To compare the Toronto Maple Leafs of 2018 to the Toronto Maple Leafs of 2019 would be amusing, to say the least. Yes, I’m sure fans would eat up the opportunity to dissect this team and debate over the differences and similarities, but in reality, this team is entirely different with little downside. Sure, the defense has been an ongoing issue all year and the core is pretty much status quo but the not so subtle changes in the lineup make all the difference when comparing the two seasons.
The noticeable impact that these new players have brought to the lineup, changed Toronto’s identity heading into the playoffs, whether people believe it or not. Wednesdays game 1 matchup against the Boston Bruins will not “tell how the series will play out” as the truth is, this series is tight and almost impossible to analyze; let alone predict. The Maple Leafs odds to win the Stanley Cup are looking direr, primarily because the road to the Cup goes through Boston and Tampa but to be the best, you must beat the best.
Toronto is a better team heading into the playoffs this year, regardless of their regular season struggles or past demons that fans seem to think are “haunting” them. Sure, there are some footnoted pieces of history that are tough to forget such as the last two times these teams met in the playoffs but the Bruins taking three of four games in the season series this year is not something to worry about. Boston proved last year when Toronto won three of four during the regular season, the season series does not matter.
With the addition of John Tavares, Toronto instantly upgraded in the centre ice position. Tavares is an excellent shut down forward with incredible offensive upside. This is not a knock on Nazem Kadri, as he performed extremely well in this role last year, but unfortunately fell victim to a suspension early in the first round against Boston that saw him sidelined for 3 games.
Toronto lost 3 out of the first 4 games that year proving that the suspension certainly hurt them. Now, Tavares has taken on the shut down role, meaning more than likely he will be matched up against the Bruins big 3. Toronto’s chances at maintaining the Bruins first line and keeping them at bay increased astronomically as Tavares and his linemates have proven to be good both offensively and defensively throughout the year.
Defensively, Toronto remains relatively similar with one not so small change on the second unit. Jake Muzzin has performed consistently throughout his short tenure as a Maple Leaf this season, proving he was well worth the hefty package Kyle Dubas gave up for him. Muzzin adds size to a back end that lacked it entirely. The big-bodied defencemen has the ability to play a shutdown role while adding some offense when capable.
This differs greatly from last season as Roman Polak was one dimensional and highly unpredictable with the puck. With the rest of the core gaining valuable playoff experience last year, and the new arrival of a past Stanley Cup champion, Toronto should size up well against the Bruins offense.
The most important piece to Toronto being successful comes between the pipes. Although Andersen had a shaky month of March and a miserable playoff series last year that is possibly still lingering in his head, there really is no reason why he cannot return to “steady Freddie” from earlier this season. However, his last three performances were exceptional, indicating he may be back in form just in time for the second season. If Andersen can get back to playing like the Vezina candidate he once was, Toronto is in good hands.
Toronto has all the intangibles to win the series, starting with an improved lineup and ending with the burning desire to defeat the Bruins. Either way, I see this series going the distance and ending with a dramatic game 7. Hopefully, Toronto is on the opposite side of the game 7 result this time.