Did you hear that? That was a huge collective sigh of relief by Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans. From the puck drop on opening night of the 2020 regular season until now, Leafs Nation has not so quietly been expressing their frustration with how the team started the season. Toronto currently has a record of 21-14-4, good for 46 points, and 7th place in the Eastern Conference. Therefore, the overwhelming concern for the team’s well-being is extremely premature. If the playoffs were to start today, the Leafs would face a very familiar foe in the 1st round in the Boston Bruins.
The playoffs, however, do not officially get underway until April. Although they currently reside in a playoff position, Toronto has to do these 5 things in order to secure a spot in the postseason; play with more physical intensity, work on improving the position players currently on their roster, find a reliable backup goaltender, continue to iron out the struggling special teams, and eliminate as many unforced errors in their own zone as possible.
Physicality and Truculence
With the exception of the 2019 playoff series in the 1st round versus Boston, Toronto has been absolutely physically dominated by the Bruins in both the regular season and in the extra season. The Leafs were outshot, outchanced, and subsequently outplayed by the Bruins in almost every game that the two sides have faced off in their playoff history. Is the solution for Toronto to simply go out and start punching people randomly? Or perhaps they should be wildly flying around the ice hitting anything that moves wearing the opposing jersey?
The answer to both questions is, not exactly. However, the blue and white can pick up their overall physical intensity with hard work and effort. Hardly any of the current players show the effort night in and night out that is required to win games when their skills are not producing results. The Leafs have plenty of fast forwards who can back check, and stick their noses into the corners when chasing pucks in the offensive zone.
Whether it be running into the goalie, or running at their stars, Toronto never reacts to the liberties other teams are taking with them, even when a response of some sort is expected. In the playoffs, the physicality is ramped up ten-fold, so it would behoove them to use the regular season as practice on implementing a more physical style of play.
If It Ain’t Broke
From last season to this past offseason, the Toronto Maple Leafs have locked up their 4 best players to long term, big money deals. The problem with that is none of the 4 are known for their physical play and the team lacks a solid defense. These two issues can no longer be addressed with any free-agent signings because the team has spent the majority of the money under their salary cap. Simply put, the Leafs cannot afford to acquire any talent that would immediately impact their needs on defense. So Toronto has to run with the horses that they already have.
Toronto has shown flashes of being capable of increasing their intensity, taking on some of the NHL’s more well-known physical teams, matching their physicality, and in fact winning certain games that they had no business winning. Every win in the playoffs against the Bruins last season was a result of Toronto taking the rough play to them. 3 seasons ago, the Leafs just came up short in the seventh and deciding game versus the very truculent Washington Capitals. It is in their DNA, it just needs to be brought out.
No team with aspirations of a berth in the NHL playoffs, has ever qualified with suspect goaltending. While their main goalie, Frederik Anderson has been his usual steady self between the pipes, it has been the poor play of their backup goaltender that has been a point of contention.
Michael Hutchinson is the backup to Anderson in net for Toronto. In 8 games played this season, Hutchinson sports a record of 2-5-1. His goals against average is 4.03, and he has surrendered 33 goals in less than 10 games as a reserve. It can’t be denied that the use of Hutchinson by the former head coach Mike Babcock in the second of back to back games, when the team was obviously tired, played a major factor in his less than stellar record of wins and losses.
Babcock even realized that Hutchinson was not ready and sent him down to the waivers. Babcock is not there anymore, and Hutchinson has continued to struggle in the net, giving up untimely goals when his teammates could use him to make a big save and extend their chances of getting a win when he is called upon.
In the playoffs, benches are shortened and the only reason to play your backup goalie is an injury to your starter. Toronto will not even make the postseason with current state of their backup goaltending situation. In the event of an unfortunate injury to Anderson, the Leafs need to be confident that they have a suitable replacement. They once thought that Hutchinson was that player, but this season he has proven that he cannot handle the role, and is clearly not ready for the big stage.
Due to being financially handcuffed from paying out all of their money to their forwards (Marner, Mattews, Nylander, and Tavares), the Leafs cannot get a good backup to Anderson. They are simply going to have to make due with Hutchinson and play better in front of him. Toronto cannot play the same way that they do when Anderson is in net, because Frederik bails them out of many games that they would have otherwise lost. Smart, disciplined, and low-risk, is how they will have to play when Hutchinson is in goal. Otherwise, the playoffs will just be a dream this year.
Not-so Special Teams
To make up for the lack of physical toughness, the Leafs have maintained that they will rely on their power plays to take advantage of teams. There is a slight hitch in that plan. Toronto is 6th in the NHL for power play percentage (23.4%), but that statistic is misleading because the Leafs do not draw nearly as many penalties as they are capable of. By applying more pressure, hitting, floor-checking and increasing their overall level of physicality, Toronto will draw more penalties.
Toronto cannot afford to take penalties either. The Leafs sit near the bottom of the league in penalty kill percentage (26th at 75.9%). As long as Toronto can find a balance between physical play and disciplined pressure, they will stay out of the penalty box, have a greater chance of winning games, and punch their own tickets into the playoffs.
Comedy of Errors
With the Leafs’ high-priced talent of their forwards comes risk taking creativity. Long stretch passes from their own defensive zone are often anticipated and intercepted, leaving their poor goalie to fend for himself. Defensive turnovers and mental lapses lead to scrambling around and eventually taking a bad penalty, and as previously mentioned, Toronto is among the worst in the league at killing penalties.
What is the solution? It’s easy. Stay focused and disciplined. By moving their feet and having their sticks in the right defensive position, the Leafs’ players can avoid reaching and taking unnecessary risks.
The 3rd Period
The Toronto Maple Leafs are talented enough to win the 2020 Stanley Cup. The road to lifting Lord Stanley’s mug is paved with plenty of pitfalls for the Leafs. Discipline, intelligence, and some grit is all that is required for Toronto to enter the postseason. The Leafs will make the playoffs as long as they get tougher, work with what they already have, perform better in front of their goalies, improve their special teams play, and stay disciplined and focused to the goal at hand, which is the playoffs.