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A Devils Fan Rooting Guide for the NHL Qualifying Round: Columbus and Toronto

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The New Jersey Devils are not returning to play in August. But the eight series will be worth watching and there could be Devils-related stakes in all of them. This part of the rooting guide focuses on a series short on stakes but big on potential salt: the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus Blue Jackets v Toronto Maple Leafs
Dubois! Marner! Qualifying Round!
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

On August 1, the National Hockey League will return to playing games in Toronto and Edmonton. The top four teams in each conference will play for seeding while the fifth through twelfth place teams will be battling to get into the playoffs altogether. Those series are known as the Qualifying Round. The New Jersey Devils were worse than that at the time of the NHL Pause back in March. Therefore, they will not be returning to play. They did not even qualify for the Qualifying Round. While the New Jersey Devils are not involved in these games, there are plenty of reasons to pay attention to them all beyond just having any kind of professional hockey in North America (and literally being on all day for at least four days). Since there are eight weekdays until the start of the Qualifying Round and there are eight series, I will be giving you a Devils fan-centric rooting guide for each one.

Today’s guide will look at a series that is short on stakes for the Devils but high on potential salt content. This is the series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Read on to learn more about this one.

The Series Information

What you need to know about the series in general.

The Records: The Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, 57.9% Point%, 8th in East) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, 57.9% Point%, 9th in East)

The Pre-Pause Season Series: The Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets only played each other twice. I want to say there was a third game lost to the pandemic-caused NHL Pause. Toronto took more points, but the two teams traded wins. Links go to the Gamecenter page at NHL.com:

Game 1: October 4, 2019 - Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 1 in Columbus

Game 2: October 21, 2019 - Blue Jackets 4, Toronto 3 (OT) in Toronto

It feels like ages ago since they squared off. They were happening events. Mitch Marner scored two goals and had a secondary assist as Toronto spoiled Columbus’ home opener on October 4. Columbus achieved a measure of revenge later in the month. They went up 2-0 in Toronto, blew that lead, tied it up with an Alexander Wennberg PPG, and then won the game in overtime from a penalty shot by Gustav Nyquist. Who caused the penalty shot? Marner hooking Nyquist on a breakaway.

The Broadcast Schedule: From NHL.com:

Game 1: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, August 2, 8 PM ET - NHLN, SN, TVAS, FS-O

Game 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, August 4, 4 PM ET - NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS, FS-O

Game 3: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, August 6, TBD

Game 4: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, August 7, TBD

Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, August 9, TBD

Note that local channels are carrying the games in this and in the other Qualifying Round series.

I am a little surprised that Game 2 is on a national television network in America but not Game 1. And that Game 3 is TBD. But it is what it is.

A Quick Analysis: In short: This series is between an offensive Toronto team and a defensive Columbus team.

First, the offenses. Toronto has one. Check out the 5-on-5 team stats at Natural Stat Trick. They finished fourth in the NHL in CF/60 (one of five teams to surpass 60 attempts per 60 minutes), seventh in SF/60 (32.02 shots per 60), second in SCF/60 (29.57 chances per 60), and eighth in HDCF/60 (11.48 high danger chances per 60). The expected goals for model placed them fourth with an xGF/60 of 2.47 and Toronto exceeded that with an actual goals for rate of 2.74, the eighth highest in the NHL. They shot the puck well with a team shooting percentage of 8.57%, which was the eleventh best in the league and also not so high that one could expect a nasty correction in the future. Toronto’s power play tied Tampa Bay for the fifth highest power play success rate in the NHL at 23.1% with 45 goals scored out of 195 situations. The Maple Leafs are led up front by Auston Matthews, who scored a staggering 47 goals and 33 assists to finish 9th in scoring prior to the pandemic. Mitch Marner put up 16 goals and 51 assists in 59 games, putting him in a tie with Ovechkin in points for the season. John Tavares put up 26 goals and 34 assists in 63 games. I note these three because we could see them on the same line, which has been termed a “nuclear option” for the Maple Leafs. Toronto has done well as a team at melting down opposition defenses and goaltenders in the season. This could put them over the top.

In comparison, Columbus’ offense falls short. It is certainly not bad. It just pales in comparison in some respect. While Columbus’ 5-on-5 shooting rate is just behind Toronto at 31.77 shots per sixty, the Blue Jackets are well behind the Maple Leafs in rates of shooting attempts (54.1 CF/60, 23rd in NHL), scoring chances (24.72 SCF/60, 26th in the NHL), and high danger scoring chances (9.06 HDCF/60, 29th in the NHL). The latter two contribute to an expected goals for rate of just 2.2. Columbus did not even exceed that mark with an actual goals for rate of 2.16. Whereas Toronto’s sticks have been rather warm, they have been cold in Ohio. Columbus’ team shooting percentage is a very low 6.8%, the fourth worst in the NHL. The power play certainly has not helped them very much either. The Blue Jackets’ power play conversion rate of 16.4% rates 27th best in the NHL with just 31 PPGs out of 189 opportunities. Columbus has players with offensive talent such as Pierre-Luc Dubois, Zach Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Gustav Nyquist, Nick Foligno, Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, and Boone Jenner. They just have not been that productive unless they are playing New Jersey. Of course, if they heat up for just the next week, then a lot of sins of omission will be forgiven.

