Catchable Teams

Jonathan Willis
September 06 2011 06:45PM

Brian Burke was bullish about the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes at a press conference earlier today, and one quote in particular stood out to me:

“We think there’s a couple of catchable teams. I’m not going to name them. No reason to start with bulletin board material before the season even begins, but we think there are catchable teams.

Which teams might he be talking about?

Let’s start with a look at the Eastern conference standings and goal differential from last season.

Rank Team Points Goal Diff.
1 Washington 107 27
2 Philadelphia 106 36
3 Boston 103 51
4 Pittsburgh 106 39
5 Tampa Bay 103 7
6 Montreal 96 7
7 Buffalo 96 16
8 N.Y. Rangers 93 35
9 Carolina 91 -3
10 Toronto 85 -33
11 New Jersey 81 -35
12 Atlanta 80 -46
13 Ottawa 74 -58
14 N.Y. Islanders 73 -35
15 Florida 72 -34

This gives us a better idea of the magnitude of the Leafs’ problems. The National Post article linked above talks about an eight-point gap between the Leafs and the playoffs, which is accurate but not comprehensive. A slightly different take is that the Leafs have to make up 40 goals from last season – not impossible, certainly, given the gap between the goaltending they got for most of last season and the goaltending they got from James Reimer.

Obviously, we can eliminate some teams from consideration. For starters, the clubs not in the playoffs last season don’t matter for this exercise; the Leafs want to be in the playoffs. We can also eliminate the really high-end teams in all likelihood: Boston, Washington, and Pittsburgh. Philadelphia changed significantly over the off-season, so we’ll leave them on the list for now. That gives us five clubs: Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Buffalo and New York.

The New York Rangers would not be my target of choice. Their goal differential last season suggests that they deserved a better standings finish, most of their best players remain, and they’ve added Brad Richards (as well as Tim Erixon).

The Buffalo Sabres would not be my choice either. In the balance, I think they’ve improved in the off-season. Last year’s performance wasn’t based on standout work from individuals that is unlikely to be repeated, so there’s little reason to believe they’ll regress.

Philadelphia might be catchable; they’re a wildcard at this juncture and I do think they are worse, but they also have a huge head-start on Toronto. I’d eliminate them as well.

That leaves Toronto with two likely targets if they wish to reclaim a playoff berth: Tampa Bay and Montreal. I like Tampa Bay, from the management on down, but they lost some useful players and their goaltending is at least somewhat questionable given Dwayne Roloson’s age. Their excellent playoff run obscures the fact that for much of last season they were an okay but not exceptional team. Montreal also seemed to tread water over the summer, so we may presume they are an attainable target.

I’m not writing off these teams – the Leafs have lots of work to do to overtake them. But if I were betting on a Leafs’ playoff appearance, I’d guess it comes at the expense of either the Lightning or the Canadiens, and those are the clubs I’d be looking at.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 eyebleaf
September 06 2011, 06:53PM
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PLAYOFFS!!!1

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#2 runaroundkid
September 06 2011, 10:01PM
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@eyebleaf

/thread

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#3 Tach
September 07 2011, 09:58AM
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"the clubs not in the playoffs last season don’t matter for this exercise"

I wouldn't write New Jersey totally off in this calculation. They had some real crap luck at the start of last season and came on strong. Assuming Parise comes back fully healthy and stays that way it is probably a good bet they will be improved.

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#4 Pension Plan Puppets
September 07 2011, 10:05AM
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@Tach

He means in terms of leapfrogging them in the standings. But they'll definitely be in the mix for a playoff spot.

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#5 mac
September 07 2011, 10:42AM
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Considering New Jersey's incredible 2nd-half run and the return of Zach Parise, the Leafs will probably need to stay ahead of them, as well.

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#6 mac
September 07 2011, 10:44AM
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@mac

Whoops, I see Tach said the same thing.

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#7 Stephan Cooper
September 07 2011, 02:19PM
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Both Montreal and Tampa Bay were fanatastic 5 on 5 possesion teams last year that got the short end of the percentages last year (Montreal shooting, Tampa goaltending). Montreal should return to the mean and its hard to believe that Tampa's goaltending will be worse next season on aggregate considering how terrible the guys other than Roloson were.

Toronto in comparison was heavily under water across their lineup except for their best line.

The East last year was a place were there were 8 definite good teams (you could argue 9 with New Jersey just being very unfortunate) and 6-7 bad ones with a large gap between them. Catching any of the playoff teams is a big jump for Toronto no matter who their trying to pick off.

I'd say their best hope is if about 2 of the good teams hit a bad stretch of luck and Toronto is unusually fortunate. Unless Connolly, Liles and the other additions greatly change the dynamics of the team's skaters.

Expecting Reimer to be the same as the second half is expecting a young goaltender in his second season to be among the leagues elite, which is a tall order especially since new starters tend to falter in their second year on the job.

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#8 Pension Plan Puppets
September 07 2011, 08:41PM
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@Stephan Cooper

Bang on. Reimer's save percentage over the entire season would have put him in the top ten in the league.

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