There’s been a lot of talk these past couple weeks about the “will” of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and how their experience should scare the Leafs.
That’s right, the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have as many playoff appearances in the last decade as the Leafs, and have just one series win in their entire franchise history, have so much more experience than the Leafs. Sure, it was last year, but that’s more just showcasing the recency bias of most peoples opinions on hockey teams they don’t care about.
Let’s face it, the only reason the Blue Jackets are painted as a Goliath to the Leafs is because everybody has an inferiority complex with the Leafs. They like hating on the Leafs because that’s their only personality trait, and are never willing to actually give the Leafs credit when it’s earned.
So, let’s take some of these narratives that have been spewed during everyone’s predictions as to why the Blue Jackets are a Clearly Superior Team, and apply some logic to show why they don’t hold up.
If the Blue Jackets swept Tampa last year, they can do it again this year
So, back to that playoff series win. When people point out that the Leafs are the better team on paper (which they are), the response is usually that the Blue Jackets were the worse team on paper when they swept Tampa Bay.
First off, that series was a statistical anomaly. Before the series, Dom Luszczyszyn’s model not only had the Blue Jackets with only a 25.2% chance of winning the series, but the odds of the Blue Jackets winning in a sweep were 2%. Hockey is a wild sport usually driven by luck, and while anything can happen, that doesn’t mean that the most unlikely scenarios will happen every time, especially to the same team in back-to-back years.
Secondly, we’re forgetting that while the Blue Jackets were the underdogs in that series, they were still a really good team with lots of talent, including Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky. Those players were key performers for the Blue Jackets, as Duchene’s seven points in that series led the team, while Panarin was tied with Werenski for second with five points, and Bobrovsky held the Lightning to eight goals and had a .932 save percentage.
I bring up those three players because none of them are on the team anymore. Not just that, but the Blue Jackets got absolutely nothing in return for them, as they all walked to free agency. In return, they managed to convince Gustav Nyquist to join the Blue Jackets. Now, the depth has stepped up in their departure, as Oliver Bjorkstrand has really excelled in an increased role, and Elvis Merzlikins has had an excellent season in net (albeit in only 33 games), but they haven’t quite filled the shoes of a two time Vezina trophy winner and one of this year’s Hart trophy nominees.
Their defense heavily outmatches the Leafs
Now, when I say the Leafs are the better team on paper, that’ll probably get a response that the Blue Jackets have a better defense, and that’s partially true. They have a very strong team defense, helped by the systems put in place by John Tortorella, as well as their forwards defensive abilities.
However, the Leafs are not outmatched as far as both teams defensemen go. Going off of the six defensemen in their current lineups on Daily Faceoff, if you combine those six players’ WAR per 60 minutes (to slightly adjust for all the injuries on both teams), the Leafs have a slightly better defensive group, as the Leafs starting six have a combined 1.575 WAR/60, while the Blue Jackets’ combine for 1.393. That’s including the fact that Cody Ceci is in the lineup for the Leafs, although Dean Kukan being in the lineup for the Blue Jackets evens that playing field. The Leafs also boast the two best defensemen in this series, as Travis Dermott’s 0.64 WAR/60 and Muzzin’s 0.53 WAR per 60 lead all blueliners for both teams.
It’s a weird matchup for both teams though. The Leafs have the only defensemen who are strong all around (Muzzin and Dermott), but also have the only defensemen who are really bad at one skill and good at the other, as Rielly and Barrie have strong offensive results but weak defensive results, and Ceci has strong defensive results (I’m not kidding, he had a 3.9 defensive WAR this season, tied for 39th among defenseman in the league) and bad offensive results. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets just have six defensemen who are very middle of the pack, not very good at anything but not very bad at anything. Collectively they’re all good at preventing scoring chances, but that’s more on the system in place, not the individuals.
Part of what’s lead to this misbelief that the Blue Jackets have a superior blue line is the overrating of the Blue Jackets top pair, particularly Seth Jones. I won’t dwell too much on Seth Jones, and instead link to this piece from JFresh that really dives into it. I’m not saying that either defenseman is bad by any means, but they are far from great, and probably don’t deserve the recognition of being elite like they do. And it’s not just this year. While Seth Jones has had seasons where he’s been good offensively or good defensively, they’ve never come in the same season, and they’ve rarely been good enough to be considered elite seasons. Meanwhile, Werenski has only had one good all around season (his rookie year), and in 2017-18 put up strong offensive results, but pretty weak defensive results. Neither of them are the pinnacle of elite defensemen like everyone says they are, and if you compare them to the Leafs shutdown pair of Muzzin and Holl (pictured below), which pair would you rather have?
Their systems are built for the playoffs
Now, this is actually a narrative that I genuinely believe. The playoffs tend to see fewer penalties called, not only allowing for the more physical team (in this case, the Blue Jackets) to get away with more shenanigans in the playoffs, but it also means that there are fewer power plays, which means offense goes down a bit, which also benefits a team as defensively sound structurally like the Blue Jackets (who are the third best team at limiting scoring chances, with a 2.08 xGA/60).
Thanks to John Tortorella, the Blue Jackets have a system that really limits scoring chances, and allows them to stay in games that they otherwise wouldn’t due to their lack of offense.
However, the problem with this narrative is that it’s not true, it’s that it might not be true for these playoffs. The reason why well-run systems work so well in the playoffs is because they’ve had an 82 game season to test it against every problem that goes their way, and teams are usually in sync by the time the playoffs come around.
That’s not the case this season.
Every team is going to be coming off nearly five months of rest, which is about as much as most teams get in between when they were eliminated and when the preseason starts. After this kind of a break, even returning players have an adjustment period with how the team plays. With only a couple weeks of practices/scrimmages and one exhibition game to get everyone back up to date.
Teams are going to be playing game 1 of the playoffs with more rust than game 1 of the regular season, and in case you haven’t noticed, the start of the regular season is usually much sloppier than the rest of the season, resulting in higher scoring games. This is usually because teams haven’t quite nailed down their systems yet, and need to adjust to full game form, while skilled players don’t need too long to remember how to shoot or pass a puck well. I mean, look at the Leafs, they’ve managed to have insanely high scoring games at the start of the regular season (8-5 win against the Rangers in 2017, 7-6 win against Chicago in 2018, and the 6-5 loss to Montreal in 2019).
If this kind of start to the regular season carries over to the start of the playoffs, it’s going to be a lot of sloppy, high-scoring hockey, something that benefits the Leafs in this matchup.
All advanced stats courtesy of Evolving Hockey.
All point based stats courtesy of NHL.com.