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The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won an NHL playoff series was 2004. If that is going to change this year, it'll require Toronto to eliminate the two-time defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Surprisingly enough, the Maple Leafs are betting favorites to do exactly that.
Since 2004, the Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs 10 times. However, they've made the postseason in six of the last nine seasons. The results? One loss in the qualifying round in the 2020 bubble, and five other first-round series losses. On the other hand, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021. They had another appearance in the Cup Final in 2015. Three other times since 2011, the Bolts lost in the conference final.
One team is known for its playoff failure, while the other team has gone on many extensive playoff runs over the past decade. Yet, for some reason, the Leafs are the favorites in Round 1.
Toronto was the better team in the regular season
The Maple Leafs went 54-21-7 during the regular season. Their 115 points ranked fourth in the league. The Lightning finished with a respectable 110 points, but the Leafs finished with the better record, earning them the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Division and home-ice advantage in this series.
The underlying metrics would support the thesis that the Leafs were the better of these two teams during the regular season, though both teams were borderline elite and the gap wasn't wide at all.
In terms of expected-goal rate at 5-on-5, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com, the Leafs 55.9% rate ranks fourth in the league. Tampa Bay's 53.3% expected-goal rate ranks eighth. However, Toronto's edge doesn't stop there.
The Leafs were better at both ends of the ice than their first-round counterparts. Toronto ranks third in expected-goals scored per hour at 5-on-5, while the Lightning ranked 11th. The Leafs ranked fourth in expected-goals allowed, and the Lightning were behind them again, ranking sixth.
Yes, the Leafs were better during the regular season. However, the gap was narrow, and nobody has questioned Toronto's capabilities during the regular season over the past few years.
Breaking down the rosters
When you look at the rosters of these two teams, the first thing that will stick out to you is the number of stars littered through both teams, especially on offense.
Toronto has Auston Matthews, the betting favorite to win the Hart Trophy before the market came off the board. Matthews won the Rocket Richard, scoring 60 goals on the season. He's the first player to score 60 goals since Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos in 2012, and one of just three players to hit the mark in this millennium (Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals in 2008).
Behind Matthews, Mitch Marner's 97 points ranked top 10 in the league at the end of the season. John Tavares and William Nylander both played at nearly a point-per-game pace as well.
On the other side, there's no shortage of stars as well. The aforementioned Stamkos had the best production season of his career, eclipsing the 100-point mark for the first time. Stamkos has dealt with injuries the last two seasons, but he missed just one game this year and he's back in the 40-goal club.
Nikita Kucherov missed half the season, but he scored 69 points in 47 games. That's a 120-point pace over 82 games, and only Connor McDavid had more points than that this season. Brayden Point also missed a significant chunk of the season, but he contributed nearly a point-per-game. As we've learned over the last two years, Point only gets better in the playoffs.
While the Leafs might have slightly better high-end talent, the Lightning can hang. Over the last two years, depth has been a big part of the reason why the Lightning have won back-to-back Cups. Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman are gone from those teams, but the Lightning are hoping the likes of Nick Paul, Brandon Hagel, Ross Colton and Corey Perry can replace them. The Lightning might not be as deep as they were the last few years, but I still think they're a slightly deeper forward group than the Leafs.
The Lightning have the best defenseman in this series in Victor Hedman. Hedman is widely regarded as a top-5 defenseman in the sport, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the playoff MVP, in 2020. Morgan Rielly is a good defenseman for Toronto, but he isn't in the same tier as Hedman when it comes to dominance at both ends of the ice.
Behind those two, there's not much separating the defensive cores. Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, and Erik Cernak compare well with Toronto's trio of Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie and newly acquired Mark Giordano. The Leafs probably have a slight edge in defensive depth with Timothy Liljegren breaking out, but is it enough to overcome the advantage Tampa Bay has with Hedman?
The biggest concern for the Leafs, and the reason why I'm surprised they are favorites, is the goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy is arguably the best goalie in the world, a winner of back-to-back Stanley Cups, and a Conn Smythe winner in 2021. This season, Vasilevskiy ranked fourth in goals saved above expectation (GSAx) according to Evolving-Hockey. On the flip-side, Jack Campbell, Toronto's goalie, ranked 96th amongst 118 goalies. Vasilevskiy posted a +17.6 GSAx on the season, while Campbell posted a -8.2 mark. That's a difference of almost 26 goals between the two. Massive advantage to Tampa Bay here.
The best bet
Talk about narratives. There's absolutely no shortage of those in this series and you can make it work from whatever angle you want. Toronto's playoff failures at this point make the 31 other fanbases in this league happy. The Leafs have been one of the best regular-season teams in the sport for a few years now, but without fail, they lose in the first round.
Toronto's 54 wins and 115 points from this past season are the best marks in franchise history, and this is an Original Six team that was founded in 1917. Their reward for their great season? A first-round matchup against the two-time defending champions.
Toronto is obviously going to win a playoff series one of these years, but despite the Leafs being the better team in the regular season this year, I don't think they'll be eliminating Tampa Bay in Round 1 here.
There is a concern about Tampa Bay putting a lot of miles on those legs since the pandemic stopped the sports world. With the condensed schedules, short off-seasons and deep playoff runs, Tampa Bay has played a lot of hockey recently. I just think that the goaltending advantage the Lightning have in this series will be too much for Toronto to overcome.
I do think it will be a tremendous series, and despite the juice being pretty heavy at -190, I still think there's value in betting this series to go over 5.5 games. I have a hard time seeing a world where this series doesn't go at least six games. These teams split the season series, winning two games a piece. The Leafs beat the Lightning 6-2 in early April, but Tampa Bay responded with an 8-1 shellacking of Toronto later in the month. It's going to be fun.
As for a winner, give me the plus money (+100) with the Bolts. If the Leafs were an underdog in this series, I could see myself being talked into them. However, I'm not laying juice with a team that has made its identity playoff failure.