Stanley Cup

Leafs Lose Another Game 7 To The Bruins...Now What?

Leafs Game 7 Thumbnail.jpg

If you would have told me before the start of Game 7 that the Leafs would score four goals in the game, I would have told you to that the Leafs would be back on TV Saturday night to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Alas, another collapse and blown third period lead leaves Leafs fans in the same spot they were in after the 2013 season. Saying that, the two offseasons can't feel any more different.

Another Game 7 Letdown

It was another crushing blow to a Leafs fan base that has experienced it share of defeats over the years. Leafs Twitter exploded on queue, offering their fair share of blame, myself included (as you can see below).

As you can see, I was pretty emotional, hence why this article is coming out the day after Game 7, and not right away. 

Gardiner was the most obvious scape goat from fans last night and tonight, and rightfully so. He had arguably his worst game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. He was an abysmal -5 with only 2 hits, no blocks in just over 24 minutes of ice time. Everybody understands that the Leafs need to shore up their defence core (more to come on that) but to me, Gardiner is, and has been all year, a liability. He just got exposed being on the biggest stage in his NHL career.

I will give him kudos for facing the Toronto media and owning that. I empathize on how empty of a feeling that would be, knowing that most of the blame will be put on you in one of the most crazy NHL markets. Saying that, it hasn't changed my assessment on him. The Leafs need to move on from him and this project if they want to clog the holes on defence, especially the right side.

Source: Charles Krupa / AP

Source: Charles Krupa / AP

While blame should fall on Gardiner, it was a team collapse. The offence evaporated near the end of the second period and for most of the third, and "Steddy Freddy" was anything but steddy in this game. Allowing 6 goals while posting an .829 save percentage will not get the job done, no matter what game it is. The Leafs don't get to game 7 without Freddy, but they needed him to get the job done, FredEx just couldn't deliver. Andersen had been stellar for the Leafs all season, and I believe that with a better defensive core around him, this game 7 collapse wouldn't have happened. Sure, he let in some soft goals, but he also did make some A+ saves too.

At the end of the day, Marleau can't be your best forward in a due or die situation. Matthews and Nylander were ghosts all series, but I attribute that more to age and playoff experience over anything else. Marner was outstanding, and will be a future pillar to build around.

Now What? The Offseason Agenda

Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

Well there's really only one massive concern, and everybody knows what it is. This defence has more holes than Swiss Cheese, and in a playoff series where the opponents really focus in on one another with detail, it was clear that the Bruins knew how to attack the Leafs and their defensemen.

I am very pro-Hainsey, but in the right role. He should not be playing first line minutes with Morgan Rielly, but that's what happens when you lack quality right shot defensemen. The Leafs need to address this, by acquiring an elite RHD via free agency or trade. Players such as John Carlson (FA), Drew Doughty (Trade) or Erik Karlsson (Trade) are just a few names that can really embrace that top D pairing on the right side along Rielly. Trades may require a young forward (Nylander maybe...?) but those trade packages are for another day.

It's time to move off of Gardiner and trade him. Move Dermott up to the 2nd defence pairing with Zaitsev. Find a top six D to fill in the left side alongside Hainsey, and cut Polak. Otherwise, there really doesn't need to be any other drastic change. I'm not in the "bring John Tavares back home" camp, because I would rather use that money for an elite defender in a salary cap world.

Someone on Twitter asked me who I thought had played their final game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. My list includes Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, JVR, Domenic Moore, Roman Polak and Jake Gardiner. I've seen many variations of this type of list, so let me know your list in the comments below, or tweet your list to me @TO_SportsViews.

I believe in this front office. They have made the right decisions thus far. I trust that they will get this team to where they need to be next year. There's one thing that's certain...this offseason will be the most interesting in recent memory.

Why The Maple Leafs Can Win A Stanley Cup In 2018

Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

First it was the Toronto Wolfpack.

Then it was the Toronto Argonauts.

Most recently, it was Toronto FC.

Will the Maple Leafs complete the year of Toronto sports domination? If they make the right moves and decisions, and have a little bit of lady luck on their side, there's no reason to suggest that the Leafs can't finally lift Lord Stanley in 2018.

Source: TSN

Source: TSN

The Core

This team finally has a core to build around for the foreseeable future. You have the deadly trio of Matthews, Marner and Nylander that are playing well beyond their years. It's incredible to think that these guys are all only on their rookie contracts, which makes the next year to two even more important to capitalize on this. Matthews is currently leading the team in points (26 pts through 26 games), Marner is leading the Leafs in assists with 17, and Nylander is only one behind Marner with 16.

