There are about 10 or 11 teams in the very competitive NHL that could make a serious run at the Stanley Cup this year:
New York Rangers
Vegas Golden Knights
Toronto Maple Leafs
Los Angeles Kings
Several teams are not far behind this cluster and could easily make a run at the playoffs if they get hot. It is a very competitive league and, as has been observed, winning the NHL championship is likely the most difficult challenge of any major team sport. It is long, hard, and grueling.
I have been a Toronto Maple Leaf fan since about 1967– I am so old that I actually saw the Leafs win a Stanley Cup (in 1967). I remember that at that time, they were close behind the Canadiens for the total number of championships: it was 13 to 11. Since then, it has become 24 (!) to 11.
The Leafs have a notoriously bad record in recent years in the playoffs. They actually have a good record of making the playoffs, each of the past seven years, but, with the exception of last year in which they eliminated Tampa Bay, they have not won a single series. It is a stain on the careers of Austin Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly, none of whom have performed particularly well in the playoffs. It is an even bigger stain on their goaltenders, Jack Campbell and Frederick Andersen, neither of which have been able to “come up big” in decisive playoff games.
This obscures the fact that the Leafs do have a very good team. They can score goals but their defense is suspect. Their No. 1 goalie, Ilya Samsonov, is a wreck and has been demoted and their next most auspicious candidate, Joseph Woll, is injured. Matt Murray– last I heard– was hurt and will not return (I think he was moved to Pittsburgh, last I heard). Martin Jones has stepped in and is currently performing exceptionally well.
No Leaf fan can forget how they led the decisive game 7 against Boston 4-3 in the third period a few years ago only to see Frederick Andersen allow three highly questionable goals, including the egregious one through the five-hole that gave up the lead. The Leafs lost 7-4 (one empty net goal).
The Leafs have lately looked pretty good, with Martin Jones in net. But so has Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, New York Rangers, and Boston.
I am optimistic– I always am, this time of year, recently– about the playoffs. The Leaf “core four” (Nylander, Matthews, Marner, Tavares) are a year older. Tavares in not getting more effective, but the other three are entering the years in which most athletes are in their prime. They also have the bitter experience of losing in the first round in six of the last seven playoffs (and the second round last year) to teams that appeared to be inferior to them. They should know now how much grit, consistency, and determination is required to win a seven-game series. They should be tougher, more resilient. Matthews in particular seems to have stepped up his game.
I am suspicious of Nylander– he can be brilliant but he also gives the puck away far too often and sometimes seems to be coasting outside the blueline waiting for a pass. Both he and Marner make risky passes and it’s hard to assess whether the pretty goals they generate outweigh the ugly goals they give up. One immediately remembers overtime in a game against Boston this year in which Nylander turned back with the puck– a thing he likes to do too often– and fell. He just fell, giving up the puck to the two deadliest forwards on Boston (and the game-winning goal). The other night, he was coasting to the bench while Colorado was in full press mode towards the Leaf net. They scored.
There is also hope in regard to the Leafs 3rd and 4th lines, and other secondary players like Matthew Knies who is improving in every game. Jarnkrok in particular has become more effective, Domi is showing some determination and more skill, and Robertson occasionally threatens.
On defense, Rielly is actually playing better than he did last year when he seemed to be struggling at times and lost his instincts for contributing on offense. Brodie and Giordano or good– not excellent– Liljegren seems to be improving. McCabe can be forceful. Timmins and Lagesson strike me as filler material. They could use another good pick-handling defenseman. The need a good defensive defenseman even more: they often mishandle the puck in their own corners and end up running around chasing while the opposition sets up.
The Leafs made what I consider a major blunder is allowing Justin Holl to walk– I thought he had improved significantly over the past few years and he is playing pretty well for Detroit– and an even bigger blunder is signing forward Ryan Reaves (thank goodness he’s out right now) and an incomprehensible blunder in signing John Klingberg (out for the season, I believe), who has a career -40 rating.
When Woll returns, will he be as effective as he was at the beginning of the season? Will Jones continue his solid performances? We haven’t seen Dennis Hildeby in action yet– he is a great unknown, a large (for goalie– for anybody) player at 6′ 7″ and 200 lbs. The Leafs will almost surely start him at some point in the near future, for there is a perception out there that the Leafs have overworked their #1 goalies the last few years perhaps contributing to their disappointing performances in the playoffs.
So, as usual, I will expect the Leafs to finally advance further than the first round this year. I expect Matthews, Marner, and Nylander– with their increased experience– to contribute more. Matthews in particular seems more able than ever before to summon his formidable talents into a gritty two-way game that can actually redirect the teams momentum at crucial moments. I hope the Leafs do pick up a solid defenseman somewhere for the playoff run. And then we have to hope that Jones and Hildeby or Woll perform well.
Tavares? Tonight, against Detroit, he was worse than ineffective. He gave the puck way, lost almost every battle for the puck along the boards, and seemed slow and lethargic. He was so awful I wonder if he is hurt.
The NHL is a very tough league. The Leafs have shown this year that they can beat any team on a any given night. Perhaps this is the year they finally show that they can win a seven-game series against a tough opponent. If they do, they need the “core four” to perform well but I expect they will win only if they get unexpected contributions from players like Knies, Jarnkrok, and Domi. The impact of sensational players like Matthews is generally not as great as most people think it is. (I thought the Blue Jays were deluded in their vain attempt to sign Ohtani in the off-season: for the same money, they could have improved themselves at four or five other positions and that would have had a bigger impact on their overall success.)
Look at the winning teams for the past decades: they are comprised of a star or two, yes, but more importantly an assembly of strong secondary talents, reliable goal-tenders who don’t allow soft goals at crucial moments of the game, and defensemen who, once they have the puck, can smoothly move it out of the defensive zone to forwards who have positioned themselves to receive it and advance into the other team’s zone. Justin Holl’s major fault, until last year, was the frequency with which he blindly shot the puck along the boards to the opposition point man, or passed the puck to players who were either being checked or didn’t exist. Jake Gardiner, before him, was even worse at that. This is the play before the play that results in cheap goals against. Teams don’t win championships with great saves by their goalie (though Montreal, with Carey Price, came close a few years ago). They win by preventing those chances in the first place.
The Leafs appear to me to have improved in this area. Until recently. They have recently looked weak and disorganized. Both the power play and the penalty kill have been atrocious.
Given the level of talent on the club, you have to look elsewhere. I believe it’s time to fire coach Sheldon Keefe.