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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

2020 Playoff Preview: How do the Leafs match up against the Blue Jackets?

After months of waiting, we are only two weeks away from playoff hockey.

With that, it’s time to start analyzing the Leafs “first-round” opponent, The Columbus Blue Jackets. They finished the regular season with the same amount of points as the Leafs and were also hit hard by the injury bug this year. The break from hockey has allowed both teams to recover. Other than Columbus forward Josh Anderson, and Leafs forward Andreas Johnsson, both teams are at full-strength.

The similarities between these two teams end there.

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In this playoff preview, I’ll showcase:

  • The major differences between the two by looking at the numbers, their lineup construction, and the systems that they implement.
  • The mini-battles to watch for and how both teams can be successful in each.
  • Predictions from the contributors of The Leafs Nation and The Everything Leafs Podcast.

Statistical overview:

Toronto

Columbus

5v5 Offence

 

60.19 (4th)

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CF/60

54.1 (23rd)

2.74 (8th)

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GF/60

2.16 (28th)

2.47 (3rd)

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xGF/60

2.20 (24th)

8.57 (11th)

Sh%

6.80 (28th)

5v5 Defence

 

55.5 (13th)

CA/60

56.06 (17th)

2.73 (27th)

GA/60

2.11 (5th)

2.32 (18th)

xGA/60

2.04 (3rd)

Special Teams

 

23.1 (6th)

PP%

16.40 (27th)

77.70 (21st)

PK%

81.70 (12th)

It’s clear that these teams are polar opposites. The Blue Jackets are an elite team defensively but struggle to generate dangerous scoring chances. Finishing in the bottom ten in both 5v5 expected goals-for per minute and shooting percentage isn’t usually a recipe for playoff success. With that said, their defense and goaltending make them difficult to overlook. Last season, Columbus surprised everyone after sweeping the Lightning in the first round but it’s worth mentioning that they are a different team this year.

The Leafs will have an advantage in special teams especially when you consider how much better their powerplay was once Keefe took over. They’ll be looking to have a strong penalty killing series as they have struggled with this in past playoff series’. The Blue Jackets powerplay isn’t even close to as potent as Boston’s (the Leafs last playoff opponent) but it’s worth noting that the Leafs have allowed 14 powerplay goals in their last 14 playoff games. That has to be better.

Projected Lineup

It’s still training camp so take these lines with a grain of salt as a lot can change. 

The top-six group is loaded with offensive talent and Keefe will probably give them a lot of ice time. At times, the third and fourth lines struggled to generate offence but a healthy playoff lineup could change that. With Nick Robertson, and Denis Malgin waiting for an opportunity to play, the members of the bottom-six need to perform if they want to stay in the lineup.

Defensively, Muzzin and Holl will deservedly be matched up against Columbus’ top line. The Rielly-Ceci pairing won’t get many approval votes but it’s been acceptable considering their deployment. In addition, Ceci has been a positive defensive player this year at even strength. If this doesn’t work, Sandin provides a different option for the bottom-two pairs. I expect him to play at some point in the series. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Keefe dresses seven defensemen at some point. Goaltending is key in any series, and Andersen has yet to win a playoff round during his time with the Leafs. This could be his chance.

Columbus doesn’t hold many brand-name players, but they have a number of really strong defensive forwards. Oliver Bjorkstrand and Pierre-Luc Dubois are their best two-way forwards and will need to lead the Jackets, especially offensively. Columbus’ bottom-six probably won’t hurt the Leafs on the score sheet. Their job is to go out there, change the momentum, and definitely do not allow the opposition to score. For the most part, it’s a boring, low event bottom-six but the presence of Liam Foudy could generate some sparks.

Zach Werenski is coming off a 20 goal season and will be getting his usual defensive partner back in Seth Jones. Columbus’ bottom-four is similar to their bottom-six forward group. Offensively, they won’t hurt you, but they also don’t get scored on easily. Columbus will have two strong goaltending options to choose from. I’m expecting Elvis Merzlikins to get the start over Korpisalo considering the tremendous year the former had. Goaltending is a key strength of Columbus’ and if they want to pull off an upset here, it will need to be a difference-maker.

Game-tape: Mini-battles to watch for

Puck Possession vs Quality Chances

For soccer fans, this is a known scenario. One team holds the majority of possession throughout the game while the other team comfortably sits back, defends, and waits for their opportunity to counter-attack.

Under Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs have been superb at keeping the puck and should easily win the possession battle in this series. With that said, possession doesn’t always equate to a higher amount of quality scoring chances.