If you take a look at the back end, it's not as dire as most fans may think. Morgan Rielly is playing like a stud, and embracing the number one role in Toronto quite well. For all the criticism Jake Gardiner gets, he's really responded well to head coach Mike Babcock's style of play, and has limited the risk factor when on the ice. Zaitsev turned that -22 that all the haters were complaining about into a solid +11 at the quarter mark of the season.

Let's not forget about the Maple Leafs MVP this season, Freddy Anderson.  This guy has single handily won the Leafs games this year that they had no business winning. Anderson has faced the most shots in the league by any goaltender, and boasts a record of 17-8-1 with a 2.67 GAA and a .922 save percentage (6th highest save percentage in the league). This after having a horrendous October which saw the GAA around 3.50 and the save percentage under .900. He has firmly placed himself in the early Veznia conversation.

Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map
— Mike Babcock, 2015

Complementary Pieces and Depth

It's probably a good thing if we are calling James van Riemsdyk a complementary piece. He leads the Leafs in goals (14) and also leads the squad in powerplay points (8). A free agent at the end of the season, he has been vital to one of the leagues most potent offenses. Nazem Kadri has been incredibly vital to this Leafs squad as well. Second in goals (13) and points (23), Kadri has proven that he belongs in this league, and has cemented himself as a true top six forward. I would be remised if I didn't talk about Patrick Marleau. The "dad" of the team has put up stellar numbers, shown versatility by playing centre and wing throughout the year, as well as displayed speed that matches the youth movement in this league. Other players like Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, and Matt Martin embraced their roles and have exceeded expectations that others have set upon them so far this year.

Looking at the defensive side, the Ron Hainsey signing appears to be the frontrunner as "biggest free agent steal" of 2017. Not only are Hainsey and Zaitsev the "go-to" shutdown PK unit, but Hainsey is on pace for 34 points this season, a mark he's only reached twice in his career, and hasn't reach since his 2008-09 season with the Atlanta Thrashers, when he got 39 points. Andreas Borgman has been a pain for skaters to deal with. Not only can this guy lay out the body, but he's got a cannon of a shot. He's been a great addition to the third pairing.

In between the pipes, Curtis McElhinney has been a solid backup for the Leafs. In five starts, he's gone 3-2-0 with a 2.44 GAA and a .925 save percentage. Can't ask much more from a backup, especially after his last performance against the Oilers, which was a 41 save shutout. With Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard dominating for the Marlies, the depth in goaltending is something the Leafs haven't had in a very long time.

Source: Jared Silber/Getty

Source: Jared Silber/Getty

Additions That The Leafs Should Consider

Adding an Elite Defenseman

I think you know where I'm heading with this based off the picture above. Nobody is as elite in the league on the blue line as Erik Karlsson is. Considering the Sens dumpster fire that's currently ablaze, the Leafs should definitely be all over this (as long as the Leafs aren't on his 10 team no-trade list).

Karlsson has an average cap hit of $6.5 million for this season and the next. If the Leafs really want to take advantage of rookie contracts and an underpaid defenseman, this is a golden opportunity. I don't think Karlsson's pending free agency should be a factor in this, especially when the Leafs have a window of opportunity to win now and in the foreseeable future. If Karlsson fits into those plans down the road, that would be great. He would also be a great mentor to Leafs 1st round prospect Timothy Liljegren, who's game has been compared to Karlsson's.

Adding a Depth Forward

You can never have too much depth. An injury or trade frees up some spaces, so the depth in forwards is always an asset. I'm not a Bozak fan, and I believe that the Leafs will look to ship him away. With so much versatility in Leafs forwards and their ability to shift from wing to center, there's no real positional need as much as a depth need.

The Leafs should be looking for a bottom six, veteran depth forward that can bolster a third or fourth line. A playoff vet like Justin Williams or a sniper like Radim Vrbata might be fits if their respective teams decide to sell.

I didn’t come here to (just) make the playoffs
— Mike Babcock, 2015

When Babcock was introduced as the Leafs newest head coach, he preached patience, and building a contender the right way. Developing youth, building a safe and thriving culture, and attracting good players to want to play for the Maple Leafs. He also preached years of pain and suffering. It appears as though those years are over, and it's being recognized more and more as the year progresses. Before the 2017-18 season began, the Leafs were +1400 betting odds to win the Stanley Cup (which I jumped all over on). Now, they are +800 betting odds to win the Stanley Cup according to Bodog, which puts them second behind the Tampa Bay Lighting in terms of favourites to win Lord Stanley. The recent run the Leafs are on sure helps as well, comprising a record of 12-3-1 over their last 16 games, and they are on pace for 108 points this season.

