The 2021 NHL playoffs are just over a month away. The trade deadline is quickly approaching and contending teams are scrambling to ensure their rosters are as strong as possible.
It will certainly be a post-season to remember, for COVID and non-COVID-related reasons. The Leafs are hoping to make those memories positive, as GM Kyle Dubas has stated his willingness to go all-in.
Nothing is off of the table, including a big trade involving a top prospect. Some believe that Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin are more-or-less untouchable, but everyone else (if not them) is very much fair game.
Does a sensical deal of this nature exist? That remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain – the Leafs need to leave it all on the ice. Whether or not they acquire someone should not affect their work ethic, their tenacity, or their ability to close out tight games. They need to want it enough to will a playoff series win into existence.
After all, this team has not won one since 2004, and they’re running out of excuses. The core is still young and figures to be competitive for years to come, but enough is enough. Dubas did not acquire single-season rental players like Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds, just to lose once again.
A big trade will certainly improve the Leafs’ situation to some degree, but what else does their postseason success depend on? Let’s look at some key factors that could determine it all.
Simmonds, of course, is a Toronto native. And exactly the type of player Leafs need right now.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 9, 2020
Team Defense & Work Ethic
This is one area that looks to have drastically improved, in comparison to recent seasons. The additions of T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian have certainly helped to shore up the depth. Justin Holl continues to improve as well, and is turning into a bit of a luxury as a number-four defenseman.
The forwards also seem to be back-checking a lot more intensely than in previous years. The Leafs have done a good job of supporting the puck, especially during breakouts. Their young stars have all taken a step forward defensively as well, with Auston Matthews, in particular, working his way into Selke conversations.
So, what’s the problem then? Well, as usual, it’s consistency. Although Toronto has been a lot more hard-working and defensively consistent than in past seasons, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. A certain uneasiness continues to shroud this team during third periods, especially when they’re winning.
Their catastrophic loss against the Ottawa Senators certainly comes to mind. The Leafs also tend to allow teams to open up the game following the first period. This is frustrating as there have been a lot of first periods where Toronto seems to generate scoring chances at will, while simultaneously suppressing any kind of offense from their opposition.
Acquiring a stud like Mattias Ekholm would obviously help. Even a rental like David Savard comes to mind as he’s been popping up in a lot of trade rumors lately. But at the end of the day, the Leafs simply need to bring and maintain their defensive A-game for the full 60 minutes, night in and night out.
Their 3-1 victory against the Winnipeg Jets last night is a good example of how they should play on a regular basis. But again, there’s still room for improvement as Jack Campbell was still relied on to make some huge saves down the home stretch of the third period.
Jack Campbell is 7-0 pic.twitter.com/wIVZl5mCfn
— Gordon Bombay (@CoachBombayy) April 1, 2021
Timely Secondary Scoring
One thing the Leafs haven’t had to worry about is production from their star players. Beyond that, however, they’ve somewhat struggled to find consistent secondary scoring.
Zach Hyman is having a nice season, recording 12 goals and 24 points in 34 games so far, but he typically plays in the top-six. He does move up-and-down the lineup quite a bit, but it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to exclude him from the primary scorers considering the frequency in which he plays with stars.
Jason Spezza has been a pleasant surprise as he’s potted eight goals and 19 points, despite very limited ice time. But he shouldn’t be the one shouldering most of the weight.
Take last year’s playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, for example. The Leafs only managed to score ten goals in five games. Of those ten goals, eight were scored by top-six forwards/top-pairing defensemen. The only depth scoring came on a goal from Robertson, and on a lucky deflection off a Cody Ceci point shot.
If the Leafs want to make a serious run, their depth players need to score when it counts. Players without a goal last postseason notably include Kerfoot, Mikheyev, Engvall, and Spezza. Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson also failed to score, although they’re obviously both gone now (Johnsson also only played one game due to injury).
Oddly enough, Mitch Marner failed to score as well, but he did have four assists.
The Leafs need their third and fourth line to contribute on a semi-regular basis if they hope to make a serious playoff run.
Can’t believe I’m watching a power play unit with Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza & Alex Galchenyuk. In 2021.
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) April 1, 2021