leafs this year is not whether or not they’ll make the playoffs, it’s more about them getting out of the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Because of the current playoff format in the NHL, we have a pretty good idea that the Leafs will take on the Boston Bruins in the first round. That’s a pretty terrible “reward” for the team with the third-most amount of points in the Eastern Conference right now. Of course, there’s still a chance that the Leafs could make up four-point gap between themselves and the Bruins. That would allow them to get home-ice advantage in the first round, which would go a long way in helping their odds of winning the series.

Last season, the Leafs and Bruins squared off in the opening round of the playoffs. The Bruins had home-ice advantage in that series and they eventually won it in seven games. In 2017, the Leafs dropped their first-round series to the Washington Capitals in six games. Between 2014 and 2016, Toronto didn’t even get a sniff of the postseason.

If we look back at 2013, they lost a first-round matchup to the Bruins in seven games. As you probably remember, Game 7 was played at TD Garden in Boston.

The last time they got out of the first round was back in 2003-04, when Pat Quinn was their head coach. And as we all know, they haven’t wont a Stanley Cup since 1967.

Even the biggest Leafs hater has to admit that this team has the talent on their roster to do damage in the playoffs. If healthy, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and the rest of the team have the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league. There’s still some question marks surrounding their defense, but Morgan Reilly and Jake Muzzin are solid pieces on the back end.

The most interesting battle between the Bruins and Leafs would come between the pipes. Can Frederik Andersen outlast Tuukka Rask in a seven-game series? Andersen has shown that he’s more than capable of stealing games for the Leafs when they aren’t at their best. Can he do it on the biggest stage? We’ll find out in just a few weeks.

So what happens if the Leafs don’t get out of the first round? Is their sweeping changes? Is Mike Babcock on the hot seat? We’ll worry about that if they fail, again, in April, but you’d have to think that everyone in place will get a little more time to finish building the team.

On the flip side, how can any team that lost in the first round last year add John Tavares and not make any further than they did the previous season?

It should be a very interesting spring in Toronto.

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), Jeremy Roenick (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’analyst) will have the call from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL determines Maple Leafs’ Rielly did not use homophobic slur

Getty Images
18 Comments

The NHL has determined that Morgan Rielly did not utter a homophobic slur at referee Brad Meier during Monday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman was skating back into the defensive zone when television microphones picked up audio that sounded like it was directed at the official.

Here’s the statement the NHL released on Tuesday afternoon:

“Following a thorough investigation, the National Hockey League has determined that Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly did not direct a homophobic slur at referee Brad Meier during last night’s game with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena.

“League officials interviewed several participants of the participants in the game — including Rielly and Meier — and reviewed audio of the alleged incident. All of those interviewed adamantly denied that Rielly uttered a slur and the audio supported their statements.

“The National Hockey League does not tolerate language or gestures that disparage anyone based upon their race, creed or sexual orientation and continues to work to ensure that our games are played in a welcoming atmosphere for all of our players, coaches, officials, and fans.”

Following the game the NHL announced they would be investigating the alleged incident and Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas released a statement supporting the league in determining whether the accusations were true.

“I was 100 percent confident that I did not use the word,” Rielly said while meeting the media on Tuesday afternoon. “There is no place for slurs like that in sports or in life.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.