The league, and its bettors, are on notice, and this just might be the year that the Toronto Maple Leafs can finally plan the parade route.

Stanley Cup Final Breakdown - Who's Going to Win?

Source: RealSport101

Source: RealSport101

With puck drop of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled 24 hours from now, hockey fans get the matchup that will not only provide the most entertainment, but the closest results as well.

Anaheim brought a solid veteran team, and Ottawa brought a feel-good Cinderella story, but the matchup that will be the most intense and electric belongs to Nashville versus Pittsburgh. I have to say that I would have never imagined the Guinness Book of World Records be in attendance of a Nashville Predators playoff game to record the sound decibels to measure if it's the loudest indoor sporting event of all time. The #Smashville fans are crazy, and I love how they embrace not only the sport, but the team. The Penguins bring speed and maturity against a relatively young and inexperienced Nashville team. The Pens fans have been through this last year, and you know they will be hungry for a repeat, something that hasn't been done since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings teams.

Each team carries it's own strengths, weaknesses and pressures, which we will dissect below. Categories that will be measured include offence, defence, goaltending, special teams, and "other" intangibles. 

Source: USA Today

Source: USA Today

Offence Breakdown

Pittsburgh - There's not enough that can be said about this team offensively. Four of the top six total point-getters these playoffs belong to the Pittsburgh Penguins (Malkin - 24, Crosby - 20, Kessel - 19, Guentzel - 16). It is important to keep in mind that the Penguins have played the most amount of games out of any team these playoffs with 19, so these numbers are a little inflated. Even with the amount of games, Malkin, Crosby and Kessel are all averaging a point-per-game or higher. Saying that, hockey fans have seen the potential of this offence, scoring four or more goals in a game six times. Having sustained injuries to key contributors such as Hornqvist, Rust and of course Sid the Kid, this team has received scoring from both likely and unlikely players alike, capped off by the Kunitz two-goal performance in game seven versus Ottawa, who hadn't scored a goal in a game since February 25th.

Nashville - This team definitely does not have the same offensive numbers that the Pens forwards possess, but they can kill you with their speed. The Predators only have four forwards with 10 or more points, with the dynamic Filip Forsberg leading the way (Forsberg - 15, Johansen - 13, Sissons - 10, Arvidsson - 10). Of course, with the season ending injury to Johansen, a big portion of Nashville's offence has been depleted. However, like Pittsburgh, they find clutch scoring from some unlikely names, such as Sissons, Watson and Aberg. The downside to this offence is that not a single forward is averaging a point-per-game or better, and their highest scorer (Forsberg) would rank fifth against Pittsburgh's forwards. Couple this with the fact that Nashville's captain Mike Fisher hasn't registered a single point in the playoffs, and their reliance on secondary scoring may come back to bite them in this final series.

Advantage - Pittsburgh Penguins

It will be the toughest challenge of my life.
— Evgeni Malkin on facing Predators defence
Source: Pred Lines

Source: Pred Lines

Defence Breakdown

Pittsburgh - This team has faced adversity when it comes to its blue line. With Letang ruled out of the playoffs before playing a single game, the Pens have been facing an uphill battle with their defence since game one. Injuries sustained to Schultz and Daley throughout the playoffs forced young players such as Dumoulin and Ruhwedel into the spotlight. They clearly aren't the same impact players as Letang and Schultz for Pittsburgh, and when Dumoulin is leading the defence in ice time during games, you know the Pens are as depleted as can be on the back end. With Schultz and Daley back to adequate health, the Pens do get a boost for their defensive depth that hasn't really been seen for majority of their playoff run.

Nashville - It's no surprise that David Poile has constructed this team from the back end out, and the Predators defence corps are the reason why they are battling for their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The top four defence of Josi, Ellis, Subban and Ekholm make up four out of top eight scorers for the Predators. It's extremely rare to have such massive contributions offensively from your defensemen, and to have three in double digit point totals already exemplifies how integral the Predators defence is to their game and overall success. Not to mention they are just as impressive defensively as they are offensively, blocking shots and creating important game-changing turnovers. You know they are impressive when Malkin is quoted as saying that it will be the toughest challenge of his life, also stating that they have four Erik Karlsson's on the blue line.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Goaltending Breakdown

