The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won an NHL playoff series in 2004. If that’s going to change this year, it’s going to take Toronto eliminating the two-time defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Quite surprisingly, the The Maple Leafs are betting favorites to do just that.
Since 2004, the Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs 10 times. However, they have made the playoffs in six of the last nine seasons. The results? One qualifying round loss in the 2020 bubble and five more first-round streak losses. In contrast, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021. They made another Cup Final appearance in 2015. Three more times since 2011, the Bolts have lost in the Conference Finals.
One team is notorious for failing in the playoffs, while the other team has been to many playoffs over the past decade. Yet, for some reason, the The Leafs are the first-round favorites.
Toronto was the best team in the regular season
The Maple Leafs went 54-21-7 in the regular season. Their 115 points ranked fourth in the league. The Lightning finished with a respectable 110 points, but the Leafs finished with the better record, earning them the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Division and home ice advantage in that series.
The underlying metrics would support the thesis that the Leafs were the better of these two teams during the regular season, even though both teams were borderline elite and the gap was not at all large.
In terms of expected goal rate at 5v5, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com, the Leafs’ 55.9 percent rate ranks fourth in the league. Tampa Bay’s expected goal percentage of 53.3 percent ranks eighth. However, Toronto’s advantage doesn’t stop there.
The Leafs were better at both ends of the rink than their first-round counterparts. Toronto ranks third in expected goals scored per hour at 5-on-5, while the Lightning ranks 11th. The Leafs ranked fourth in expected goals against, and the Lightning were behind them again, ranking sixth.
Yes, the Leafs were better during the regular season. However, the gap was narrow and no one questioned Toronto’s regular season abilities in recent years.
Break down lists
When you look at the rosters of these two teams, the first thing that jumps out at you is how many stars are strewn across both teams, especially on offense.
Toronto has Auston Matthews, the betting favorite to win the Hart Trophy before the market goes off the board. Matthews won the Rocket Richard, scoring 60 goals that season. He is the first player to score 60 goals since Tampa Bay Steven Stamkos in 2012, and one of only three players to hit the mark this millennium (Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals in 2008).
Behind Matthews, Mitch Marner’s 97 points rank among the top 10 in the league at the end of the season. Jean Tavares and William Nylander the two also played at nearly a point-per-game pace.
On the other side, the stars are not lacking either. The aforementioned Stamkos had the best producing season of their career, eclipsing the 100-point mark for the first time. Stamkos has struggled with injuries for the past two seasons but has only missed one game this year and is back at the 40-goal club.
Nikita Kucherov missed half the season, but scored 69 points in 47 games. That’s a pace of 120 points in 82 games, and only Connor McDavid had more points than that this season. Brayden Point also missed a significant portion of the season, but contributed nearly a point per game. As we’ve learned over the past two years, Point is only getting better in the playoffs.
While the Leafs might have slightly better top-end talent, the Lightning can hang on. For the past two years, depth has been a big part of why the Lightning have won back-to-back cups. Yanni Water Bottle, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman departed from those teams, but the Lightning hope people like Nick Paul, Brandon Hagel, Ross Colton and Corey Perry can replace them. The Lightning may not be as deep as they have been in recent years, but I still think they are a slightly deeper group of forwards than the Leafs.
The Lightning have the best defenseman in this series in Victor Hedman. Hedman is widely regarded as one of the top 5 defensemen in the sport, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded as playoff MVP, in 2020. Morgan Rielly is a good defenseman for Toronto, but he’s not not on the same level as Hedman when it comes to dominating at both ends of the rink.
Behind these two, there isn’t much that separates the defensive cores. Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak compare well to the Toronto line of Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie and newcomer Mark Giordano. The Leafs likely have a slight defensive depth advantage with Timothy Liljegren’s burst, but is that enough to overcome Tampa Bay’s advantage with Hedman?
The Leafs’ biggest concern, and the reason I’m surprised they’re favorites, is goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy is arguably the best goaltender in the world, a back-to-back Stanley Cup winner and a Conn Smythe winner in 2021. This season, Vasilevskiy ranked fourth in goals saved above expectations (GSAx) according to Evolution-Hockey. On the other hand, Jack Campbell, the Toronto goaltender, ranked 96th among 118 goaltenders. Vasilevskiy posted a +17.6 GSAx on the season, while Campbell posted a -8.2 mark. That’s a difference of almost 26 goals between the two. Massive advantage in Tampa Bay here.
The best bet
Talk about stories. There is absolutely no shortage of it in this series and you can operate it from any angle. Toronto’s playoff failures at this point make the other 31 fans in this league happy. The Leafs have been one of the best regular season teams in the sport for a few years now, but without fail they lose in the first round.
Toronto’s 54 wins and 115 points last season are the highest marks in franchise history, and this is an Original Six team that was founded in 1917. Their reward for a great season? A first-round match against the two-time defending champions.
Toronto is obviously going to win a playoff series one of these years, but while the Leafs are the best regular season team this year, I don’t think they’ll knock out Tampa Bay in the first round here.
It’s been feared Tampa Bay will put a lot of miles on those legs since the pandemic shut down the sports world. With condensed schedules, short offseasons and deep playoffs, Tampa Bay has been playing a lot of hockey lately. I just think the Lightning’s goalie advantage in this series will be too much for Toronto to overcome.
I think it’s going to be a great series, and despite the juice being pretty heavy at -190, I still think there’s value in bet that this series will exceed 5.5 games. I find it hard to see a world where this streak doesn’t last at least six games. These teams split the season series, winning two games each. The Leafs beat the Lightning 6-2 in early April, but Tampa Bay responded with an 8-1 bombardment of Toronto later that month. It’s gonna be fun.
As for a winner, give me the more money (+100) with the Bolts. If the Leafs were an underdog in this series, I could see myself being persuaded of them. However, I do not lay juice with a team that has failed its identity in the playoffs.