Toronto Maple Leafs fans will finally get the postseason opportunity they’ve been waiting for – a playoff series against a team that isn’t the Boston Bruins.
Unfortunately, the Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t exactly a team that can be pushed around. Every player on the roster checks in above six feet (aside from Cam Atkinson and Gustav Nyquist), and they play a hard-nosed style of hockey led by iconic bench boss John Tortorella.
The Maple Leafs’ roster has changed quite a bit since last season, but do they have what it takes to finally get over the opening-round postseason hump? Here are three burning questions discussing some key factors heading into this series.
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1) Now that Nick Robertson has officially made the playoff roster, is he a lock for consistent playing time?
Essentially, yes. Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas clearly see something special in Nick Robertson and he didn’t make the team to not play. The young sniper is set to become the first 18-year-old to make his playoff debut since Jarome Iginla did it back in 1996.
Sheldon Keefe pulled Nick Robertson aside for a chat ahead of NHL debut; the message?
“The Montreal game [Tuesday] was a good step to get some good experience, but just reminding him it’s going to be a lot harder. He’s got to be prepared for that.”https://t.co/vE0CesbU8k
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) August 2, 2020
His ability to score goals and his willingness to consistently give 110 percent is undeniable. The only concern is surrounding his ability to successfully make the jump given his lack of size and pro experience.
Fortunately, his line will likely match up against the Blue Jackets’ third line – one that features 20-year-old Liam Foudy. Both Robertson and Foudy spent this past season in the Ontario Hockey League; therefore, lining up against a winger of similar age and experience can help to quell some of those nerves ahead of game one.
Toronto struggled to get production from their third line during last year’s playoffs, but Robertson-Kerfoot-Kapanen certainly looks a lot more promising than Marleau-Nylander-Brown. Given Columbus’ lack of scoring depth, this line could be a serious x-factor as they will also regularly avoid seeing Zach Werenski and Seth Jones.
2) Is a top defense pairing of Morgan Rielly-Cody Ceci all but set in stone?
In short, yes and no. This is a pairing that both Keefe and former head coach Mike Babcock seemed intent on deploying throughout this season. Pairings were often rearranged due to a rash of injuries, but Rielly and Ceci seem to be the most logical fit when the back end is at full-strength.
One of the main factors for the utilization of this pairing is simply the makeup of the other tandems. For example, Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin are a lock as the de facto shutdown pair. Travis Dermott and Tyson Barrie also seem to be a good fit. Rielly-Barrie looks great on paper and they had their flashy moments; however, that pairing gave up a lot of high-quality scoring chances against (despite boasting a solid 57.9 percent XG%) and is unlikely to be used again.
Rasmus Sandin still seems to be on the outside looking in despite performing reasonably well as a rookie in a 28-game sample size. Martin Marincin should absolutely not see the ice unless there’s a couple of injuries.
Maple Leafs fans would of course love to see Sandin paired with Rielly while Ceci takes a seat in the press box; however, there’s a really low chance of that happening as they don’t necessarily want to throw Sandin into the postseason fire just yet.
In fact, Maple Leafs fans have a lot of ideas about what the pairings should be and have taken to Twitter to explain themselves:
This is why I want
— Matthew Stamper (@Hydroxideblue) July 25, 2020
Ceci may not be an all-star, but he’s not necessarily terrible either. With Holl and Muzzin taking on the tough assignments, he should be reasonably equipped to succeed beside a defenseman like Rielly.
3) Can the Leafs’ offence overcome the Blue Jackets’ defense?
Toronto certainly has the offensive edge given their scoring depth, but Columbus has a very formidable defense led by a two-headed monster featuring Werenski and Jones.
Steady rearguard David Savard highlights their second pairing alongside 6’3 rookie standout Vladislav Gavrikov meaning Toronto’s top-six forward corps will have their hands full.
As previously mentioned, the Maple Leafs’ third line will be essential to their playoff push. The top-six will generate their chances and is expected to produce, but goals could also be hard to come by down the final stretch of this series, and every tally counts.
Goaltending will also play a large role in ultimately determining the winner. Frederik Andersen has struggled to find consistency in recent playoff series, but he’s also made some huge saves when called upon and is certainly capable of stealing a series.
Things are a bit murkier in the Blue Jackets’ crease as the team has a lot of confidence in both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo was Columbus’ third-round pick back in 2012 and was viewed as the “next man up” while serving as Sergei Bobrovsky’s backup for four seasons prior to 2019-20.
Merzlikins, on the other hand, seemingly came out of nowhere when he burst onto the scene this year (following an injury to Korpisalo). The Latvian netminder was also a third-round pick, taken two years after Korpisalo by Columbus in 2014. He posted a 13-9-8 record over 33 games (31 starts) as a rookie this past season and posted incredibly impressive numbers including a .923 save percentage, a 2.35 goals-against average, and 5 shutouts.
Korpisalo has been given the nod as the game one starter, but Merzlikins could very well take over the net following a bad performance or two. With a name like Elvis, it’s probably only a matter of time until he’s a star.
— NHL Bubble Outfits (@NHLFitWatch2K20) August 1, 2020