Toronto Maple Leafs – Are they genuine Stanley Cup contenders?
This year the expectation was that Toronto would get into the playoffs and they achieved that easily. But can fans of the Leafs expect their team to go on a long run?
Last year the Toronto Maple Leafs defied all expectations and clinched a wildcard playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and gave the Presidents trophy winners Washington a run for their money in six games.
This year the expectation was that Toronto would get into the playoffs and they achieved that with time to spare. But can fans of the Leafs expect their team to be playing deep into spring?
Tough first game
Whether Toronto gets Tampa or Boston, the team will face a formidable side in the playoffs. In fact, finishing third in the Atlantic division almost doesn’t seem worth it when a first wildcard spot would see them face an above average Capitals side.
But here they are – at the moment their likely first round opponent will be Tampa in what should be a mouth-watering clash. The Lightning have an almost flawless roster with top players in every department of the ice.
However, the Leafs can take pride in knowing they have four deep offensive lines in which can go toe-toe with any line in the NHL.
Tough second game
The likelihood of the Leafs not having to play both Boston and Tampa seems small because the Bruins are likely to face the Flyers who have been inconsistent all season.
So a bruising first round clash with the Lightning that is likely to go the full seven games will probably be met with a Bruins side who have been phenomenal this season.
Realistically Toronto faces two of the toughest three teams in the entire NHL if they are to make it to the Conference final. Do they have the ability to defeat both sides? Of course. But the playoff format has left the Leafs with little chance of getting past round two.
What if they somehow make it to the Conference final?
At this stage, the Leafs are likely to be battered and bruised. Surely they would have played a minimum of 12 games against two bona fide contenders. The Lightning will go blow for blow with offensive punch and the big-bad Bruins will make Toronto feel the pain of a series with them.
So even if the Leafs make it to the Finals they are unlikely to make it there fully healthy and will be destroyed by their bruising opening two playoff series.
That being said, if they can take the Bruins and the Lightning then surely they can beat anyone in the Eastern conference?
So are they contenders?
Well, if you have Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Patrick Marleau, Kasperi Kapanen, Tyler Bozak, Andreas Johnson, Tomas Plekanec and Connor Brown in your lineup then you have a chance.
In fact, look at the depth beyond that: Josh Leivo, Matt Martin, Dominic Moore and Leo Komarov – you have a forward group capable of playing top nine minutes. These are guys who cannot break into the lineup.
Defensively the team are okay. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey represent a top four that is solid yet unspectacular. But look at the Penguins defense last year – and we see that scoring goals is more important than keeping them out.
The Leafs will rely on Frederick Anderson to play at his best and his play this season and in the playoffs previously suggest the team should have no worries about their goaltending.
Maybe this year is one too early for the Leafs – but do not be surprised to see this team go past the second round.