How the Leafs can win this mini-battle

Since Keefe took over, the Leafs have made significant strides in their offensive-zone movement and it has led to a higher amount of dangerous scoring chances. This is going to be a huge key to unlocking the Blue Jackets’ defensive zone structure.

Offensive zone movement is extremely important as it forces the opposing players to make decisions in terms of who they are covering and the space they are occupying.

When done well, the movement of an offensive player should complement the movement of their teammate in order to find and create holes in the defense. In soccer, for example, a center forward will move towards the ball carrier. If the opposing defender follows them, space is created in behind. While the center forward is moving, the winger will make a “blindside run” (a movement by an attacking player that is not noticed by opposing defenders) into the new space, giving the ball carrier a passing option.

Here’s an example of the Leafs doing this:

Marner has the puck on the half-wall. Hyman takes his man to the net, but more importantly, Matthews pops back into the high-slot asking for a one-timer. Two Hurricanes players see this as a threat and follow Matthews closely. As this happens, Barrie makes a blindside run into the newly created space. It’s a subtle movement by Matthews, but the hole it creates is enough for Barrie to take advantage of.

How the Blue Jackets can win this mini-battle

In the defensive zone, Columbus needs to keep its structure and protect the middle of the ice. They block a plethora of shots and can seamlessly switch between staggering and collapsing their defense. They might spend an extended time in their own end, but they don’t give up many scoring chances.

Last year the Bruins effectively kept the Leafs to the outside for much of the latter half of the series. Far too often Toronto had to force poor passes or settle for weak point shots.

Columbus needs to follow this template, and have shown that they are comfortable playing this style defensively. Block shots, watch the middle of the ice and don’t get caught up in Toronto’s offensive zone movement.

The Leafs breakout vs the Columbus forecheck

This storyline has become familiar to the Leafs as Toronto has struggled against good forechecking teams in the past. This year they completely reformatted their breakout strategy as they moved from longer north-south stretch-passes to shorter east-west ones under Keefe.

Columbus’ overall offensive production relies a lot on their forecheck. It will be a central part of their game-plan this series. Their infamous 1-2-2 forecheck vs the new Leafs breakout should be one of the most interesting battles in this series.

How the Leafs can win this mini-battle

For the first time in a while, the majority of Toronto’s defensemen are good puck-movers and are adequately mobile. This is half the battle when facing strong forechecking teams. They have the personnel and the system to overcome this problem, now they simply need to execute. Sheldon Keefe’s breakout scheme is built on puck support, movement, and patience.

Having more players available for short passes on the breakout gives defensemen multiple options to choose from. In addition, this methodology makes it much easier to recover positionally if they lose the puck. In this system, Leafs forwards are closer to the front of the net, and can quickly move there to break up any chances if there’s a turnover.

How the Blue Jackets can win this mini-battle:

Columbus will need to limit the time and space of Toronto’s defencemen if they want to cause turnovers. Players such as Rielly, Dermott, Barrie, and Sandin escape incoming forecheckers really well and can also make accurate passes if given the chance to turn. Holl and Muzzin aren’t as strong as the others in this regard but they make smart decisions and can recover if a mistake is made better than their peers. Cody Ceci is the outlier here, and Columbus would be smart to expose him. In the past two years, Boston’s forecheck targeted the right-side of the Leafs defense and moved on to the next round as a result.

There is a small window of vulnerability after a team turns the puck over in their own-end. Players that were in position for the break-out, now need to scramble to defend the front of the net. Columbus takes advantage of this window and can beautifully transition from forechecking to chance-creation.

Video from CYDA Belfry Hockey

Defencemen stepping up vs Forwards stepping down

The method that both teams use to blend their forwards and defensemen represents another systemic difference between them. The majority of Toronto’s defencemen are very comfortable stepping up the ice. In fact, under Keefe, they are encouraged to do so in a number of situations. This includes on their breakout, to keep the puck in the offensive zone, and when there’s an opportunity to score – as seen in the Barrie clip earlier.

In contrast, the Blue Jackets choose to blend their players in a different way. Columbus is an elite team in limiting odd-man rush chances and it’s because of the commitment to defend by their forward group. Rather than stepping their defensemen up like the Leafs, Columbus steps their forwards down to defend. They have a number of forwards who grade out really well defensively in models such as Evolving Wild’s RAPM charts and HockeyViz’ heat maps.

