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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Looking for a storyline in Toronto vs Columbus

With the NHL’s return to play set to begin on August 1st, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been matched up against the Columbus Blue Jackets for the qualifying round of playoffs. While sports fans gear up for a bizarre finale to the season, there seems to be a lack of storylines going into the play-in round.

Due to the lengthy hiatus, familiar themes of hot goalies, streaking teams, and nagging injuries simply aren’t there to be endlessly discussed and debated. Instead, we will need to dig deeper if we want to figure out what the narrative heading into this series will be.

While others at The Leafs Nation are doing an excellent job on previewing the upcoming best of five series by highlighting individual players, I have decided to do what Leafs fans often do best and look towards the past.

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A History of Toronto vs Columbus

The most notable thing about the history of Toronto vs Columbus is that there really isn’t much history at all. The two teams have played against each other only 30 times, by far the lowest amount between Toronto and any other Eastern Conference opponent. By comparison, the Maple Leafs have played 46 games against the Hamilton Tigers, a franchise that existed for only six seasons, nearly a century ago.

The only teams Columbus has played less than Toronto are the Jets/Thrashers franchise, who swapped conferences with the Blue Jackets, and the expansion Golden Knights. Needless to say, despite the NHL’s best efforts of promoting rivalries through an absurd playoff format, the play-in round will feature a matchup between two teams that are barely aware of each other.

But there has to be something to this series right? Surely there must be some sort of bad blood rooted deep in the shallow history of these two teams. It’s time to do what sports journalists do best and dig through archives and stats in a desperate attempt to manufacture some drama.

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Head to Head

W L T OTL PTS% GF GA
TOR 14 11 1 4 .550 91 87
CBJ 15 14 1 0 .517 87 91

The franchises have nearly identical head to head records, and since the NHL continues to defy logic and basic math, both teams can boast an over .500 win rate against the other. 

During the 2019-2020 season, they’ve played twice with each team winning once. Over the last three seasons, they’ve split eight games with four wins apiece. The teams enter this play-in round as the eighth and ninth seeds with identical .579 records in the standings. Even the AHL teams are deadlocked with the Toronto Marlies and Cleveland Monsters each winning three of six games in their season series.

To put it simply, this matchup will not feature any sort of underdog, no David and Goliath, and no team seeking to prove themself over the other. As far as manufacturing drama goes, we’re not off to a great start.

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Trades and Signings

As we all know, many of hockey’s best storylines don’t even happen on the ice. Rivalries can be formed by what happens in the front office instead. The John Tavares signing has inspired heated games between the Leafs and Islanders, while the Oilers and Kings will forever be connected due to the Gretzky trade.

So maybe that’s where the storyline of this matchup exists? Within a shocking trade or surprise signing that left one fanbase absolutely blindsided.

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With that, here’s every single trade ever made between these two clubs.

Date Toronto Receives Columbus Receives
March 8, 2006
  • Luke Richardson
  • 2006 6th Round Pick (#136 Nick Sucharski)
July 1, 2014
  • Matt Frattin
  • Jerry D’amigo
  • Conditional 2015 7th Round Pick (Not Exercised)
Feb 26, 2015
  • Nathan Horton
  • David Clarkson
June 25, 2016
  • Kerby Rychel
  • Scott Harrington
  • Conditional 2017 5th Round Pick (Not Exercised)

A total of four trades with the most notable players moved being a past his prime Luke Richardson, or Columbus’ current number seven defenceman Scott Harrington. The most memorable trade between the two teams is easily the Clarkson/Horton swap, in which the franchises actually worked together to mutually help each other’s finances. So there’s no bad blood to be found in the trade history either, just enough forgettable swaps to rival an office Christmas party where everyone shows up to Secret Santa with a $20 Best Buy gift card.

There’s also absolutely zero players signed away from the other team on either roster. The only player who has skated for both teams that may appear in the series is the aforementioned Scott Harrington, meaning it’s not even possible to build a storyline around a forlorn player seeking revenge on his former team. That being said, any seasoned Leafs fan knows to expect at least one Scott Harrington hat-trick during the series.

Notable Games

Sure, these teams haven’t played against each other enough to create any semblance of a rivalry, but as we all know it only takes one wild game to spark the embers of a real juicy narrative. Just look at the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl! Sure, some of you will suggest that the teams already had a growing rivalry and even met in the Conference Finals the year prior, but that doesn’t fit the narrative so we will conveniently ignore it.

Here are the most notable of the thirty games played between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The First Game
Date: February 14, 2001
Score: 2-2 Tie

A game on Valentine’s Day where both teams each got a point in a tie is the kind of game boomers love to yell about while complaining about participation trophies. It also just so happened to be the first game these two ever played against each other.

The Record-Setting Game
Date: March 20, 2003
Score: CBJ 4-3 OTW

This game is most memorable not just because of the combined 62 PIMs which is by far the most shared penalty minutes between these two teams, but also because former 3rd overall pick Aki Berg tied a career-high with his third goal of the season.

The Shootout
Date: February 19, 2009
Score: CBJ 4-3 SOW

The only game to ever go to a shootout between these two teams ended with Rick Nash scoring the winning goal against Justin Pogge in one of seven career games for the non-Raskian goalie. Toronto’s three shooters were Jason Blake, Nik Hagman, and Lee Stempniak serving as a grim reminder of what this team looked like in the post-Sundin era.

The 6-3s
Dates: December 3, 2009, October 16, 2015, February 14, 2018
Score: TOR 6-3 W

The most combined goals in a game between Toronto and Columbus is nine. It has happened three times, with Toronto winning each of those games 6-3. Through this, we can conclude that Toronto’s should go into this series trying to secure 6-3 wins which has proven to be an effective strategy, accounting for 10% of all matchups between these teams.

The Shutouts
Dates: November 25, 2013, April 8, 2015
Score: 6-0 CBJ W, 5-0 SBJ W

Similarly, the only two shutouts to ever happen between the franchises have ended with blowout wins for the Blue Jackets. Therefore, Columbus should attempt to implement the controversial strategy of not letting their opponent score any goals if they hope to win this series.

Conclusion

After diving deep into the history of these two teams, the greatest takeaway seems to be that Toronto tends to win games when they score twice as many goals as their opponent, while Columbus finds success in not letting their opponent score at all.

Could that be the storyline? A classic tale of offence vs defence? After all, Auston Matthews’ 47 goals alone would put him second on the Blue Jackets in total points. Tavares, Nylander, and Marner all have at least ten more points than Dubois’ team-leading 49. Hell, even Zach Hyman’s 21 goals would be tied for first on the team if he played for the Blue Jackets.

But will any of that matter when the team faces up against arguably the top defensive pairing in the league with Werenski and Jones looking to shut down Toronto’s forwards. Even if Toronto manages to crack the defence, they still have to get by a goaltending tandem who have both put up numbers better than Toronto’s expected starter Frederik Anderson.

That may just be it, the storyline is as simple as a top-five offence vs a top-five defence. Speed vs size. The fast-paced stylings of Hall & Oates vs the defensive fortitude of a literal canon.

As much as I would love to say this will be the dialogue going into the series, we must remember this is Toronto sports, and when has Toronto sports media ever let anything be that simple? Instead, I welcome everyone to brace themselves for August where we will no doubt have to deal with hours of debate over a split locker room when it’s revealed that Nylander enjoys pineapple on pizza and Tavares doesn’t.

At least hockey’s back.

(Statistics from hockey-reference.com)