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Photo Credit: Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

Playoff Preview: I’m afraid of Americans

There is another Cup drought that has been ongoing besides the Leafs 54 year Stanley Cup drought. If you ask your simpliest American hockey fan friend about it, they’ll be happy to tell you that a Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993. Remember that year? The year that Kerry Fraser robbed the Leafs of facing the Canadiens in the Cup Final? Anyways, that Montreal victory was the last on record for a Canadian team, and now 28 year drought in it’s own right. It doesn’t particularly matter because none of this is about nation, except this year there are 24 teams that the Leafs haven’t seen and a handful of them could present a real problem for the Leafs if they are fortunate enough to make it out of the North Division, and realistically, there’s no good reason why the Leafs shouldn’t make it out of the North, so we’re best to prepare for the Americans now.

Now, there’s also that interesting factor that will come into play. Assuming the Leafs make it past the second round, if the borders aren’t open, the Toronto Maple Leafs could be playing out of neutral site rink for the remainder of the playoffs. Not necessarily what you’d want, but the reality is that it will be unlikely that fans can be in the building even by the Conference Finals, so it might not matter other than unfortunate aspect of a Toronto team not being in Toronto, but we’ve become used to that.

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Now onto who the competition for the Leafs will be…

I like sharing this chart for a couple of reasons:

  1. Because it shows the Leafs as having the best chance to win it all.
  2. It narrows down the teams I’ll need to talk about in this post. I’ll use this as an excuse to scratch teams off the list that have a lower than 2% chance of winning the Cup according to Moneypuck, so goodbye Nashville, St. Louis, and the New York Islanders. Talking about your teams was going to feel like a chore anyway.

That brings us to the just made the cut team, the Minnesota Wild. The Minnesota Wild have become statistical darlings of the internet, and Kirill Kaprizov is being treated as the most exciting thing since sliced bread. (Seriously though, sliced bread would be a better interview than most hockey players.) The fact that Wild swiftly turned a corner and built themselves around being an exciting uptempo team after decades of clinging to their Jacques Lemaire origin story probably does earn them some love, but in a division that requires them to go through Colorado and Vegas to get to the Conference Finals, probably leaves them as a fun story for the first, maybe second round and that’s it.

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The odds for the Tampa Bay Lightning are awfully low (3.7% to win the Cup), and normally that might make them easy to dismiss as well. They’ll have a tough first round against the Florida Panthers, and then they’ll be walking into a buzzsaw facing the Carolina Hurricanes as their likely second round opponent. It’s a tough go for the reigning Cup Champions, but they do have a couple of aces up their sleeves…

One of these players would be a game changer, but getting both of them is stacking the deck on a team that was also able to add David Savard at the trade deadline because of the LTIR status of these players makes them a contender that can’t be ignored. While Victor Hedman is banged up, and that’s not nothing, it’s still not enough to exclude them as a top contender in spite of their odds.

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Next on our list of American teams to be afraid of is the one that probably scares Leafs fans the most. The Boston Bruins might not be what they used to be, but their remarkable ability to hold on and stay competitive and then torment the Leafs is worth noting. While they might have a low percentage of winning the cup (5%), they’d have a high percentage of driving Leafs fans insane if they played in the conference finals or beyond.

Add in the fact that a number of Leafs fans were committed to the idea of adding Taylor Hall at the trade deadline, there would be nothing worse than Hall lighting up Toronto in the playoffs.

Thankfully Boston has a tough go of it as they face Washington in the first round. We can only hope that Tom Wilson regularly introduces himself to Brad Marchand.

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I mentioned the Wild as analytics darlings before, but they are second only to the Carolina Hurricanes in that regard. And of course they carry some familiar faces on their depth chart in James Reimer, and Jake Gardiner. Hopefully if the Leafs do end up facing Carolina they’ll have Reimer and Gardiner in the lineup so they can deliver the same level of game seven performance we’ve come to expect from them.

I kid, because if I didn’t kid I’d have to talk about how the Carolina blueline scares the crap out of me, and could pose a real threat to the Leafs offensive production.

The Pittsburgh Penguins took a turn for the better after bringing in Brian Burke and I can’t think of a bigger slap in the face to Toronto than Burke making a team better. Combine that with a career year from Cody Ceci and the Penguins are an easy team to hate. Throw in Kasperi Kapanen and there’s probably enough of a former Leaf factor there that they’d easily get enough offence out of Ceci, Kapanen, and (probably) Evan Rodrigues that they’d win a series over the Leafs. If you don’t believe me, just look at what lackluster former Leafs like Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev are able to accomplish against Toronto.

The Washington Capitals have the noteworthy status of being the other team besides the Bruins in the playoffs (and their series) to provide Toronto with some first round heart break recently. And while it might seem like their best days are behind them, the Capitals have plenty of Cup winning experience in the lineup to pose a threat. Whether it’s Boston or Washington coming out of the first round, hopefully it will be a tough enough series that they don’t make it through the second round as the Penguins or Islanders seem like much more favourable opponents.

With another expansion draft approaching fast it’s hard not still be in complete awe of what the Vegas Golden Knights have pulled off. Here they are again, with the fourth best odds at winning the Stanley Cup (9.5%) and we have the sad realization that Vegas has accomplished more in their four years of existence than the Leafs have accomplished in the past 54 years. That said, the Knights don’t have an easy path as the regulation win tie breaker meant that the Avs got the Blues in the first round, and the Knights have to deal with the Wild. In theory it’s going to take beating Minnesota and Colorado to even put Vegas next to Toronto, and if I’m the Maple Leafs, I’d be thrilled that a tough opponent at least had to take the toughest possible road to get to them.

The strange thing about projections is they sometimes put someone at the top of the list you wouldn’t expect, and the Florida Panthers having the third best odds at winning the cup according to Money Puck is exactly that.

Once you get past the “Panthers, really?” way of thinking, you can see that it’s a team with Barkov and Huberdeau who aren’t bad starting points leading a bunch of overachievers who have found a way of thriving in a Joel Quenneville system. Quenneville is very much a key component to the success, and for Leafs fans, having cast offs like Verhaeghe, Mason Marchment, and (if you want to hop in the way back machine) add value to the Panthers team probably stings a little, even if the Leafs don’t have any reason to feel bad about the roster that has been assembled today. All instincts say to take the Panthers for granted, and that’s what I was prepared to do, but that seems like a similar scenario to how we might have looked at the Blue Jackets last season, and that didn’t play out well.

Finally we’ve come to the Colorado Avalanche. They are an absolutely beautifully constructed team, that like the Leafs, or the Lightning, looks so dominant on paper. The thing with the Avs though is that they’ve been dominant on the ice too. Not that the Leafs haven’t, but the Avs have an answer for every player on the Leafs it seems, and each one appears to either be an equivalent or an upgrade. There would be something poetic about Kadri facing his old team on the biggest stage, and certainly he has something to prove more so to Toronto than even the Avs on how he performs in the playoffs. Getting past the Avs looks like an impossible task, except the Dallas Stars proved it was possible last season. Of course Dallas had the luxury of facing Michael Hutchinson in the deciding overtime period (yes I know Hutchinson did very well in the previous two games.)

Is there a reason to be more afraid of the American teams than the Canadian ones?

If you listen to hockey pundits, the North Division was incredibly weak and the Leafs would have been outmatched in any other division. The team that comes out of the Canada will decidedly be the weakest team in the final four is the prevailing narrative, and honestly given the Leafs ability outmatch every single Canadian opponent this season, it seems hard to refute, except for when you look at other divisions having a very similar story with underwhelming non-playoff teams and barely able to stay afloat 4th seed teams.

The North Division gets a bad rap because both the Jets and Canadiens had their narratives as strong performs come undone at points in the season. The Jets looked very promising until the final weeks of the season when their lack of defense and injuries seemed to catch up with them.

Montreal looked like they were going to be a tough and imposing team, but instead proved to be a disorganized mess built on wishful thinking in regards to development. It’s hard to ignore something like an injury to Brendan Gallagher, who of course will be back in the playoffs to make life more difficult for the Leafs.

You can just as easily point to teams like the Penguins riding a hot streak, or Boston getting the right number of games against Buffalo and Philadelphia at the right time in the season. You can look at Central division that benefited from Columbus having no interest in playing up to the level they were at last season and that giving the top three teams the opportunity to pummel the bottom five on a regular basis.

Every single one of the teams that makes it out of their division will be facing an unknown in their next opponent, and that’s a fascinating situation. It’s one that potentially benefits the Leafs early in the series, but one that could pose a challenge, as Toronto has not always been the most adaptive group of players. The idea that it could be a final four tournament of Washington, Tampa, Colorado, and Toronto has a lot of appeal, but doesn’t exactly make you feel great about the Leafs chances beyond the first two rounds. There might not be easy outs for Toronto if they manage to make it this far in the tournament, but the good news is they have a lineup that can absolutely hold its own against the competition.