Second, the defenses. Whereas Toronto shined when it came to scoring and creating shots, Columbus shines in the back end. Again, let us start with the 5-on-5 team stats. While their shots attempt against rate is not that and actually worse than Toronto’s (56.06 CA/60), the Blue Jackets had a top-ten SA/60 rate (29.35 shots against per 60, 9th), a scoring chance against rate just outside of the top ten (24.89 SCA/60, 11th), and the league’s second best high danger chance against rate (8.82 HDCA/60). The expected goal model tabbed the Blue Jackets to have an expected goals against rate of 2.04, the third best in the NHL. While that rate was exceeded by their actual goals against rate, it was not by a lot. Columbus’ GA/60 of 2.11 was the fifth lowest in the NHL. Columbus’ penalty kill has also done well with a success rate of 81.7% (12th best in the NHL) with just 169 shorthanded situations - the fewest in the whole league. The blue line led by Werenski and Jones has done more than just a good job. Columbus has also received tremendous help from their goaltending. Despite concerns about how they would do (including me), the tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins has been great. Columbus’ team save percentage in 5-on-5 is the fifth best in the NHL at 92.81%, which is splendid. Korpisalo’s and Merzlikins’ save percentages are above 92% at even strength situations and above 87% in shorthanded situations, which are just fantastic percentages. Columbus has done quite a good job keeping their opposition at bay and their goalies have done a wonderful job keeping pucks out of the net.

Toronto pales in comparison. They are by no means among the poorest defenders in this Return to Play format. But where the Blue Jackets are just outside of the top ten in SA/60, the Maple Leafs are below the league median (30.82 SA/60, 18th). Toronto is also just below the league median when it comes to the rate of scoring chances against them (26.71 SCA/60, 17th). They are actually just ahead of the bottom third in the league in terms of high danger scoring chances against (11.06 HDCA/60, 21st). This all results in a mediocre expected goals against rate of 2.32, which rates 17th in the league. Yet, Toronto’s actual goals against rate beat the model by quite a bit. The Maple Leafs’ GA/60 ranks 27th in the NHL at 2.73. Why? You guessed it: Goaltending. Toronto’s team save percentage in 5-on-5 hockey is 91.15%, which was the fourth lowest percentage in the entire NHL. Federik Andersen could only do so much and posted a 91.7% even strength save percentage and an 85.8% shorthanded situation save percentage. Original back up Michael Hutchinson was horrid. Fortunately for Toronto, Jack Campbell is the #2 goalie and he did much better. Still, the damage from the goaltending was done at 5-on-5. And on the PK too, which is why their success rate is just 77.7% in the season. The difference in defenses is not as stark but it is fair to be more wary for Toronto on the back end than Columbus.

The real deciding factor for this series could come down to the coaches themselves. Toronto has Sheldon Keefe behind the bench. He rose up through the Toronto system with plenty of success along the way. He took over after Mike Babcock in 2019-20 and started introducing some different ideas that could help Toronto. The success came quick with a 15-4-1 record in his first 20 games. But the situation is a lot different than the regular season. While Keefe is no stranger to playoff situations in general, they were in the OHL and AHL. The pressure will be different for him. Opposite him is long-time coach, John Tortorella. His reputation of being a loud, blunt, contentious coach is earned. He should also be regarded as a coach who has a great handle on what his team can do and what they could be inspired to do. Tortorella has been in Columbus since 2015 and guided his team to three playoff appearances in the last three seasons, featuring a stunning upset of a fantastically talented Tampa Bay team last season. More than that, Tortorella has been in the NHL as a head coach since 2000 and he has oodles of playoff experience. As different as this Qualifying Round series is compared to most playoff teams, not much in this series will faze or surprise Tortorella. More importantly, he has demonstrated how to get the most out of his team even given the overturn they witnessed into this season. How each coach manages and handles their players could make the difference between winning or losing the series outright.

This will be a fun one to watch. And if you do not watch it, do not worry. As Toronto goes, a lot of hockey media goes, and so you will know about it anyhow.

The SB Nation Blogs: For anything Maple Leafs related, you will want to visit one of the oldest (the oldest?) hockey blog on the network, Pension Plan Puppets. For anything Blue Jackets related, you shall go to The Cannon. No, not the one in Piscataway. No, not the one that joins orchestras playing the 1812 Overture. The blog.

The Stakes at Hand for the Devils

We know these two teams are playing for a playoff spot. But what is in it for the Devils?

There is really not much in it for the Devils. There are no picks that will be impacted by this series. There are no players or connections. The closest I can make are just small connections. Alexander Kerfoot is on Toronto, but he was just a Devils draft pick, he never played for any team in New Jersey’s system. David Clarkson is still on Toronto’s LTIR list, which ends after 2019-20, so there’s that too. Stefan Matteau ended up being in Columbus’ system. More seriously, there are no real stakes at hand in this one.

