After six straight years of first-round exits, the Toronto Maple Leafs are again back in the playoff picture this season. Kyle Dubas had himself a busy trade deadline adding many new faces to the Leaf’s lineup. Barring some miraculous shift In the standings however, the Leafs will be taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning once again in the first round. As many remember, the Leafs blew a 3-2 series lead to the Lightning who would go on to advance to their third straight Stanley Cup Final. So the question that presents itself is, are this year’s leafs capable of doing what last year’s team wasn’t? Or will the Lightning Strike twice in Toronto this Spring?
Why the Maple Leafs will Fall to the Lightning Again
Lack of Consistent Chemistry
While Kyle Dubas was plenty busy at the trade deadline, many criticized the overhaul he made to his lineup. Particularly to the bottom six and defence core. The Leafs were playing well heading into the deadline. And while it’s always good to bring in a couple of pieces to help with the playoff run, sometimes too much change is a bad thing. The Leafs brought in Ryan O’Reilly, Jake McCabe, Sam Lafferty, Noel Acciari, Luke Schenn, and Erik Gustafsson. While on the opposite end, we saw Rasmus Sandin, Joey Anderson, and Pierre Engvall find new homes. That’s a lot of names moving in and out of the lineup at once.
The most notable name coming in is NHL veteran and cup champion, Ryan O’Reilly. O’Reilly played well in his first few games with the Leafs and even netted a hat trick in the process. O’Reilly, unfortunately, went down with an injury however and has missed a few weeks now. While he is expected back for the playoffs, that doesn’t leave much room for him to gain chemistry with his new teammates. The O’Reilly injury has also affected the rest of the lineup as a whole. Sheldon Keefe has been constantly juggling lines trying to find any sort of chemistry. Keefe has even opted to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen on many occasions.
This lack of consistent chemistry due to constant line juggling isn’t ideal heading into the playoffs. And once O’Reilly comes back there isn’t much time in the playoffs to juggle with lines. Especially when your first-round opponent happens to be the Tampa Bay Lightning.
They Dont Match Up Well
Offensively, the Maple Leafs match up against anyone on paper, including the Lightning. However, it’s the back end and between the pipes that leave room for concern matchup-wise. First of all, the Lightning have one of the best shutdown defensemen on the planet in Victor Hedman. The Leafs don’t have a number one defenseman of that caliber as Morgan Rielly has consistently proven he’s not that guy. The Bolts also have young stud Mikhail Sergachev, giving them a great 1-2 punch. Erik Cernak has also been a consistent shutdown man for them on both cup-winning teams, and Nick Perbix has really come into his own this season on the top pair.
On the other hand, the Leafs have a lacklustre defence heading into the playoffs. they have a plethora of defensemen after adding Gustafsson and Schenn but haven’t found any consistent duos. Mark Giordano, Jake McCabe, and T.J. Brodie are solid d-men but Gio and Brodie are both past their primes. And Justin Holl consistently finds a way to somehow stay in the team’s top 4, much to the dismay of fans. Luke Schenn provides some physicality and Erik Gustafsson provides offensive help from the backend but both are very one-dimensional players. This isn’t a cup-winning defence core on paper, to say the least.
We haven’t even gotten into the goaltending matchup either. The leafs entered the year with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov as their tandem, but Samsonov has seemingly taken the reigns. Although he’s played well this season boasting a 921SV% and 2.46GAA, he only has eight games of playoff experience under his belt. While on the opposite end, Andrei Vasilevskiy, arguably the best goalie on the planet stands between the pipes. Vasilevskiy has led the Lightning to three straight finals appearances and has looked nearly unbeatable at times in the postseason. A might matchup disadvantage for young Samsonov.
The Leafs Curse
Finally, the Leafs are seemingly cursed in the postseason. They’ve blown countless series leads to Boston, Tampa, and even a 3-1 series lead to the much weaker Canadiens squad. For whatever reason, the Leafs just seemingly can’t get it done in the first round, no matter who the opponent is. It makes it hard to imagine this streak comes to an end against a squad like the Lightning who have such a prestigious pedigree in the last few years in the postseason, with two cups and three finals appearances.
All of this isn’t meant to bash the Leafs or to say they have no chance in the series. The Maple Leafs have a good team and furthermore have one of the best rosters on paper. However, due to the aforementioned circumstances, this matchup doesn’t bode well for them. But, anything can happen in the playoffs. The Leafs have plenty of game-breakers like Matthews, Marner, and Tavares, who could get hot and propel the team to their first second-round appearance since 2004. But, if you’re a betting man, you’d be best off taking the Lightning against the Maple Leafs in this one.
Main Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports