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Is this postseason the best opportunity for a Maple Leafs breakthrough?

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Is this postseason the best opportunity for a Toronto Maple Leafs breakthrough, or are we a few weeks away from yet another earlier-than-expected postmortem?

Regular season outperformance followed by playoff disappointment has been a recurring theme for the Maple Leafs since returning to the postseason in 2016-17. And though many of the faces and personalities outside of the “Core Four” have changed, a key question hangs like Eeyore’s dark cloud over the organization: What makes this year’s team any different, and why should we be a believer this time around?

It’s a fair question to ask. The good news for Toronto: Auston Matthews remains an unstoppable goal scorer, the team’s top-six forwards continue to wreak havoc on opposition goaltenders, and the blueline has shown moments of real off-puck defensive capability, something that's beleaguered this franchise in the past.

Their playoff path looks quite similar, too — whether it’s the Boston Bruins (a common first-round foe) or Florida Panthers (who unceremoniously eliminated them in their second-round appearance, one season ago), it’s going to be a matchup we have seen before.

To that end, I wanted to dissect this Maple Leafs team in contrast to years past. What does this team offer that previous teams didn’t, and are there weaknesses with this year’s lineup that may not have existed previously in the Kyle Dubas era?

Let’s break this down into five components: even-strength scoring (for and against), power-play production, penalty-kill success rates, and goaltending performance.

Up first, even-strength offensive production, where the Maple Leafs have routinely shined – this season, Toronto’s carrying the league’s fourth-most productive offence there:

It goes without saying that much of the story in Toronto centres around Matthews, a goal-scoring supernova, currently pacing for a 70-goal campaign. Playing primarily with Mitch Marner and youngster Matthew Knies, Toronto can rest assured that the top of the lineup has the appropriate firepower to win in the postseason.

As a counterpoint – and it’s one that’s been the case for many years predating this season – you will notice that Toronto’s fantastic rate scoring is very much in line with seasons past, and until Sheldon Keefe’s core forwards can turn their regular-season scoring into meaningful playoff goals, skeptics will remain. 

I do think it’s worth acknowledging that the Max Domi gambit has worked for the Maple Leafs. The Leafs are averaging 3.5 goals per 60 minutes with him on the ice (routinely with Calle Jarnkrok and Nicholas Robertson), creating another formidable offensive line and one that’s scoring at the same rate as the Jason Robertson line in Dallas. That’s not nothing! 

Let’s turn to the defensive side of the ledger, also at even strength:

The Maple Leafs have played, at least defensively, slightly better than league average this season. Couple that with the league’s fourth-best offence, and you should have a recipe for long-term success.

That said, this Toronto lineup is also at an eight-year high for expected goals against, and I cannot help but notice the two sub-groups of players driving those numbers to the upside. Morgan Rielly and William Nylander’s numbers are grim, but they have been able to offset that with high-end offensive production when they’re on the ice. That’s not the case for an enforcer-type in the form of Ryan Reaves, who has been a magnet for goals against all season long, and whose line is incapable of producing anything offensively.

Reaves wasn’t brought to Toronto to drive favourable goal differentials, but it’s going to be fascinating to see what latitude he is given by Keefe come playoff time. It’s hard to imagine Toronto would bring in a player with Reaves’ toolbox and healthy scratch him come April, but it’s just as hard to imagine Toronto gambling with a broken line against quality playoff competition. Toronto’s fourth line just hasn’t been very good, and it’s not just about Reaves – fellow depth forwards like David Kampf and Noah Gregor have also been outscored over the season.

Next, let’s bring special teams into focus, starting with the man advantage:

The league has seen a material uptick in power-play scoring – I attribute a good piece of that to teams being smarter with deployment, aggressively icing their most capable attackers, shortening the bench, and frequently using four-forward setups.

Toronto is certainly one of the teams that’s taken advantage of the elevated rates of power-play scoring, in large part because they have a highly effective five-man unit that requires very little tinkering or calibration. If you take a penalty against the Maple Leafs, it’s going to be Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Rielly religiously sent over the boards. Again, this is a group that we have seen for many years now, and ultimately it will be a question of whether it can deliver against more capable defences and goaltenders – to say nothing of the fact that power-play opportunities tend to dry up in the playoffs.

That said, if there’s one area I’m confident in with respect to Toronto, it’s the power play. In the Matthews era (2016-24), Toronto maintains the league’s third-deadliest man advantage, trailing only Edmonton and Tampa Bay. That’s fantastic company.

But for as strong as the power play has looked this season, the Maple Leafs have certainly given some of it back short-handed:

I think this is a notable shift, and not in a good direction. Not only is Toronto underperforming league averages, you can see from a deployment standpoint how much tinkering Keefe has had to do, especially in relation to their predictable power-play group. Fourteen skaters have at least 50 minutes of ice time, and the players commonly used – like defencemen T.J. Brodie and defensive centre Kampf – have shaky performance at best this year.

It's also worth emphasizing this isn’t uniquely a goaltending story, as expected goal rates have surged in similar fashion.

Toronto is still comfortably a net positive when it comes to special-teams play, but it’s worth keeping an eye on their penalty-kill units, and it will be interesting to see what direction they choose come game 83.

Lastly, the goalies – we will use goals saved versus expected (aggregate) to measure goaltending performance, as it is a better indicator of individual performance than a team-based defensive measure like raw save percentages:

I think we may have spilled a bit too much ink on the Ilya Samsonov story. It’s true that Samsonov disappointed early this year, but it has not cost the Maple Leafs in any meaningful way, thanks in large part to surprisingly positive contributions from Martin Jones and a breakout season of sorts from Joseph Woll.

What’s fascinating to me is who Keefe will consider for Game 1 of a playoff series, and how quickly he will pivot from that decision if things go sideways early. Woll has been the best of the three goalies in Toronto by a considerable margin this season, but 18 games are still just 18 games, and the 25-year-old is extremely light on NHL experience.

I do not think this is the best Maple Leafs team we have seen in the Matthews era. The 2021-22 team will maintain that honour, a team that finished with a whopping +60 goal differential. But there is still plenty to like across this roster, and their fate this April may come down to the luck of the draw – like avoiding one of the league’s hottest teams in round one.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference