There’s less than 30 days to go in the NHL’s regular season and it’s still anyone’s guess as to who will make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. But in the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs, with 14 games to go, ninth place isn’t an option and there should be no excuses this season. The Leafs have a spot and it’s theirs to lose.
Between the trade deadline, their remaining schedule and keeping their players healthy, Toronto has set themselves up for success in the final stretch of the season. Now all the team has to do is execute.
Lou Lamoriello just traded a second-round pick for towering centre Brian Boyle and considering pending free agents Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak weren’t moved in part of a deadline frenzy in which defenders were massively overpaid for, the team’s direction is clear. This is the first year in many that the Leafs aren’t sellers. The typical “we’re building for the future” line, for the next month, is irrelevant, and isn’t enough to warrant a collapse that keeps Toronto from reaching the playoffs.
Toronto will play eight of their last 14 games at home, meaning they have an advantage going into the stretch. The Leafs have a 17-10-6 record at home, versus their road record which sits at 14-13-8. Unlike the Ottawa Senators who will play nine of their last 12 games on the road, Toronto will get the advantage of spending more than half of their remaining games at the Air Canada Centre— where they’ve been damn good this season.
But who will Toronto will be facing down the stretch? Five of the 14 remaining games will be played against teams below the Leafs in the standings, in Florida, Detroit, Buffalo and New Jersey. The Leafs’ total record against those teams this season is 10-3-1, so there’s no reason as to why Toronto can’t continue that trend and win the majority of these games. Oh, and as for the remaining seven games played against teams in a playoff spot right now? Five of them will be played at ACC.
The last positive that Toronto has going into the final stretch of the season is the health of their team. Though key players like Mitch Marner and Morgan Reilly have been injured at parts of the year, the Leafs have all of their stars in the lineup at the moment. While teams like Ottawa and Tampa Bay will be missing important pieces like Mark Stone and Steven Stamkos, Toronto has everyone they need to be successful.
Of course the Leafs have made tremendous strides from last season where they finished dead last in the league, but finishing just shy of a playoff spot this year is going to feel like a disappointment. There’s no doubt Toronto is being built for the future, but this year should be the beginning of that future. Everything is set up perfectly, now it just has to happen.
A long playoff run may not be in store for the Leafs, in fact, it likely isn’t. Even if Toronto gets swept in the first round though, the important factor is that they still make the playoffs to use the experience as a building block for the future. This way, when the Leafs’ time does come for a playoff run— in however many years it may be— they’re ready.