With the deadline over we now can begin our countdown towards the end of the 2015-16 season. The Leafs have 21 games remaining, tied for second most games remaining in the league (only the Islanders have 22 remaining). With 21 games happening in the next 40 days, the Leafs average just under a day off in between games, which is a pretty tiring stretch run.
The good news is that’s helpful in their race to the bottom of the standings. Here are a few other things that may help them along the way.
The nice thing about being where the Leafs are in the standings is the fact that every time they are facing an opponent, they’re going up against a team that, in theory, is better than them (thanks to having no remaining games against the Oilers.)
While the single largest group of games is still against teams that are lottery bound, the Leafs only have five games that are in that close tanking group with 3 against Buffalo, 1 against Calgary, and 1 against Columbus. Ottawa, Philadephla, and New Jersey are the other lottery bound teams and likely have enough of an advantage over the Leafs that they should be favourites in all of the matchups.
Teams considered playoff locks like the Capitals, Panthers, Islanders, and Lightning should handle the Leafs quite easily. The wild card factor here is that the Leafs present these teams with a good opportunity to rest their starting goaltender. We’re already seeing that Wednesday night with the Capitals intention of starting Phillipp Grubauer instead of Braden Holtby.
This could be a factor that gives the Leafs a slightly better chance in these games, especially against teams like Washington who have truly punched their playoff ticket, and in games late March and early April against Tampa Bay and Florida, though the Lightning, Panthers, and Islanders at this stage are still jockeying for playoff position and competing for a chance to have home ice advantage, something especially important to all these teams that value playoff ticket revenue.
The bubble teams are pretty similar to the Lightning, Panther, Islander group. The Wild are the only opponent that is truly on the outside looking in at this point with a chance to push for a playoff berth. Other teams like the Bruins, and Red Wings would really need their figurative 18-wheelers to go off of cliffs in order to give the Flyers a chance of sneaking in.
Given the similarities, this is more about holding on and trying for home ice advantage, which is at least up for grabs in the Atlantic division. It’s enough that teams should still be showing up to play Toronto, and the Leafs shouldn’t be seeing backup goaltenders unless that team is coming off a back to back or the playoff picture is much more clear by the time the April games roll around.
Days of Rest
The Leafs having four back to back situations in the next 40 days is the best gift possible to a tanking team. It’s also noteworthy that all of those back to backs require travel as there is no situation where there are two games back to back at the Air Canada Centre.
Three of the four B2B’s have the Leafs facing their easier opponent in the first game, which probably gives them a better chance of picking up a win, but only one of the games involves a true lottery team and that’s when the Leafs face the Blue Jackets on April 6th as the Leafs do 3 games in 4 nights to close out the season.
The Six Day Home Stand
Imagine having a schedule that gives you a six day home stand in March when your team is in contention for a playoff spot? What a gift that would be.
Instead that six game homestand could be the likely cause for the Leafs not maximizing their draft lottery odds.
The good news for tank fans is that the Leafs haven’t benefited from playing at home and that’s probably not going to start anytime soon, even if two of those games include the Flames and Sabres.
Maybe that stretch is a good thing. The Leafs can pick up a few wins, the Marlies kids can show off how they’re adjusting to the NHL, and we can have some hope for the future the season ends.
Wrap it Up
I get that tanking is not for everyone. I get that at this point it’s more important to see players like Nylander, Rielly, Kapanen, etc. showing signs that they be top players in the NHL. I get that with games remaining against the Bruins and Senators, it’s likely that a loss will still be just a disappointing in a tanking year as it would in any other.
What I hope everyone else gets is that the Leafs players are still trying out there, but given the fact that they’ve got a number of opponents remaining who want to clinch playoff positions and they have one of the tightest schedules in the league, they’ll be lucky to maintain their current pace for 70 points this year.