Pittsburgh - The goaltending carousel of the Penguins has actually been a massive benefit for the team. When Murray went down during practice before game one of the playoffs, there were maybe a handful of people on the entire planet that had the confidence in Fleury to not only keep this team alive but become an integral component. Throughout the playoffs, Fleury posted a respectable 9-6 record with a .924 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average. Fleury was a massive contribution for Pittsburgh, literally stealing games for his squad. After his collapse against Ottawa, coach Mike Sullivan made the change to go with Matt Murray, and his gamble paid off. Murray is posting a stellar 4-1 record with a .946 save percentage and a 1.35 goals against average. It will be interesting to see how Murray will stack up against a fast Nashville team while only starting four games these playoffs. It's nice for Pittsburgh to know that if Murray falters, Fleury will be more than capable of handling the duties between the pipes.

Nashville - As impressive as Pittsburgh's goalie tandem has been, Nashville's leading netminder has been just as incredible. Known more for his inconsistencies than stellar play over the past few seasons, Pekka Rinne has put that label behind him. Over the course of 16 games, he's posted a 12-4 record with a .941 save percentage and a 1.70 goals against average. With goaltending being arguably the most important element in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rinne has been the foundation that has allowed other elements to thrive and play loosely over the last 16 games. Something else to consider would be that Rinne had to face arguably more potent offences than Pittsburgh overall these playoffs. This position matchup is as close as any I've seen in a long time, but I would have to give the edge to the netminder who's played the entire playoffs.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

Special Teams Breakdown

Power Play - The power play advantage is a perfect reflection of the balance between offenses. Pittsburgh ranks tied for second in the playoffs with a 25% power play percentage, while Nashville ranks 12th with a 14.9% power play percentage. There's no doubt that this category belongs to Pittsburgh.

Penalty Kill - Similar to the power play, the penalty kill reflects the defensive perceptions well. Nashville ranks fourth in the playoffs with an 88.1% penalty kill percentage, while Pittsburgh ranks eighth with a 85.5% penalty kill percentage. While this category is closer in proximity than the power play, the advantage will still have to go to Nashville.

Summary - While each team excels in one particular aspect of special teams compared to the other, it's hard to ignore the disparity of power play percentages between Pittsburgh and Nashville. Therefore, Pittsburgh has the advantage in the special teams department by a narrow margin.

Advantage - Pittsburgh Penguins

Source: Tribune News Service

Source: Tribune News Service

"Other" Intangibles Breakdown

Home Ice Crowd - While both clubs are expecting their fans to be the loudest they have heard all year, there's one arena which has stood out above the rest for housing the loudest fans all playoffs long: the Nashville Predators. Like I said earlier, I'm still amazed and shocked at how loud fans in Nashville of all places can get. While Pittsburgh is no slouch for crowd loudness, nobody is topping the Predators and their fan base in this category.

Days Off & Games Played - Since both of these intangibles revolve around the element of fatigue, I decided to group them together. Nashville is definitely the more well rested team, as they have not only had more days off in general, but had been waiting for Pittsburgh for three days already. Another factor to consider is that Nashville has not had to play a game seven yet these playoffs, while Pittsburgh has gone through two of them and have played three more games than Nashville (19 for Pittsburgh, 16 for Nashville). This category favours the Predators.

Home & Road Splits - While it's expected that both teams play better at home than the road, one team does both better than the other. The Penguins have a home split of 7-3 (.700) and a road split of 5-4 (.556), however the Predators have been dominant at home with a split of 7-1 (.875) and a 5-3 split on the road (.625). These splits allow the argument that the Predators will have a easier time defending home ice and winning on the road than the Penguins. Advantage to the Predators for this category.

Summary - There's a lot of "other" intangible factors, but I picked these three in particular as I feel that they have the most underlying influence in the playoffs. In the categories that often go unnoticed, give the edge to Nashville.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

Source: NY Magazine

Source: NY Magazine

Prediction

This Stanley Cup Final is going to be incredible. The speed, offence, defence, goaltending, crowds and storylines will be on full display, and that's all fans of the game can ask for. When everything is broken down into specific categories, these teams are quite even and match up really well against one another.

Personally, I have always lived by the motto that defence wins championships (unless you are in the NBA...). Nashville has an incredible defensive corps that can not only lock down top line forwards, but can also contribute offensively at the rate of top forwards in the playoffs. When Pittsburgh is locked down offensively, it's difficult for them to fall back on their defence for support, and will lose those close one-goal games more often than a team like Nashville. With this important element combined with the home dominance of Nashville, I believe that Nashville will be lifting Lord Stanley for the first time in franchise history.

Prediction - Nashville in 6 games