Phase 4 of the NHL Return to Play Plan will see the resumption of games, as the league attempts to accomplish its goal of awarding the 2020 Stanley Cup. Exhibition, qualifier and postseason matches are slated to take place during that time. The 24-team tournament is scheduled to begin August 1, with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will feature 16 teams playing eight best-of-five series. There will also be a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine the seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Feel free to check out our Western Conference qualifying round previews if you haven’t done so already. Those include the Edmonton Oilers versus the Chicago Blackhawks, the Nashville Predators against the Arizona Coyotes, the Vancouver Canucks facing off against the Minnesota Wild and the Calgary Flames versus the Winnipeg Jets. We started the Eastern Conference last week with the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Montreal Canadiens and the Carolina Hurricanes against the New York Rangers. Earlier this week, the Florida Panthers against the New York Islanders was featured and today we wrap up our previews of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers with the matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
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The Maple Leafs went 36-25-9 (.579 points percentage) in the regular season and own the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto went 27-15-5 under Sheldon Keefe after he replaced Mike Babcock as head coach. Keefe stressed the importance of puck possession and the team embraced that up-tempo style, while making some improvements defensively as well.
The Blue Jackets have a much more defensive mindset under coach John Tortorella, who was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award. The team played through some adversity after losing key players to free agency last summer and others to injury during the 2019-20 season. Still, the club persevered and ended up with a 33-22-15 record (.579 points percentage) to land the No. 9 seed going into the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
The clash of styles will be the most interesting aspect of this series. Toronto’s offensive prowess ranked third in the NHL in goals for per game played (3.39) and was sixth in the league in power play percentage (23.1%). The Maple Leafs also ranked second in the league in scoring chances for and fifth overall in high-danger scoring chances for during five-on-five situations. Auston Matthews was second in the NHL in goals (47) and ninth overall with 80 points in 70 games. Mitch Marner also had 1.14 points per game played, while recording 16 goals and a team-leading 51 assists in 59 appearances. Leafs captain John Tavares generated 26 goals and 60 points over 63 outings. William Nylander (31 goals, 59 points) and Zach Hyman (21 goals, 37 points) were on pace for career years offensively prior to the pause. Toronto also has point producers on defense with Morgan Rielly (27 points in 47 games) and Tyson Barrie (five goals, 39 points in 70 matches).
Columbus’ biggest strength comes from the team’s ability to prevent goals, while frustrating the opposition into making mistakes. The Blue Jackets tied Arizona for third in the league in goals against per game played (2.61) and ranked seventh overall in shots against per game played (29.9). The Blue Jackets’ success in this series will depend on their ability to limit Toronto's opportunities. The top pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski will be very important for Columbus while looking to achieve that goal. Jones is healthy after suffering a fractured ankle in mid-February. Werenski led all NHL blueliners with 20 goals and he was third on the team in scoring with 41 points in 63 matches. Werenski stepped up when Jones was injured and having them both patrolling the back end in all situations is crucial for Columbus.
The Blue Jackets went into the 2019-20 season with an inexperienced crease situation, but Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were up to the challenge after bouncing back from rocky starts to the year. It hasn’t been determined yet who will start in Game 1 against Toronto, but their strong play earned them both two-year contract extensions in April. The Maple Leafs will counter with Frederik Andersen between the pipes, who isn’t a stranger to sluggish starts either. He wasn’t having a particularly good year, but he was turning that around prior to the pause. Jack Campbell provides the Leafs with a vastly improved safety net, but it will be Andersen who will be counted on to carry the load. The long break has also provided the often overworked Leafs’ netminder with a chance to rest and recover going into the playoffs, which is luxury that he hasn’t had in the past.
Columbus does have some offensive weapons up front that Andersen and the Leafs will have to look out for in Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Gustav Nyquist and Cam Atkinson. Columbus was the talk of the playoffs a year ago when the team pulled off an incredible upset. The Tampa Bay Lightning captured the Presidents’ Trophy and were a big favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup following a record-setting year, but the Blue Jackets eliminated them by earning a surprising four-game sweep. Columbus won’t be underestimated as a result, but this isn’t the same team. Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky were integral to the club’s success that year and they are all playing for different teams this summer.
Both teams got some important players back from the sidelines thanks to the shutdown, especially Columbus which was a club that was hit hard by injuries during the regular season. Toronto’s depth, skill and speed should be a handful for the Blue Jackets. Columbus will attempt to make life difficult for Toronto with a tenacious forecheck, which is what gave the Lightning so much trouble. Arguably, it’s harder for teams that are more defensive to develop a rhythm before high-octane offensive clubs and if that’s the case here then that’s a big advantage for the Maple Leafs. This is a series that could go the distance and it will be interesting to see which team’s style gets the better of the other on a game-to-game basis.
Players to Watch:
Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ) - Bjorkstrand led the Blue Jackets with 21 goals during the regular season. The 25-year-old winger and Werenski were the only 20-goal scorers on the team and Bjorkstrand accomplished the feat despite only skating in 49 matches. He amassed 162 shots on goal and 36 points when he was in the lineup. Bjorkstrand is slated to play alongside Dubois and Alexandre Texier on the team’s top line.
Ilya Mikheyev (TOR) - Mikheyev’s rookie campaign was shortened after his wrist was cut by a skate on Dec. 27. He had eight goals and 23 points across 39 outings prior to getting hurt. Mikheyev generated plenty of buzz during summer camp en route to being named the team’s Phase 3 MVP by members of the media. The 25-year-old winger followed that up with a strong performance in Toronto’s exhibition win over Montreal. The hype has been justified and Mikheyev will look to make an impact in the Stanley Cup Qualifier with John Tavares and Mitch Marner as his linemates.
Liam Foudy (CBJ) - Foudy got to play in two games during the regular season as an emergency call-up from the Ontario Hockey League when the Blue Jackets were hurting due to injuries. He picked up one assist and had three shots on target, while averaging 14:13 of ice time per contest. He is expected to land a spot with the team going into the qualifying round. Foudy, who has great speed and offensive ability, is projected to play with Boone Jenner and Gustav Nyquist.
Zach Hyman (TOR) - Hyman didn’t make his season debut until Nov. 13 because of a torn ACL, which he sustained during the playoffs last year. He picked up steam shortly after his return to the fold and posted a personal best 0.73 points per game. Hyman tied his previous career-high with 21 goals, which he established last season, and he had 37 points over 51 appearances. Hyman is poised to play with Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
Nick Robertson (TOR) - Robertson is looking good for a roster spot with the Leafs going into the qualifying round. He has been skating with Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen on the team’s third line. Robertson had a strong Phase 3 training camp and he played well in Tuesday’s exhibition game against Montreal. Robertson has plenty of skill coupled with a strong work ethic, which could make it tough for Toronto to take him out of the lineup.