How the Blue Jackets can win this mini-battle

The elimination of rush chances is an aspect of Columbus’ game that scares me. As soon as they lose the puck in the offensive zone, the forwards are ready to back-check to help out their defenders.

Here they routinely transform a potential 3-on-2 for the Flyers, into a 3-on-4. The left-defenceman, Scott Harrington, even loses his balance. Luckily for him, David Savard rotates to take the man going to the net, and the two backchecking forwards communicate with each other to cover both the puck-carrier and the open Flyer on the weak side.

Below, Columbus turns the puck over at the blueline and we see a similar formula to limit transition offense. Defenders get back, forwards start backchecking and the defenceman forces the incoming puck-carrier into the back-checker. The Rangers have no room to operate and get swallowed by the Blue Jackets.

Toronto is a dangerous team when they have odd-man rushes, but if Columbus shuts this down, the Leafs could be in trouble.

How the Leafs can win this mini-battle

This section should really be called “How the Leafs can avoid losing this mini-battle”. As mentioned before, Toronto likes their defensemen stepping up in the play. While in a vacuum, it is good to be aggressive in the offensive zone, Toronto needs to make sure it doesn’t result in an odd-man rush for the opposition. To prevent that, the Leafs defencemen need to pick their moments. Sometimes it’s better to play conservatively rather than aggressively.

In addition, the Leafs need their forwards to recognize when their defensemen have advanced up the ice. Ideally, one forward should take the defenseman’s spot in case they lose possession.

Physical playoff hockey

Every year a subsection of Leafs fans (this included me) underplay the physical and emotional aspect of the playoffs. At this point, it would be silly of us to still believe that this doesn’t play a role in the outcome of a series. Especially after witnessing the Leafs lose a key player for eight out of their last 14 playoff games due to suspension. While many solely put the blame on Kadri, it’s important to remember the temperature of those games. Boston knew what they were doing, and was able to tight-rope along the fine-line between penalization and acceptable “playoff hockey”.

The Leafs should expect a similar approach from the Blue Jackets. Their head coach, John Tortorella, is infamous for orchestrating playoff game-plans that revolve around gritty hockey.

How Columbus can win this mini-battle

Columbus needs to make it as uncomfortable as possible for the Leafs star forwards and engaging them physically can help them do that. They did this well last year against the Lightning. While physicality wasn’t the main reason why they swept the series, it did lead to a Kucherov suspension and some signs of frustration from Tampa Bay.

This type of play continued in a game this year between the Lightning and Blue Jackets. It’s a subtle wack from Dubois. It probably won’t get called by the refs, but understandably caused a reaction from the Lightning players.

It’s important that Columbus doesn’t get undisciplined in their quest for truculence. The Leafs powerplay is too potent to give them unnecessary opportunities so they’ll have to be careful. With that said, their regular-season results would suggest Columbus will be fine, as they ranked 30th in the league in PIMS per game.

How the Leafs can win this mini-battle 

In the past, this aspect of playoff hockey has been a catch-22 for the Leafs. On one hand, they didn’t retaliate to the Bruins’ excessive physical play and hoped the refs would call the game at a strict level. That didn’t happen and the Bruins had their way. On the other hand, when the Leafs actually tried to stick up for themselves, it was considered excessive and resulted in suspension. Things need to be handled differently this year.

On paper, the Leafs are more prepared to approach this aspect of the game. The additions of Kyle Clifford and Ilya Mikheyev should add some sandpaper to this lineup. In addition, Jake Muzzin was one of the Leafs best players last year against Boston and looked extremely comfortable playing in a tight-checking environment. Hyman, Dermott, and Kapanen also have a pesky side to their game.

The Leafs need to use their skill while still staying physically competitive in chippy games.

Predictions: 

It was hard enough to predict a playoff series before and shortening the series to five games has only made it more difficult. With that said, I reached out to the other contributors of The Leafs Nation and my co-host of The Everything Leafs Podcast, Kevin Papetti, to input their predictions on this series.

