Play-in Preview #7: Toronto vs. Columbus

An Analytical Breakdown of the NHL's Play-In Round

Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets Play-in Playoff Series: How They Stack Up

If you asked me to pick my favourite match-up of the play-in round, it would be Toronto versus Columbus beyond a shadow of a doubt. You couldn’t pick two teams who contrast with eachother more dramatically in terms of their strengths and weaknesses; the Leafs are an elite offensive team who are porous defensively, while the Jackets are a suffocating defensive unit that don’t generate many scoring chances and struggle to finish the ones that they do get. The pressure is on for the Leafs, who were supposed to be one of the league’s best teams and compete for a Stanley Cup (or at least a second round berth) this season. A midseason coaching change mercifully rescued them from a catastrophic standings result that might have inspired serious soul-searching (or head-rolling) in the front office. Conversely, this season has kind of been found money for the Blue Jackets who were not projected to perform nearly this well back in September. Withstanding the loss of both the best forward and goaltender in franchise history is remarkable in and of itself, but adding on the injury problems the team has had and it’s impressive that they’re here to begin with.

In this piece I’ll go through the two teams’ play-driving, offensive, and defensive stats before comparing their respective forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders. For information on the stats used, refer to this explainer article or visit EvolvingHockey and MoneyPuck. You can also read my previous previews of EDM-CHIPIT-MTLNSH-AZCAR-NYR, and VAN-MIN.

Playdriving

Right off the bat, things are looking pretty even in this department. These teams were side-by-side in terms of both expected goals and actual goals for % at 5v5 over the course of the season, with the Leafs owning the higher shot attempt share and the Blue Jackets having an edge in terms of their quality game percentage. Looking solely at Sheldon Keefe’s tenure, the Leafs’ possession numbers are significantly better (5th in the NHL), but their GF% is only one spot ahead of the Jackets' (12th vs 13th). Toronto was surprisingly more stable throughout the season, while the Jackets veered wildly in terms of both expected goals and actual goals. Despite the Leafs’ improvements since November, this is still pretty even in my books. Winner: Toss-Up

Team Offence

Well, this isn’t exactly a difficult choice. The Leafs are a top offensive team (as they’re supposed to be), and have been especially dangerous since Sheldon Keefe was hired. They went on a pretty crazy shooting tear this winter, but also saw their expected goals increase to well-above-average. Since November 20th, the Leafs have the 2nd highest xGF/60 and 5th highest GF/60 - any way you slice it, Keefe has restored the team to elite offensive status. Meanwhile, the Jackets aren’t built to score goals or generate chances, and, sure enough, they don’t do either. They were a bottom-five xGF and GF team this yeaer and had an unsurprising amount of trouble getting the puck in the net. Winner: Toronto

Team Defence

I wasn’t kidding when I said that these two teams were mirror images of one another. The Jackets are an elite defensive team, 3rd in the NHL in terms of suppressing quality chances against and 5th at stopping actual goals. Their goaltending was really inconsistent but ultimately didn’t cost them, and they had a top-three penalty kill in the league. John Tortorella deserves credit for identifying how his team needed to play to withstand the loss of Panarin and Duchene, and changing them from average defensively to one of the top teams in that regard. A bit part of that is the 1-2-2 forecheck they’ve put in place, which could have a decisive impact on the series if the Leafs can’t adjust. The Leafs, well, they definitely got better in their own end when Keefe came in, but they still ranked 24th and 15th in GA and xGA after he was hired. The goaltending is a major issue, but they’re not going to blow anyone away with their team defence either. Winner: Columbus

Forwards

Keeping the theme of “the duality of hockey” going, the Maple Leafs have a comprehensive advantage offensively across all four of their forward lines, and the Jackets boast the same defensively.

The Leafs’ top six is fantastic at generating offence, featuring a great mix of scoring talent, play-driving, and puck retrieval that will be the team’s engine for as long as they last in the playoffs (if they can get there). What they lack is any semblance of decent 5v5 defensive play; Matthews and Marner are below average in that regard but are the standard-bearers here. The Jackets’ top six is nothing special, unsurprising consider who they lost last summer. They do have two difference-makers though: Pierre-Luc Dubois’ defensive game might be overstated but he’s an excellent driver of offence with a good shot, and Oliver Bjorkstrand is in my mind the league’s most underrated forward, superb at both ends and coming off his best season yet. Boone Jenner at 2C isn’t inspiring, however.

