Maple Leafs have a new playoff opponent in Blue Jackets, and hopefully a new playoff result

The good news for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs — and maybe the Leafs themselves — is that Columbus Blue Jackets are not the Boston Bruins.

The Leafs bear no weight of recent history of losing in the playoffs to Columbus, because there’s no playoff history between the two teams. So a new Leafs playoff narrative will be written, starting Sunday in the first game of their best-of-five Stanley Cup qualifying round.

There are some fascinating story lines that may dominate the series:

  • The Blue Jackets grinded out one of the great upsets in NHL playoff history last year, eliminating the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in four straight games. So a belief that anything is possible is in their DNA. While that is the organization’s only playoff series victory, 19 players on their playoff roster last year are back. The Jackets could well be hungry for more.
  • Ditto the Maple Leafs, who continue to be a team of playoff disappointments with three straight first-round exits, the last two to Boston. The Leafs, who haven’t won a round since 2004, remain a young team with a lot to prove.
  • Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe played for Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella when Keefe was a young player and Tortorella was building the Tampa Bay Lightning into a team that would win the 2004 Stanley Cup. That may end up being more a coincidence than a storyline, with Tortorella have matured and Keefe not showing any Tortorella-like tantrums.
  • Remember, too, what Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno had to say about the Leafs. “Once you get behind the hash marks, they don’t have much. They don’t like defending down there. We have to find a way against a team like that to play down there more.” That comment is dated, from Dec. 28, 2018, but it was not wrong then and it is not wrong now. And the Leafs have a chance to correct that against the team that called them out for it.


  • Maple Leafs: Frederik Andersen should carry the load single-handedly. In his time in the Leafs’ net, he has started every playoff game, and gone just 8-11. He has a career 2.63 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in the regular season, but those numbers are 3.04 and .911 in the post-season with Toronto. And he’s coming off a regular season in which he had a career-low .909 save percentage. He is using new pads, if that makes a difference. And he’s historically a slow starter. Given he’s had four months off, this is kind of a new start.

If Jack Campbell gets in because Andersen struggles, the net might be his the rest of the way. He has proven to be a capable backup, popular in the way James Reimer once was. And given the Leafs’ cap situation, if Campbell takes the net in the playoffs, the more expensive Andersen may be on the way out.

  • Blue Jackets: The Jackets have a plethora of riches when it comes to young netminders, and Tortorella’s biggest decision might be which one to start: Elvis Merzlikins (13-9-8, 2.35, .923) or Joonas Korpisalo (19-12-5, 2.60, .911). They combined to allow 183 goals against, tied for the third-stingiest in the NHL.

“We’re not in the bubble without getting what we got from our two goalies,” Tortorella said.

Reports say Merzlikins has had the better camp, but Korpisalo is the more known commodity. Look for a quick hook from Tortorella if the Leafs’ offence ignites against the starter. Neither, however, have played a minute of Stanley Cup playoff time.


  • Maple Leafs: The best news for the Leafs is that all six of their starters are healthy. Team defence was certainly an issue, but the blue line had issues all year. Morgan Rielly battled all sorts of injuries through the season even when he did play, but he’s primed and ready to go now. The blue line rotates around him. Travis Dermott looks strong and healthy, and Tyson Barrie only has to worry about offence. A healthy Jake Muzzin is an own-zone difference maker and Justin Holl now has a full season (well, almost) under his belt. Martin Marincin looks to be the first sub if someone falters. We’re looking at you, Cody Ceci.
  • Blue Jackets: The Jackets have the edge here, with an impressive array of blueliners like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who form the top pair. Jones is one of eight defencemen to average more than 25 minutes a game. Werenski led all NHL defencemen with 20 goals. David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov are the second pair while Ryan Murray awaits word on who his partner will be on the third pair: Dean Kukan is the favourite. They will have their work cut out for them.


  • Maple Leafs: Pick a line, any line, and it can score. And the top three lines can skate. The fourth line, where everyone is at least six-foot-two and 210 pounds, can grind. Is the top line the one with John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Ilya Mikheyev? It was through camp. But the other top line, with Auston Matthews between Zach Hyman and William Nylander, is pretty good too. Adding 18-year-old speedster/sniper Nick Robertson to the third line, with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, almost doesn’t seem fair. The Leafs’ speed will be relentless. Look for the more versatile Pierre Engvall to beat out Frederik Gauthier for the centre spot between Kyle Clifford and Jason Spezza on the fourth line.

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  • Blue Jackets: They’re not a scoring machine. Oliver Bjorkstrand had a coming-out party with 21 goals to lead the team. Injuries held him to 49 games. But he would be tied with Zach Hyman for fourth in goals for the Leafs. Pierre Luc Dubois is a force at centre, leading the team with 49 points. That too would only be fourth on the Leafs. Gustav Nyquist is a threat. And 20-year-old Liam Foudy, a first-round pick in 2018 from the London Knights, has been added for his speed. Alex Texier (19) and Emil Bemstrom (20) are other youngsters who may require some extra attention. The lack of offence is not a knock on their talent. Tortorella chooses defence and grinding over offence. And they play his system.


  • Maple Leafs: Keefe is a rookie coach in his first NHL playoffs. But he has won at almost every other level he has coached, including tier 2 junior (Pembroke) and the AHL (Marlies, 2018). He’s patient; he’s a players’ coach; he’s not afraid to try new things. His camp appeared to anticipate every possibility, even practising his top guns together — Matthews, Tavares and Marner. That’s something you’ll see at the end of periods and perhaps after penalty kills when the Leafs need offence. The Leafs went 27-15-5 under Keefe, who replaced Mike Babcock. That was the 11th best record in the NHL since Nov. 20.
  • Blue Jackets: Tortorella is fiery and emotional but it’s calculated. He can chirp his players, but no one else can, and his players appreciate him. He asks for hard work. He knows how to push buttons and is probably better at it as he’s gotten older. He listens in a way he didn’t as a younger coach. He’s 14th on the all-time wins list, seventh among active coaches. And he’s won the Stanley Cup.


Records: Maple Leafs: 36-25-9, 81 points, .579 points percentage (70 games), eighth in conference. Blue Jackets: 33-22-15, 81 points, .579 points percentage (70 games), ninth in conference

Head to head: The Leafs (1-0-1) earned three of four points against Columbus, earning the first tiebreak.

Special teams: Maple Leafs: power play was sixth in league (23.1 per cent); penalty kill was 21st (77.7 per cent). Blue Jackets: power play was 27th (16.4 per cent); penalty kill was 12th (81.7 per cent).

Key additions: Maple Leafs: G Jack Campbell, F Kyle Clifford via trade with L.A., rookie F Nick Robertson earns a spot in training camp. Blue Jackets: F Devin Short in trade with Anaheim, rookie Liam Foudy earns a spot in training camp.

The Leafs win if: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner dominate on the scoresheet.

The Blue Jackets win if: Tortorella’s 1-2-2 defence frustrates Toronto’s offence.

Prediction: Leafs in four games.

Kevin McGran


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