Brian (@briancrd): 

It’s easy to look at what Columbus did to Tampa last year and form some sort of narrative, but I’m honestly not too wrapped up in it. Feeling a big series from Matthews, Nylander, and Mikheyev with a Gentlemen’s Sweep for Toronto, but they’re going to make it interesting by dropping game one before rattling off three straight wins. Prediction: Leafs in 4 

Scott Maxwell (@scotmaxw):

The Columbus Blue Jackets have several advantages over the Leafs, particularly with their systemic defense and their goaltending performance this year, and while those would be huge factors in the playoffs, they might not be in this year’s playoffs, especially in the qualifying rounds. At the beginning of the season, you see teams still adjusting to their systems, and goalies getting back into game shape, usually with offense taking over (I mean, the Leafs always seem to have one crazy high scoring game to start the season every year). We often forget that every team will be coming into the playoffs with almost five months off, and while it’s the same group of guys, they’ll still need to get adjusted to game shape and be reminded of the systems. In a normal series, this would be a really tight battle between Toronto’s high flying offense and Columbus’ stingy defense, but this series isn’t going to be that, it’s going to be sloppy, high-scoring hockey, something that favours the Leafs. Prediction: Leafs in 5

Brendan Mori (@_BrendanMori):

While the Leafs boast a formidable offense, the Blue Jackets can counter that with one of the best defensive cores in the league. The saying “defense wins championships” fits well here as Columbus is well prepared to grind out and win “playoff” style games 2-1, 3-2, 1-0, etc. We have seen the Leafs potent offense dry up for extended periods of time and with such a long layoff, it’s not unreasonable to think it could happen again. Sheldon Keefe has talked at length in this mini training camp about how important righting their defensive game will be. I think this series will ultimately come down just how committed the Leafs are to playing a full 200-foot game and not getting frustrated by the Blue Jackets style of play. Prediction: Leafs in 5. 

Filipe Dimas (@FilipeDimas): 

In a year full of chaos and absurdity, the one constant that remains is the Toronto Maple Leafs will continue to shock us. Between hockey in August, and the playoffs kicking off after a four-month break, I think it’s safe to expect new levels of mayhem and pure bewilderment going into this series. An 8-6 loss followed by a 1-0 win, a game that goes into triple overtime, a Frederik Gauthier hat-trick, and just for fun let’s even throw in a goalie goal just for good measure. Leafs win in game 5 going deep into overtime because nothing comes easy in 2020. Prediction: Leafs in 5.

Mark (@MNorman87): 

The one thing I’m most concerned about with respect to Columbus is their size and physicality. In terms of road hits-per-60 (home splits excluded to account for home arena bias) the Blue Jackets landed 11th in the league in 2019-20 with the Leafs finishing 29th. Dubas has done well to add some muscle to the lineup by acquiring Muzzin and Clifford, but it may not be enough against a team coached by a guy who has been known to ask his guys to scrum it up in the playoffs. Guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno are no strangers to getting their noses dirty and the Leafs are fortunate to not have to deal with Josh Anderson on top of that. Not a single Blue Jackets defenceman is under 6’1” which means it’s going to be a real test for Leafs forwards in the corners and front of net. I agree that goaltending is going to be very key to this series and the hope is our elite offense can overpower the Blue Jackets’ stingy defense without getting too dinged up along the way. Prediction: Leafs in 5.

Nick Richard (@_NickRichard):

This series sets up as in interesting case study, with one of the league’s most dangerous offensive teams taking on one of the stingiest defensive groups. Columbus simply can’t match Toronto’s fire power but they’ve shut down high flying offences all year. Beyond their top two lines, the Leafs have struggled to score goals this year and they won’t come any easier against John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets. The mobility of Toronto’s blueliners will be a key factor against a relentless forecheck but I think the series will come down to goaltending and whether or not Toronto’s big guns can light the lamp consistently. Prediction: Leafs in 4. 

Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti):

The Leafs are the better team, particularly offensively, and should be considered the favourite. It’s your classic offence vs. defence series, as the Blue Jackets are strong on the back-end, and also boast plenty of strong two-way forwards. However, I expect Tavares’ line to outplay Pierre-Luc Dubois’ line, and Matthews’ line to outplay anyone he matches up against as well. Toronto also carries a major advantage on the powerplay, and I think the Muzzin-Holl duo gives them a shutdown pairing that they’ve lacked in recent years. A five-game series could simply come down to goaltending and a bounce or two, but the Leafs should be considered the favourite. Prediction: Leafs in 4.

Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_):

Due to the long break, I’m expecting the first few games of the playoffs to be looser than the usual tight-checking hockey we are used to in the playoffs. As a result, shooting talent is going to be key and the Leafs have an astronomical edge over Columbus in this regard. In addition, the Leafs are much more equipped, on paper and systemically, to deal with good forechecking teams than in the past and should be able to limit costly turnovers.  Columbus’ team defense and goaltending are good enough to keep this a competitive series but in the end, the Leafs advantage in special teams and shooting talent will be the difference. Prediction: Leafs in 5. 

Thanks for reading and stay safe.