The bottom six matchup is tighter. Rookie Nick Robertson is projected as replacement-level here because he hasn’t played any NHL games before, which weighs down the very strong Alex Kerfoot and speedy but slumping Kasperi Kapenen. While the Leafs’ fourth line might seem like a mismash, all three players had strong seasons, particularly on the defensive side of the puck. That’s no match for Columbus centre Riley Nash’s suffocating play - he ranks 99th percentile in suppressing chances against when he’s on the ice in the past three seasons.

While I think Bjorkstrand really has a chance to break out, the Leafs have a decisive edge in game-breaking talent. I give them the edge here. Winner: Toronto

Defencemen

Oh, come on. Once again, each of the Leafs pairings is better offensively, and each of the Jackets pairings is better defensively. It is futile to try to escape this narrative.

As I have expressed elsewhere in excruciating detail, I do not think that Seth Jones is an elite defenceman - I think he’s a fine defenceman with a flashy skillset. But the Leafs have made the battle of the top pairs pretty easy. Morgan Rielly is an elite offensive defenceman who absolutely stinks in his own end, while Cody Ceci is a subreplacement player who’s terrible offensively and just okay defensively. Even if the Jackets’ top pair is as overrated as I think they are, it’s an easy W for them.

The bottom pair matchup is much more compelling. Jake Muzzin is still a very effective two-way defenceman at even strength, and Justin Holl surprisingly played top-four-calibre hockey in his first full NHL season. Meanwhile, Travis Dermott continued to improve his defensive game while Tyson Barrie, uh did not improve his defensive game. On the Jackets’ side, Ryan Murray, Dean Kukan, David Savard, and Vladislav Gavrikov were in the top 10 percentile as expected goal suppressors this season using isolated RAPM numbers. Generating chances against them is going to be tough. Winner: Columbus

Goaltending

The battle in net is a tricky one to handicap. Frederik Andersen was the backbone of the Leafs in his first three seasons with the team, finishing as a top ten starter in terms of goals saved above expectation each season, but performed poorly this year. November was his only quality full month of the 2019-20 campaign, and because of the Leafs’ lack of a reliable backup he was forced to play through his struggles and further depress his numbers. Elvis Merzlikins, on the other hand, was consistently bad throughout the first half of the year but only played 10 games because the Blue Jackets turned to Joonas Korpisalo instead. Then, of course, he began his insane hot streak (which included a four game stretch in which he saved 9.6 goals above expected) and stole the net. All of this added up to league-average numbers, but in reality he was hot-and-cold rather than consistently okay.

Can Elvis level out his performances or replicate his January hot streak? Was his poor first impression just the result of a new environment? It’s an open question. Can Andersen reclaim his position as one of the league’s most consistent goaltenders and shake off his off-season? It’s worth noting is that Andersen has tended to struggle mightily in the first month of the season since he came to Toronto; in three of his four seasons with the team he has cost the Leafs over 4.5 goals above expected, including this year. Coming off an offseason-length hiatus, could that be relevant here?

I have to give this to Elvis purely by virtue of Andersen’s awful season, but this could easily go either way. Winner: Columbus

Conclusion

This is going to be a really fun one. I could see the Blue Jackets shocking the Leafs like they did the Lightning last season, suffocating their offence and taking advantage of an out-of-sorts Fredrik Andersen with an attack built on a persistent forecheck. While the loss of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene might preclude them from replicating last year’s success, we could see a repeat of the 2019 Penguins/Islanders series, where the Leafs’ skilled forwards become so frustrated by the 1-2-2 that they discombobulate. On the other hand, Toronto has indisputably improved since shedding Mike Babcock and has a major edge in terms of forward talent. Their passing ability and finishing skill is miles ahead of Columbus’, and they possess underrated depth. This seems to me like a really close series - like game 5 overtime close - but I can also envision a scenario where the Leafs’ offence bowls over the Jackets and vice versa. Prediction: Toronto in 5