I will point out that those who enjoy chaos would want to see Columbus win. Toronto is one of the two host cities for the Qualifying Round and Playoff Round. Seeing them eliminated from a tourney they are hosting would generate massive amounts of salt from the hockey media and hockey communities that support and/or follow Toronto. Normally, Toronto crashing out of the playoffs would cause a stir of speculation, regret, and sadness that their super-rich franchise is not dominating the NHL. Not even making the playoffs by losing to Columbus could amplify that. You can almost guarantee at least one hot-take article would blame the Qualifying Round loss on how Toronto lost a game to a zamboni driver who works for their team. There would be a lot of saltiness from Ontario. So much so that your doctor may tell you to visit some other sites or eve sports to lower your sodium intake.

The Second NHL Draft Lottery Possibilities

We know that Alexis Lafreniere will be the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. That pick is owned by one of the eight losing teams from this Qualifying Round. So there will be a second lottery to determine it. How should we react if the loser of this series wins this one?

If the Maple Leafs win the Second Draft Lottery: Replace the saltiness from the previous section with smugness. An already offensively-stacked team getting Alexis Lafreniere would just not be fair. But life and hockey is not fair. While their cap situation could get complicated closer to the end of his ELC, the Maple Leafs could have a terrifyingly strong top-six and use that to be able to get finally get past Boston and Tampa Bay in the division in short order. I would be annoyed, but it would not cause as much harm as the other possibility in this section of this post.

If the Blue Jackets win the Second Draft Lottery: Lafreniere would be a wonderful addition for a team that could use more offense. This would be bad news for the Devils since it would make Columbus a better team in near future. For the Devils to rise up in the Metropolitan, they need to get ahead of teams. Seeing Columbus get almost instantly better will make it harder for the Devils to do that. It will also be further annoying to see Lafreniere feed Bjorkstrand for more goals against the Devils since he tends to do that a lot as it is.

Pending Free Agents to Look For

The Devils have a lot of cap space, a full-time GM, and a new head coach. Maybe they will spend in free agency this Fall. These games could be a real showcase for those looking to hit the market. These are some of the more notable potential unrestricted free agents in this series.

The Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs do have a number of pending unrestricted free agents on their roster. Among how many are worth watching, there is really only Tyson Barrie. The 29-year old right-sided defender has always been productive with seasons of at least 38 points in each season since 2013-14. He will not come cheap as he is coming off a four-season, $5.5 million contract. He would be a tough fit on a team that already has an expensive P.K. Subban and a not-cheap Damon Severson. But he is there on Toronto. The other pending UFAs are defenseman Cody Ceci (no), left winger Kyle Clifford (pass), and 37-year old center Jason Spezza (no).

The more intriguing issue will be whether the Leafs will trade someone to make space. They only have just under $4.6 million of cap space set for next season per CapFriendly. Denis Malgin, Frederik Gauthier, and Travis Demott all need new deals. As would Ilya Mikheyev, who was last seen on LTIR. It is possible but it is going to be tight to get all four on new contracts. One would think they would want at least a little space for call-ups and other improvements. Therefore, I would not be shocked if GM Kyle Dubas makes a move or two to make some more space for Toronto this October.

The Blue Jackets: Amazingly, there are no pending UFAs on the main Columbus roster. None. All of the pending free agents are restricted free agents. It is remarkable.

However, this does make the Blue Jackets a prime target for a trade. At CapFriendly, the Blue Jackets are expected to have $5.2 million of cap space for next season. That will not be enough money to retain Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, Devin Shore, Ryan MacInnis, Kevin Stenlund, Jakob Lilja, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Gabriel Carlsson. New deals for Dubois and Anderson alone can take up the vast majority of their cap space. Regardless of whether Columbus wins this series or not, Jarmo Kekalainen is going to get a lot of phone calls, texts, emails, DMs, pokes, talks, and other forms of communication from many other teams about their cap crunch. It is real in Ohio and some people need to be moved.

My Choice & Your Turn

Since there are no real stakes for the Devils in this one, this series should be one to watch for the potential entertainment factor. Maybe Toronto will solidify their defense and their goalies will play rather well to support their offense. Maybe Columbus’ offense will spark first and put Toronto in the unenviable position of having to break down the Blue Jackets. Maybe it will be even and the series goes to a fifth game and then something entirely unexpected kneecaps the Leafs in the third period such that we will hear about it for weeks to come. Personally, I want Toronto get to Dead Sea levels of saltiness, so go Blue Jackets.

However, that is how I see this matchup. I want to know what the People Who Matter think of this series; I want to know what you expect and hope for in this series. Please leave a comment as to how you see this series going down, who you would want to win and why, and who interests you within this series. Also, please vote in the poll just to answer who you think will win this series. The rooting guide series will move to the West tomorrow for the other series with serious stakes for the Devils: Arizona and Nashville. Thank you for reading.

Poll

Who will win between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets in this best of five series?

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    Maple Leafs!
    (21 votes)
  • 43%
    Blue Jackets!
    (16 votes)
37 votes total Vote Now