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Dave Feschuk: The Leafs are built for the Stanley Cup playoff blueprint that’s slowly taking shape

Dave Feschuk: The Leafs are built for the Stanley Cup playoff blueprint that’s slowly taking shape
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You can understand why there was vigorous debate among players around the National Hockey League’s proposed return-to-play format this week.

Sequestering teams in hub cities for indeterminate stretches this summer won’t be easy on anyone. The details around health and safety are as complex and daunting as anything any sport has ever tackled.

And when it comes to the competitive aspect of the proceeding, as with nearly every playoff bracket that’s ever been devised, not everyone is going to be happy about their lot in life.

The Boston Bruins, for instance, spent 70 games building an eight-point lead in the league standings over their nearest Eastern rival. Under the proposal that was expected to be ratified late Friday by the 31-member executive board of the NHL players’ association, the Bruins were being told they could possibly lose that No. 1 spot in the span of a quick mini-tournament for seeding among the top four teams in each conference, this while the other 16 teams included in the sport’s reintroduction to the world engage in a collection of best-of-five play-in series.

In other words, if your memory of the NHL’s 2019-20 regular season is already foggy, this more than two months since it was halted on account of the coronavirus, don’t feel bad. Hockey’s return-to-play format renders the regular season mostly meaningless anyhow, allowing a whopping 24 of 31 teams a shot at the Stanley Cup. That’s 77 per cent of the league. Even in the glory days of the 1980s, when a preposterous 16 of 21 franchises were invited to the post-season, only 76 per cent of teams got the privilege.

Still, if you’re a fan of the Maple Leafs , none of that stuff much matters. If you’re assuming it’ll even be possible to mount a healthy, safe hockey tournament come late July — and there are tapped-in hockey people still unconvinced this thing will be a go — there’s a lot to like about the plan from a Toronto perspective.

For one, it means the Leafs’ goal of winning the franchise’s first post-season series since 2004 has never been more realistic. Now, as the plan exists this week, you can quibble with this point. The proposed opening-round matchup between the No. 8-seeded Leafs and No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets is being described as a “play-in” series, not a “playoff” one. Under the proposal, it’s a best-of-five set, not a traditional best-of-seven. The best-of-seven treatment won’t begin until each conference is whittled down from 12 teams to eight. So take that for what you will.

Still, for the Leafs, winning would be winning. The story of Toronto’s post-season struggles has been, in large part, the story of a team repeatedly losing to superior opponents in a powerhouse division. Three Game 7 defeats in seven years to the Boston Bruins tells you that.

When the regular season was halted, Toronto appeared on a first-round collision course with their other Atlantic nemesis, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sure, Toronto’s final game of the regular season was a 2-1 win over Tampa. But odds were the Leafs would play the underdog in another difficult first-round matchup.

So the beauty of the return-to-play proposal, from a Leafs perspective, is that it opens the door to escaping the likes of the Bruins and Lightning without the inconvenience of having to beat either one. Now, there’s also a chance, depending on how the top four shake out in the mini-tournament for seeding, that the Leafs, should they beat the Blue Jackets, would face one of the Bruins or Lightning immediately thereafter. But there’s also a chance — should, say, the No. 4 Flyers pull an upset and win the top-four mini-tournament — that the winner of Columbus-Toronto would play Philadelphia. In other words, there’s a road that takes Toronto deeper into the playoffs that doesn’t necessarily go through either Tampa or Boston.

Not that Columbus, which is a year removed from sweeping Tampa in the opening round, can be taken lightly. It’d be an intriguing matchup of opposites. Toronto is the third-best offensive team in the league based on goals per game. Columbus is the third-best defensive team based on goals against. Toronto is flush with marquee talent. Columbus, which lost the likes of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency last summer, has little of the sort. The Jackets’ top scorer, Pierre-Luc Dubois, had 49 points when the season was halted. At the same point, Toronto had four players with 59 points or more — that’d be Auston Matthews (80), Mitch Marner (67), John Tavares (60) and William Nylander (59).

And speaking of contrasts: While Toronto’s No. 1 goaltender, Frederik Andersen, is a veteran of 48 career playoff games — ninth most in the league since he arrived in 2013-14 — the Jackets figure to be faced with the prospect of starting Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo, neither of whom has ever competed in the NHL post-season. So long as Andersen doesn’t confuse July for October, when he’s often been awful in the wake of a summertime rest, advantage Toronto.

John Tortorella’s Jackets are a team that wins thanks more to systemic discipline than skill. If pandemic-era playoff hockey figures to be reminiscent of the early-season NHL — a higher scoring game wherein the offence is ahead of the defence, because systems can’t possibly be in sync — Toronto’s skill ought to be able to thrive.

“If anyone can come out of this thing ready for hockey, I think we’d (be in a good position),” Tyson Barrie, the Leafs defenceman, was saying this week. “We’ve got skill, we’ve got speed and we’ve got youth on our side. So I think we should have no problems coming out of this thing.”

It’s all speculation, of course. Even if there’s a plan in place, the league is still many weeks away from implementing it.

When will training camps begin? July gets tossed around. How deep into the calendar can this thing be pushed? Word is the league would be fine with the Stanley Cup being awarded into September, delaying the start of the 2020-21 season until December or even January. Where will the games be played? There’s a push to confine the activity to a pair of hub cities, but that’s yet to be finalized.

And therein lies another reason for a Leafs fan to like the plan.

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Lately, Toronto’s been unable to win in the post-season as a road team. So what’s better than a scenario where there will be no home teams?

There are those who’ll tell you the Leafs have repeatedly been unnerved by the media circus that inevitably follows them. So what’s better than a scenario wherein, odds are, the players won’t even be permitted to set foot in the same room as reporters who’ll likely cover the proceedings via Zoom?

We won’t know the answers to a lot of questions for weeks to come. What’s beyond certain is that the coming NHL post-season, should it ever arrive, will be anything but typical. If you’re the Maple Leafs, and the typical format hasn’t been particularly productive for most of two decades, you can only hope the change will do you good.
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