The NHL play-in series are quickly approaching and here at TXHT we will be breaking down all the matchups. Today, we take a look at the powerhouse offense of the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. the solid defense and scrappy play of the Columbus Blue Jackets. These two teams are essentially polar opposites of each other and it’s probably the most unpredictable series of the play-in round. Let’s jump in.
The Maple Leafs boast one of the best forward corps in the entire National Hockey League. For all the crap they get about salary cap management, they have really assembled quite the cast of high end talent. It starts with their center ice position and the one-two punch they have in Auston Matthews and John Tavares is arguably the best in the league tied with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Matthews has already established himself as one of the best goal scorers in the entire league and hes still only 22. The 6’3”, 220 pound centerman scored 47 goals this year and has 158 in 282 games played. He’s a franchise talent that will only get better as the years go on.
Tavares signed a seven year, 77 million dollar deal on July 1st, 2018 with the Maple Leafs and he has delivered on his end of the deal. Tavares has scored 148 points in two seasons as a Leaf and he was named captain at the beginning of the 2019-20 season. He is a deadly scorer, an excellent passer and makes everyone on the ice around him better. Imagine if the New York Islanders actually surrounded him with talent when he was there? Their loss and the Leafs huge gain. Tavares had 60 points in 63 games this year. Tavares and Matthews aren’t the only elite forwards though.
Enter two of the best wingers in the NHL: Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Marner and Nylander are two incredible talents and both are home grown players. Marner is quickly cementing himself as one of the top playmaking wingers in the entire league. He may be small but he’s shifty and knows exactly where to be on the ice to make the right plays. Nylander is cut from the same cloth but is a bit bigger and the better goal scorer of the two. These four incredible forwards are the foundation of the Maple Leafs incredible offense and it’s going to take a Herculean effort for the Blue Jackets to corral them. With a supporting cast of Jason Spezza, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, Alexander Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev and more, the Leafs are just too deadly at the forward position.
The Blue Jackets boast some good forwards as well in Pierre-Luc Dubois (a young and budding first line center), Cam Atkinson (who for a small guy has worked extremely hard and turned himself into a thirty goal scorer), Oliver Bjorkstrand (a young and promising goalscorer) and Josh Anderson (who has become a pretty good power forward in his own right) but they aren’t near the Caliber of forward that the Leafs possess.Nick Foligno and Alexander Texier are also pretty good but again, don’t tip the scales in the Jackets favor. Artemiy Panarin left a big void when he left for the Rangers and Matt Duchene left another void when he left for Nashville. The Jackets simply don’t have the firepower to compete with the Leafs in the forward department.
EDGE: Leafs and it’s not close
This is where the Blue Jackets have the advantage. Where they lack the power and skill in their forward group, they have quite the talented defense and it all starts with their rock solid top pair in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Jones, who was acquired from the Nashville Predators for Ryan Johansen a few seasons back, has been the backbone of the Columbus defense. He can hit, he can score, and he can skate with the best of them. He is the complete package that you want in a number one defenseman. The Blue Jackets robbed the Predators in that trade and at only 25 years old, the 6’4”, 209 pound defenseman is only going to get better. Jones has 258 points in 524 NHL games and scored 30 points in 56 games this year before coming down with an ankle injury. Jones is now healthy and ready to rekindle his chemistry with Werenski.
Speaking of Werenski, the second player on Columbus’ top pair isn’t anything to laugh at. He has played 280 out of a possible 300 career games with Jones by his side and has put up 40 points three times and 37 points once in his NHL career. He is a spectacular offensive defenseman and has been electric since his rookie season coming out of the University of Michigan. As Head Coach John Tortorella said, the Blue Jackets go as Werenski and Jones go and that top pair ranks among possibly the best in the entire NHL. They have size, they have great skating and they both have fantastic defensive and offensive instincts. This pair alone, gives the Blue Jackets a great edge on the Maple Leafs in the defense department. The 6’2”, 212 pound defenseman has 169 points in 300 NHL games including 41 in 63 this season.
Following that top pair, the Blue Jackets have a great corps that includes David Savard, Ryan Murray and Dean Kukan. All extremely solid guys who know how to defend and although they might not be as flashy as the top guys, they know how to get it done.
I would be remiss if I didn;t mention Morgan Reilly and Jake Muzzin, the two guys who form the backbone of the Maple Leafs defense but as good as they are, they play separately and the supporting cast they have in Justin Holl, Tyson Barrie (who hasn’t been good for the Leafs since being acquired from Colorado) and Cody Ceci, while good, aren’t at the level that the Blue Jackets defense seems to be. Reilly has been awesome for the Leafs since they acquired him, but he can’t do it all alone.
EDGE: Columbus. Jones and Werenski can shut down the best of them and give you some nice offense and the supporting cast is extremely solid.
This will be the deciding factor in the series. Elvis Merzlikins vs. Frederick Anderson. Both quality goaltenders in their own right but it will be a case of young upstart vs. experienced veteran with a chip on his shoulder to prove he can finally get over the hump. Merzlikins burst onto the scene this year and ripped off win after win for John Tortorella’s squad. The loss of Sergei Bobrovsky to the Panthers was lessened thanks to the superior play of Merzlikins. Anderson had a pretty good year as well but he ultimately seems to fall short in the playoffs. This is going to be a war between these two and it’ll be very interesting to see who comes out on top.
EDGE: It’s insanely close but I think Merzlikins will surprise a lot of people with how he steps up to the plate.
Toronto wins in five in a really close series due to the stellar play of Elvis Merzlikins, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski but the Maple Leafs attack with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander and Mitch Marner proves to be just a little too much.