A few days ago I wrote about how we can talk ourselves into the Leafs somehow upsetting the almighty Capitals in round one. The point of that piece was to simply look for a few areas where things could swing in the direction of the blue-and-white and potentially make this series interesting. One thing we avoided was talking much about the teams’ blue lines – their D groups. That’s because it’s the part of this series that isn’t going to swing anywhere. It’s staying right where it is, in favour of the Caps in a big way.
Toronto is so heavily outmatched here. They’ll take one of the weaker groups of defencemen in the entire league up against arguably the best. Just take a look at how that part of the lineup stacks up between these two clubs (average all situations time-on-ice in brackets):
|Jake Gardiner (21:32)||Kevin Shattenkirk (19:56)|
|Morgan Rielly (22:10)||Dmitri Orlov (19:32)|
|Nikita Zaitsev (22:01)||John Carlson (22:43)|
|Connor Carrick (16:20)||Matt Niskanen (22:11)|
|Matt Hunwick (17:59)||Karl Alzner (19:47)|
|Roman Polak (17:55)||Brooks Orpik (17:47)|
The bottom of these groups are a probably a wash talent-wise, but there’s a case to be made that any of the Caps’ top four could step into Toronto’s lineup and immediately become the number one defenceman. That’s trouble. [The one positive is that Carlson, who is an absolute horse, will be questionable to start the series.]
Where this will hurt most at even-strength is against the Leafs’ retrieval and cycle game. Toronto is a team that doesn’t mind dumping the puck, but getting it back in this series is going to be difficult against such a mobile and talented group. On the flipside of that, as a Metro powerhouse that plays so heavy, Washington’s forwards are going to be a nightmare for an already-thin Leafs group that might even be missing two regulars in Zaitsev and Polak.
Even strength numbers from Datarink:
The even-strength picture is pretty bleak, but it’s on the powerplay where the Caps look even better with how they get help from their top guys. Shattenkirk in particular is an absolute killer in that regard, and could be the difference in the special teams battle. That’s going to be important, as both these teams rank near the top of the league in converting on the powerplay.
Power Play P/60 (via Datarink)
There’ll be a lesson to be learned here. Not necessarily for this existing defence corps, but for coaching and management going forward. To start to make that next step in the direction of contention, Toronto likely needs to make a move of magnitude for help on the blue line. Who knows, that might even come at the Caps’ expense in the form of pending free agent Shattenkirk. Either way, this series is likely to really expose that weakness. Even people most optimistic about this Leafs group can’t really deny that Babcock has squeezed blood from a turnip here, and he’s going to need upgrades on the back-end to get this team where it needs to be.
Long term the Leafs will benefit more from losing to Washington than probably beating Ottawa
— Playoffs!!1 in 2017 (@mlse) April 10, 2017
That tweet above unsurprisingly got a lot of negative reaction (especially among upset Sens fans who took the bait), but honestly I think there is a level of truth to it. The Capitals are where you want to be if you’re pretty much any team on the way up, and Toronto will get an up-close look at them for 4-7 games over the next two weeks. They’ll study them plenty, game plan for them, and try to skate with them. In the end it’s unlikely they’ll emerge from this having beaten them, but they’ll see how desperately they’ll need the pieces they’re missing, and getting a good look at Washington’s blue line should really hit that home.