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Maple Leafs Season Preview

It’s not that the regular season doesn’t matter, it’s that none of the other teams do.

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs
The season opener in 2019, when we were all so much younger.
Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Playoff predictions come out every year at this time. You can go to a betting site, or the 11 million and growing sports media outlets that really write about sports for gamblers. Or, if you’d rather, you can go to someone who makes mathematical models to be used by gamblers or because they love math or hockey or answering impossible questions.

Here’s a question: rank the fanbases and/or teams who care the least about the regular season:

  1. Tampa Bay Lighting
  2. Colorado Avalanche
  3. Vegas Golden Knights
  4. Toronto Maple Leafs

We aren’t alone in this state of wanting to get on with the part that matters, and we aren’t the only fanbase that hasn’t “earned” this right to impatience with a recent cup. Mostly because the Lightning have hogged all the cups lately.

But while I think the Leafs have things to prove, largely the same things the Avs do — and it’s amusing to see them all concerned about Nazem Kadri’s shooting percentage as opposed to his suspension record (those were the days, eh?) — most of that is playoff performance. The rest of it is getting to the playoffs positioned to succeed and with no one on LTIR.

Metropolitan Division

Once the home of juggernaut teams, the Metro is now stuck in the middle ground. Their bad teams haven’t got a hope of touching the Sabres or the Coyotes in the race for Shane Wright, and their best teams seem like they’d struggle to make the playoffs in the Atlantic.

Carolina is clearly their best team, except for the goalies, and the Islanders have the edge in net, and might finally be skilled enough up front to be a real threat. After them, it’s old men and faint hopes.

HockeyViz’s model, which predicts points, likes the old men of the Pittsburgh Penguins for second, and rates the Islanders first with the Hurricanes third.

Moneypuck’s model, which sets probability of making the playoffs, likes the Hurricanes a great deal, then the Islanders and then Washington and Pittsburgh nearly tied with only 58% and 57% probability.

Evolving hockey, who are new at this game this year, have the Devils in second place, between the Hurricanes and the Capitals. Their model has never liked the Islanders, who are using system over skill, but I almost closed the tab over that Devils ranking. I do not buy it.

The real story from the Metro, though, is that most models have only one or two teams with enough points to crack the top three in the Atlantic. The only reason to even look at them is to recognize that there is likely to be at least four Atlantic teams in the playoffs, and it is very possible there will be five.

Atlantic Division

Hockey Viz has the Toronto Maple Leafs as the best team in the NHL. They have the rest of the Atlantic a significant step down with Tampa second, then another step to Florida and Boston. Montréal and Ottawa round out the ‘not Buffalo and Detroit’ portion of the division.

Moneypuck disagrees and has Tampa ahead of Toronto by quite a bit, with Florida right at Toronto’s heels, and Boston then Montréal lower down.

Evolving Hockey has the Lightning at the top, followed by the Bruins, the Leafs and the Panthers all tight together in points.

The Montréal Canadiens are going to have a very hard time winning enough to make the playoffs without winning a wildcard race, the Panthers are going to knock our socks off, and the Lightning are still good. The Bruins and their questions in net are the dark horse, and they might Bruin their way to a lot of points or might be in a fight for a wildcard they could lose.

The West

If you are really into judging the vastness of mediocrity that is most of the teams in the western conference I’m going to link to all three predictive models in a moment, but I think it’s suffice to say that Colorado and Vegas are the only truly contending teams in the West.

Seattle is going to surprise people who were predisposed to laugh at them for their expansion choices, and might even outstrip my expectations, depending on their goaltending. Every other team that will make the playoffs is about at the level of the Oilers — fatally flawed in one way or another.

Ironically, I don’t think any of the bad western teams are bad enough to challenge the Buffalo Sabres for terribleness. Which is going to play a role in the Atlantic Division points at the top, make no mistake. Points are about opportunity at the team level and the player level, not a pure measure of worth.

It’s my hope we can all get keenly interested in the West sometime in June, but until then, it’s good for the novelty of the Kraken and laughing at the Oilers goalies, and not much else.

The Models

HockeyViz

Moneypuck

Evolving Hockey

My Prediction

I think HockeyViz is overrating the Maple Leafs defensively. It’s not an evil plot, it’s just the difficulty of dealing with the single division results from last year. Everyone has this problem in how they use recent results to form their opinions.

That said, and even with my unease about a lot of things, the Maple Leafs can dominate in the regular season. I expect them to. I expect them to challenge hard for the top of the Atlantic, and depending on how the points fall in the West, that could be the top of the league.

I thought the Bruins were due to falter last year, and they have not gotten better, not unless they really hit a winner with Linus Ullmark, Montréal has so many injuries, so little forward skill, so much riding on their ability to play a system and a coach who isn’t the guy who designed that system, that I think they’ve just got too much going on there to get it together. Ottawa can win enough in the regular season to make themselves annoying, but those are my three teams looking in on the top three from the outside.

Yes Florida is going to rock. I am a believer in Spencer Knight, and their offence is almost good enough to take them places in the playoffs. Tampa might seem a little sluggish at first, but they really do have a very good chance to three-peat, and they’re going to give it their best.

I’m going to allow for an emotional hangover in Tampa, fervent self-belief in Florida, and a power play that actually works in Toronto and say it will be:

  • Florida
  • Toronto
  • Tampa Bay

With no real challenge from Boston and Montréal below.

Very outside chance, but not impossible that Ottawa vaults over one of those two if they get a goalie run.

What’s my playoff prediction? That I’m going to have to write that article about how complaining about how tough the first-round matchup is, is not how wining teams succeed. It will annoy you no end.

That’s for later, though, for now, it’s time to overanalyze Michael Bunting and listen to endless complaints about Nick Ritchie.

Don’t forget you can watch on ESPN+ in America now, and see some great coverage.