Assuming another 18-wheeler doesn’t go off a cliff, in Toronto, Boston, or Tampa Bay, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. That’s almost a given at the mere halfway point of the NHL season. The predictability of the Atlantic division’s final standings is borderline ridiculous considering the NHL’s efforts to keep every team in the playoff hunt as late as possible. Aside from who has home ice advantage between the Bruins and Maple Leafs in the first round, it may seem there aren’t many Maple Leafs storylines to watch in the second half of the season, but there are still many questions that need answers.
Toronto Maple Leafs Storylines for the Second Half
Atlantic Division Winners?
The Tampa Bay Lightning are running away with the Atlantic division. There’s even a good chance they’ll win the President’s Trophy. Nikita Kucherov is an Art Ross contender. Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league in wins and shutouts, and is right up there in goals-against average and save percentage. Both of those players could be Hart Trophy finalists and we still have not gotten to Steven Stamkos or Victor Hedman.
The Leafs have three games left against the Lightning. Even if they won them all, and two are in Tampa Bay so they probably won’t, the Leafs would still need to catch up on points. The Buds would have to improve considerably to get close to Tampa, or the Lightning would need their own 18-wheeler to suddenly lose its power steering. It’s possible, but the Leafs have not been nearly consistent enough to consider it realistic.
Wild Card Team?
As unlikely it is for the Leafs to win the Atlantic, really, it’s just as unlikely the Leafs would drop to a wild card spot. The Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and Florida Panthers are all close together in the fourth to sixth spots, but all are at least 12 points behind the Leafs as we pass the halfway point of the season.
The Leafs are 13-7-1 at home this season and still have 20 more home games to go after their bye week. It’s far more likely they win more than they lose in the remaining 37 games, making it hard for any team below them in the Atlantic to catch up. The odds of the Leafs dropping to a wild card spot, or out of the playoffs entirely, is close to the odds of them overtaking the Lightning. Neither are very good.
Big Bad Bruins
The odds are similar the Bruins will change their position to first or fourth. So we’re stuck with a Boston-Toronto first-round matchup. Shucks. There are barely any Bruins-Leafs storylines aside from the ones will be inundated with come April. But we need something to entertain us for the next three months, and if you look close enough, there’s no shortage of things to watch.
Can the Leafs step up to the next level?
“We can learn a lot” on playing the Lightning, Mike Babcock Jan 2nd, 2018
Finding a quote from a Leaf player or Babcock about how they need to improve is like finding hay in a haystack. Clearly, there is room to improve. Any casual fan can see that. It will be interesting to see just how much they can improve as they progress through the second half of the season. There’s plenty of time left to step of their game in time for playoffs, but they need to start that process now if they want to win the first round let alone the second, which will almost assuredly be against the Lightning. January and February are ripe for working out kinks in the defense and learning how to win consistently.
They made a huge step from last year already by not blowing leads once a week. Even the blown lead to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday, the first game they lost this season after leading after two periods, was due to some timely bounces for the Blue Jackets and one or two mistakes, ahem Morgan Rielly. Last year they were routinely outplayed with the lead and made more mistakes than you could shake a stick at. This season they hold those leads. Few teams can hold every lead. The Columbus come back is forgivable.
Trade Deadline Excitement?
It’s been a long time since the Leafs had a chance to make some big moves at the trade deadline that could actually help with a playoff run. That’s not to say they should or would, but they could make shake things up next month. The trade deadline is not the time for value deals, but the Leafs need help on the blue line, Travis Dermott aside, and they could use help up the middle, especially another shutdown guy like Nazem Kadri, Frederik Gauthier aside.
Backup goaltending is another potential position to address, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they added a depth winger with an edge to round it all out.
The Leafs may even sport the rare buyer/seller tag at the deadline this season. Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk are both UFAs at the end of the year, and the Leafs have many young players that would be everyday NHLers on other teams. Josh Leivo and Kasperi Kapanen are two players that could crack many NHL rosters. There’s no pressure for the Leafs to move any of these players, but they have them as chips to play should the right deal come along, and trading them for futures is not out of the question.
Breaking Sophomore Slumps
None of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, or Mitch Marner are slumping per say, but the latter two have not improved upon their incredible rookie seasons. Both are down in the goal department specifically. That’s not to say one or both won’t suddenly start filling the net on a regular basis.
Cruising into the playoffs with those two guys firing on all cylinders could be the difference between a first-round exit and the first Leaf playoffs series win since 2004. How they do between now and April 8th is going to be very interesting indeed.
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