The Leafs have 33 games remaining in the rest of the season. They are presently sitting four points back of a playoff spot. They are 10th in the conference in points. They are 10th in the conference in points percentage. It’s an uphill battle, but not impossible.
Not an impossible deficit to overcome, especially since the Leafs have been playing at a 67.3% points per game pace since Sheldon Keefe took over. Granted, I’m not making a case that what we’ve seen is sustainable, but I’d also argue that the 1-3-2 record of the last six games isn’t the true story on the Leafs either. If the truth falls closer to the being good side (which, all evidence around this team points to them being good) the Leafs are likely a team that makes the playoffs by the skin of teeth.
Will the schedule help or hurt the Leafs?
Well, let’s just look a few of the big numbers out there and try and put them into some context.
4 Remaining Back to Back Games
Back to backs are no fun, and can almost be taken as four guaranteed losses in the remaining schedule, especially since 3 of those 4 B2Bs are played entirely on the road, which adds another minor layer of difficult to the mix.
The first B2B is against the Ducks at home followed by a road trip to Montreal. This is probably the most forgiving of the B2Bs, that and the B2B games in Anaheim and LA. The road B2B against Ottawa and then Buffalo probably isn’t a huge panic either, but in all of these previously mentioned series, you’ve taken an opponent the Leafs should beat, and made it a lot harder to do so.
The final B2B features Tampa and then Carolina on the road and takes place near the end of the season. That’s just ugly.
13 Games against teams that are completely out of the playoff picture already
Detroit, Ottawa, New Jersey, New York Rangers, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Montreal, and Buffalo are essentially done for the year. We might see some last whimpers out of Montreal and Buffalo post All-Star break, but these are the teams clearly on the out looking in and the Leafs face them 12 times in their remaining schedule. Like I mentioned previously, at least three of those games will involve a tired Leafs team playing on the second half of a back to back, but nevertheless, those are games the Leafs need to win.
7 Games against divisional opponents ahead of them in the Standings
It’s probably cruel that the Leafs have to face the Lightning three more times this season. On the other hand, it’s nice that they only have one more game against the Bruins.
The real positive is that the Leafs have three more games against the Panthers, which might not seem like a positive after recently losing 8-4, but in reality, if the Leafs are going to make the playoffs beating the Panthers in their remaining matchups would have to be prerequisite for any playoff hope and also, if the Leafs are going to struggle against Florida, do we really expect anything of them in the playoffs anyway?
Only 3 Games against the Metro Wildcard Bubble Teams
Assuming that the Penguins, Islanders, and Capitals are the top three in the East, the Leafs only have 3 games remaining against the Hurricanes (2) and Blue Jackets (1). They don’t face the Flyers again this year. That won’t make it easy to make up ground there, at least not directly, but at least in the case of the Blue Jackets there is some hope that they will come crashing down to Earth soon.
9 Western Conference Games
By game 70 the Leafs remaining games will be entirely against Eastern Conference opponents, but until then the Leafs will face a few Western teams which they haven’t matched up against yet this season. Generally the Leafs have fared as well against the West as they have against the East, but opponents like Nashville and Dallas could be interesting challenges for Toronto and they face them each twice.
The Leafs schedule isn’t easy
Powerrankingsguru.com has compares strength of schedule across the NHL, and puts the Leafs with the 10th most difficult schedule for the rest of the season, which isn’t particularly good news, but I guess it could always be worse. The bad news is that Boston, Tampa, and Florida have three of the easiest remaining schedules, and of those teams Florida has the easiest schedule, the 4th easiest in the league according to the site.
The good news is that Columbus, Philadelphia, and Carolina are all identified as having more difficult schedules than the Leafs. For whatever any of this is worth, we can at least take comfort in that the Blue Jackets and Flyers having tougher competition opens a significant door for the Leafs to get back into the one of the bottom playoff spots if passing the Panthers isn’t an option.
The Leafs have 14 games until the trade deadline, which is also important to note given that they have unrestricted free agents like Tyson Barrie, Jason Spezza, Jake Muzzin, and Cody Ceci that could all attract some attention, not to mention potential trade bait in Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, and Alexander Kerfoot. It will be interesting to see how the Leafs address the deadline as a bubble team, knowing that they could lose quality players (and Ceci) for nothing by holding out hope for a spot in the playoffs they might not be able to attain.
The prompt return of Jake Muzzin to the lineup will help make sense of where the Leafs are at, as will the status of Frederik Andersen’s game. Perhaps we should have been more careful in what we wished for, wanting to see meaningful hockey in the second half of the season this year and jumping to the conclusion that the Leafs would be slated into their annual matchup against the Bruins in the first round.