The Toronto Maple Leafs rebuild, by just about every measure, has been a rousing success.
An organization plagued by subpar on-ice results for more than a decade has finally reversed course under the watchful eye of Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock. Toronto has again eased into another playoff spot this season, thanks to one of the league’s best regular-season records and the NHL’s second-best goal differential.
But this year feels different. When the Maple Leafs were bounced out of the first-round in the 2016-17 NHL playoffs by the Washington Capitals, they were a considerable underdog whose Stanley Cup window hadn’t yet opened. In the 2017-18 NHL playoffs, the Leafs felt closer to being Stanley Cup calibre. They drew a particularly cruel first-round draw against a very capable Boston Bruins, losing a tough series in seven games.
It’s a near-certainty that the Maple Leafs will draw the Bruins in the first round again this April, and it looks like they will be the road team when that matchup is finalized.
Toronto, who had arguably been the league’s second-best team for most of the regular season, fell into a bit of a slump (they have played to a 96-point pace since Jan. 1). That’s allowed Boston – who has played to a 132-point pace since the New Year – to surge past them in the standings. While you have to give full credit to the Bruins for playing so well down the stretch, you start to wonder what it might mean for the Maple Leafs – particularly if the first round ends with a third consecutive elimination.
Toronto playing relatively poorly of late is one issue. Boston playing relatively well of late is a second issue. The fact that two top-five teams in points are slated to play in the first-round is a third (and uncontrollable) issue. But maybe the most pressing issue is that the Bruins jumping the Maple Leafs in the standings is largely legitimate and unaffected by puck luck, and that the Bruins’ biggest gains have come in those critical even-strength minutes.
In this light, consider how Boston and Toronto's play has trended over time at even strength. We will use expected goals (courtesy Evolving Hockey) which considers both shot volume and the quality of those shots, but it’s worth mentioning that standard shot rates, scoring chance rates, and actual goal rates look very similar to the below:
The Bruins are surging, carrying about 53 per cent of the expected goals at even strength over the last 20 games. That’s a monster number – the type of performance you see in teams as they gear up for deep playoff runs. The Leafs are the opposite end of the spectrum. Over the last 20 games, the Leafs are getting just under 49 per cent of the expected goals – a far cry from their season high at the halfway point of the regular season, which was right around 54 per cent. These are two great hockey teams, but one is trending up and one is trending down.
The issue for the Leafs (and perhaps the Lightning) is that the vast majority of the game is played at even strength, and that is particularly true in the postseason where whistles are rare. Neither team is controlling pace nor tempo the way the Bruins are, and it’s the usual suspects who are driving play in Beantown. The Patrice Bergeron line continues to pummel opponents on a nightly basis, but a notable rotation of quality defensive pairings has eased the burden on the aging Zdeno Chara. Charlie McAvoy has been instrumental there, but Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk have also played well of late.
I isolated on Boston here for the obvious playoff format-based reasons, but it’s worth pointing out that Toronto looks a bit underwhelming at even strength relative to a majority of playoff teams. If you compare expected goal rates carried by Toronto over the full season relative to every other playoff contender right now, they are on the wrong side of the head-to-head in most matchups.
In fact, the only two teams from the East that underwhelm relative to Toronto are Columbus (who is at risk of missing the postseason) and Washington:
The one area the Maple Leafs can hang their hat on is that they have tremendous power-play units that have been productive all season long. Against most teams, that could be a powerful equalizer. However, even that advantage may be null and void within the Atlantic Division. Boston (9.7 goals per 60 minutes; third in the NHL) has carried a top three power-play unit most of the season. The same is true for Tampa Bay (11.7 goals per-60 minutes; first in the NHL). And not only do they convert with a higher frequency, they also draw penalties with more frequency. Tampa Bay and Boston both sit inside of the top 10 in the number of power-play opportunities drawn this regular season, while Toronto sits 30th in the NHL.
No one disputes how talented this Toronto team is. But the reality is they aren’t playing well of late relative to divisional peers and that doesn’t bode well in a playoff format that will likely require them to eliminate both Boston and Tampa Bay – in that order – to make a serious postseason run. That seemed like a tough ask in October when the Leafs were firing on all cylinders. Now, it seems downright daunting.
The Maple Leafs have about a month to clean up their game. If they don’t, they could be staring down the barrel of another first-round exit. At that point, you have to ask: What changes will the organization consider to try to get over the hump?
Another early elimination with no repercussions to the roster or coaching staff, in that light, is hard to imagine.