Ramblings: Prospects Report; rankings; finishing the play-in round-ups – June 30
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The NHL Hub cities may be announced on Tuesday, though there was a chance they would be announced yesterday and didn't. Maybe they'll be announced today. If not, maybe tomorrow.
I want to re-up Cam's final 2020 rankings again. It's a treasure trove of information and he puts hundreds of hours into these. Very much worth your time.
Today, we finish our preview of the NHL play-in rounds. Rather, they're not so much a preview as they are a refresher. We're going on four months without hockey and we'll probably have to go another month before we get it back, at the earliest. I wouldn't blame hockey fans for eschewing a few details from the regular season, especially from teams that really had no chance of a playoff spot. It's just a opportunity to go over the seasons of teams going to the play-in rounds, how they fared throughout, the performance of top players, and any key injuries they may still have.
Our previous Ramblings on the play-in rounds:
- Islanders vs. Panthers
- Pittsburgh vs. Montreal
- NY Rangers vs. Carolina
- Winnipeg vs. Calgary
- Minnesota vs. Vancouver
- Nashville vs. Arizona
- Edmonton vs. Chicago
It's pointless to discuss the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets without discussing their injuries. They finished the regular season at 70 games. Both Gustav Nyquist and Pierre-Luc Dubois played every game. After that:
- Josh Anderson – 26 games played
- Ryan Murray – 27 games
- Seth Jones – 56 games
- Cam Atkinson – 44 games
- Zach Werenski – 63 games
- Oliver Bjorkstrand – 49 games
- Joonas Korpisalo – 37 games
That doesn't even include their depth players that took a hit; I'm pretty sure at one point in the season they had literally half of their starting lineup on the IR. That they're even in a position to do what they're doing – the year after losing Artemi Panarin to free agency, no less – is a big reason why John Tortorella should get serious Jack Adams consideration. If he doesn't deserve it for the job he did, I'm not sure who does.
Anyway, all this makes it hard to get a grasp on how good this team really is. They finished with the same points percentage as their opponent for the play-ins and their goaltending didn't carry them as hard as you would think, with the team sporting the seventh-best save percentage in the league. It's high, but it's not even in the top-5. Further, it wasn't that way all year, as they were 25th by overall save percentage after the first six weeks of the season. Early on, the Jackets were playing well, but not getting the goaltending, and the results spoke for themselves.
There has been a lot of praise sent the way of Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, and rightfully so. But those are the well-known stories from the Columbus season. Let's look elsewhere.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, had the season finished, would have ended up around 55 points. That's down from his 61 points a couple years ago, but with the loss of Panarin and injury/under-performance of Atkinson, I don't think anyone is disappointed in his season. What might be shocking is he didn't add much ice time to his credit. He skated 17:43 per game a couple years ago compared to 17:56 this past season. It appears the loss of all that talent didn't force Torts's hand in any regard. He still has some work to do defensively but he's come along offensively very nicely.
What could mean the difference for Columbus moving past Toronto (and further) or not comes down to their two top scoring wingers: Atkinson and Bjorkstrand.
Atkinson had a tough year, but he was fighting an ankle injury throughout so maybe we can cut him slack. We should note that in what was probably his worst season in five years, his 82-game paces were 22 goals and 48 points while skating for a bottom-5 offensive team in the league this year. Once the season is underway, he'll have had several months to recover. If he can find that 30-goal form, it's a problem for Toronto.
A healthy Bjorkstrand will mean a big difference as well. He finished the year with 21 goals in 49 games while landing over three shots per game. He looked every bit the future 30-goal scorer they hoped he could be.
If the team can run two different 30-goal scorers, who are healthy, on two different lines, it goes a long way in providing the offensive punch necessary in this matchup.
Jones and Werenski provide a great top pair, but the Leafs provide more than one good scoring line. One of the lynchpins of this series could be Columbus's second pair, and whomever plays with the underrated David Savard. If they can shut down the second top line from Toronto, they have a real good shot in this series. Savard had another solid season defensively this year and could pose a problem.
One last note: Columbus was the last penalized team in the league this year. Toronto finished 23rd in PP opportunities. I wouldn't expect a lot of Toronto power plays.
It doesn't look like the Jackets will get Anderson back unless things are delayed by a month or two, but it does look like both Bjorkstrand and Alexandre Texier will be good to go (the latter a bit more iffy). Other relevant players should be fine, and if the Jackets can go into the play-ins missing only Anderson, it might be the healthiest they've been in 10 months.
The Leafs had their fair share of injuries this year, too. John Tavares missed seven games, Mitch Marner 11, while Morgan Rielly missed a third of the season. Not to mention significant hits to their support players like Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev. Not only that, but there was the firing of Mike Babcock back in November (feels like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?). It just doesn't feel like this team really found the time to hit its stride this year.
Which isn't to say they were playing poorly or anything. They had a stretch in the middle of the season where they went 11-1-1, which is what firmly put them in a playoff position. They started the year 9-10-4, part of that attributable to bottom-10 goaltending, but they were also 23rd by expected goal share at 5-on-5.
Of course, Babcock would be fired not long after that 9-10-4 start with Sheldon Keefe named his replacement. After that point, the Leafs jumped all the way from 23rd by expected goal share to sixth, trailing only the elite teams in the league, and Montreal. Unsurprisingly, they moved up to 10th by points percentage, and here's the kicker: their goaltending at 5-on-5 actually got worse, going from bottom-10 to bottom-5. It was just a matter of their scoring, both at 5-on-5 and on the power play, improving. Under Keefe, they were the second-highest scoring team in the league. Under Babcock, they were 12th. More ice time for their elite players is a big part of it, as Matthews (1:51), Tavares (1:37), and Marner (2:43) all saw their ice time increase considerably under Keefe as compared to Babcock. It seems crazy, but the radical coaching philosophy of "play your good players much more often than your bad players" seems to have worked out.
Despite all the tumult through the year, Matthews still had an 82-game pace exceeding 50 goals, Marner exceeding 93 points, and the team may have ended up with four 30-goal scorers if everyone had stayed healthy and we played a full year. With guys like Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev showing well and the team playing their stars more, this might be the deepest Leafs roster in at least 15 years.
The blue line may be an issue. Tyson Barrie had a real tough year and it didn't really matter which coach it was under. Morgan Rielly was humming along until Babcock was fired and then injuries hit. Justin Holl had a nice breakout season, but the performance of guys like Dermott and Sandin will probably make the difference. We know Rielly and Barrie are bad defensively. Can the depth guys pick up that defensive slack? They may need to.
Frederik Andersen may be the most important player in this series. If the Andersen of 2018-19 shows up, this could be a 3-0 for the Leafs. If the 2019-20 Andersen shows up, this could be a 3-0 for the Blue Jackets. Goaltending is ever-important in the playoffs, but especially in a series against a team that locks down defensively. The Leafs will need to capitalize on the chances they get.
I haven't seen an update on Andreas Johnsson. He was expected to miss six months with his knee surgery, and six months for him is the end of August. Like Anderson, he would probably need a delay in the playoff to get in the lineup.
This should be a real fun matchup between two diametrically opposed team philosophies. Toronto should have the edge but I think it's time we stopped dismissing the Blue Jackets.
No data at this moment.