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What it will take to get the Maple Leafs back in a playoff spot

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The Leafs lost a lot before the break, so let’s have a look again at how much they have to win to fix this.

Chicago Blackhawks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s too soon to be revisting points rates and questioning the ability of the Leafs to make the playoffs. We just did this in the first week of January. But it’s that time of the year when all teams need to know where they stand, and we watch as the ones on the bubble fool themselves into thinking they’re better than they are. Everyone likes to laugh at them when the bubble pops and they crash back to earth.

It’s not so much fun when it happens to you.

The Division:

Atlantic Division at the All-Star Break

Atlantic GP PTS RW ROW GF GA DIFF
Atlantic GP PTS RW ROW GF GA DIFF
Boston 51 70 26 29 169 135 +34
Tampa Bay 48 62 24 27 175 137 +38
Florida 49 61 23 25 183 163 +20
Toronto 49 57 20 24 176 165 +11
Buffalo 49 51 17 21 145 152 -7
Montréal 50 51 15 19 155 157 -2
Ottawa 48 42 13 17 130 163 -33
Detroit 51 28 10 11 109 199 -90

What’s noticeable here is that the Leafs have a healthy goal differential, and are only one ROW back of Florida. This is a tight race. And since it is, we have to start paying attention to the Metro and considering wildcard spots:

Metro Division at the All-Star Break

Metropolitan GP PTS RW ROW GF GA DIFF
Metropolitan GP PTS RW ROW GF GA DIFF
Washington 49 71 24 30 177 144 +33
Pittsburgh 50 67 21 28 168 136 +32
NY Islanders 49 63 19 26 143 132 +11
Columbus 51 62 21 27 138 130 +8
Carolina 50 61 21 26 159 132 +27
Philadelphia 50 60 18 22 158 150 +8
NY Rangers 48 50 20 23 158 159 -1
New Jersey 48 41 13 15 126 173 -47

This is not comforting. Even to jump the jumble of teams competing for fourth and fifth in the Metro requires an improvement in points pace. So, not let’s have a look at that situation of points pace, and how the Leafs have very quickly fallen back.

The Road to 98 Points

Atlantic GP PTS PTS% % needed for 98 PTS
Atlantic GP PTS PTS% % needed for 98 PTS
Boston 51 70 1.37 0.90
Tampa Bay 48 62 1.29 1.06
Florida 49 61 1.24 1.12
Toronto 49 57 1.16 1.24
Buffalo 49 51 1.04 1.42
Montréal 50 51 1.02 1.47

This is where we can understand the degree of separation with Florida. The Panthers can actually get a little worse and still hit 98 points. The Leafs must improve. They would have to improve to take a wild card spot even, so the bottom line is: this isn’t cutting it, what they’re doing right now.

It’s very easy to yell about goaltending, and that works as well for Florida fans as Leafs fans. However, now is the time to notice that for all the Leafs have poured cap space, dollars, hopes and dreams and everything else they have into their offence-first concept, the Panthers have scored more goals. There’s only two teams in the Eastern Conference that have allowed more than the Leafs, and they are Detroit and New Jersey.

The race here might not be just about points. The contest between Florida and Toronto may well be one of who is more willing to do something about their goaltending. The Panthers have an extra incentive to act, they’ve lost their backup to an injury that is weeks not days to recover from.

The Panthers are operating fairly close to the salary cap, and have one player on LTIR, but they can get below the cap, they can accumulate space — they did over the break — and they could much more easily accommodate a larger salary from the deadline to the end of the year.

The Leafs are chasing the Panthers with their players, their coaching, their management and their dollars.

Last time, I said this:

Second place in the Atlantic is a very legitimate and attainable goal. Not only that, failing to achieve at least third would be a legitimate failure of team performance that would need to be addressed.

And team performance has eaten away at all of the gains made to that point. And that needs to be addressed, so while I have sympathy for Kyle Dubas, and I’m well aware there’s no magic tree of goalies you can just pluck a ripe one from, it’s still his job to to the addressing of all the failures. Sometimes firing the coach isn’t the magic cure-all.

This is a crisis that can be washed away by some improved team play, and we should all expect improvement. The Leafs are not supposed to be a 1.16 points per game team. They should be better than this, and if they continue to not be... I expect that to be dealt with by identifying all the problems, not just the most obvious one.