We’ll have live hockey games for the first time in months when the Blue Jackets face the Maple Leafs in Toronto, one of the two NHL hub cities. While it’s technically home-ice for the Leafs, there won't be any fans, and regardless of all that, this best-of-five series will come down on to the game action on the ice.
How any team plays, let alone these two, following over four months of inactivity and a brief summer training camp and is anyone’s guess. But we know what each team is packed with. Yesterday previewed the defense for this upcoming matchup and today, we’ll take a deeper dive into the forwards matchup between Columbus and Toronto ahead of Game 1 on Sunday night.
William Nylander - Auston Matthews - Zach Hyman
Nick Foligno - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand
One of the newsworthy notes about Toronto’s first line and Matthews is that he was among those that tested positive for COVID-19. Assuming he’s ready to go for Game 1, you wonder about his conditioning and recovery process as the biggest games are ahead.
Matthews led the team in points (80) and goals (47) while Nylander was second on the club with 31 goals. Imagine these totals over a full 82-game season. Even Hyman was in the middle of a career-year for goals, tying his 2018-19 total of 21. He is battling an undisclosed ailment, so we’ll see if he will be ready in time for the playoffs.
The trio of Foligno - Dubois - Bjorkstrand has put together 6.04 xGF this season, and have been on the ice for 10 goals for this season against one allowed. Foligno isn’t a first-line player, but I think he’s a bit of a security blanket for John Tortorella. Possibly someone else emerges that could jump up and make an appearance the line.
Ilya Mikheyev - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Gustav Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Cam Atkinson
It’s almost unfair when Toronto can feature another high-scoring line, essentially another first line like this one, as Columbus looks to keep up.
In his second season for Toronto, Tavares scored 26 goals and had 60 points, while Marner had another fine scoring season, to be expected (67—16-51). Mikheyev (23—8-15) played his first NHL season appearing in 39 games this season.
Check out the graph from Hockey Viz showing Tavares’ teammates with him and without him on the ice.
And then the different forward combinations, such as Marner with Tavares.
For Columbus, Atkinson has struggled with injuries and in between the ailments, battled with scoring inconsistency. Limited to just 44 games, it’s not a fair comparison to point out that his scoring totals are all well-below his norms, but his 12 goals and 26 points are the lowest since his sophomore season in 2012-13. Obviously, he’s one of the team’s leaders and is far more capable than what the 2019-20 season numbers look like.
Nick Robertson - Alexander Kerfoot - Kasperi Kapanen
Alexandre Texier - Alexander Wennberg - Emil Bemstrom
Foudy brings with him two career games of NHL experience, somewhat similar to Alexandre Texier who started games 81 and 82 last season, and went right into the the playoffs with the big club. Wennberg could be a critical player in this matchup, more so for his defensive game. He might not shoot the puck but if he can facilitate, that’s half the battle.
Bemstrom debuted this season and showed his scoring touch with 20 points and 10 goals. Another big asset for the future and a young player who can learn a lot and contribute in these playoffs.
Kerfoot was acquired last summer from the Avalanche for Nazem Kadri, and brings experience to the line, centering another prospect in Engvall, who just completed his first year in the NHL scoring 15 points (eight goals, seven assists). Kapanen can also light the lamp, with 36 points this past season (13-23) and 44 points the season before with 20 goals.
Similar to Foudy for Columbus, Robertson figures to be Toronto’s answer at a debut of a talented winger. Robertson got game action on Wednesday against the Canadiens, and here’s a writeup from Pension Plan Puppets on the 18-year-old California native. His presumable start against Columbus would be the NHL debut of Robertson, who spent 2019-20 with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, scoring 86 points (55 goals, 31 assists).
Nick Robertson recorded an assist in tonight’s exhibition game.— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) July 29, 2020
Should he record a postseason point prior to Sept. 11, he would become the third 18-year-old in @MapleLeafs history to do so joining Jack Hamilton in 1944 and Ted Kennedy, twice, in 1944. #NHLStats #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/NGnzuFoGhA
Nick Robertson led the Leafs in possession and expected goals when on the ice tonight. 79.6% CF.— James Mirtle (@mirtle) July 29, 2020
By the numbers, he should be on the team. Leafs third line looked really solid.
Kyle Clifford - Pierre Engvall - Jason Spezza
Eric Robinson - Riley Nash - Liam Foudy
For Toronto, Clifford brings his two Stanley Cup rings and grit over from the Kings to a team that is still trying to solve their first-round woes. Spezza is an aging vet, formerly a big-time star, and looking for that elusive Stanley Cup ring. You can always rely on veteran leadership and in as odd year and scenario as these playoffs, it can’t hurt to have a guy like Spezza in the dressing room. It’s kind of bugging me that Spez is stuck on 599 career assists.
Robinson is fast, and we saw that speed on display during the season as he saw his first bulk of real playing time.
He also scored his first 12 career points (seven goals, five assists). Foudy brings a ton of potential, but for a 20-year-old needing to find his game in a playoff series, it could be quite the adjustment for him. Or maybe not, but I wouldn’t expect big minutes unless he starts hot or there’s a certain matchup John Tortorella likes.
We could also see Kevin Stenlund or Devin Shore cracking the lineup.
I’m always curious about the power play. Why is it so bad? How does it get fixed? And so on. Against the Lightning last spring, they converted on half of their chance (five-for-10), and honestly, who wouldn’t take some of that. Did time off solve anything, or will there be some kind of new scheme? I was checking out Jeff Svoboda’s (@JacketsInsider) tweets on the subject and I’ll link that here for quick archive.
Toronto is obviously one of the better units. Maybe time off will subdue that? It’s worth a quick two-second thought. They finished tied-for-fifth in the regular season with the Lightning, converting on 23.1% of their chances. Columbus managed to get up to 27th (16.4%) before the pause.
Matthews led the team with 12 PPG and also had 13 assists. Bemstrom and Zach Werenski co-led the Jackets with five PPG.
Star Player Comparison
Whether Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, Marner, whoever, this team can shoot and score. Columbus can counter with the likes of a healthy Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand, the latter who was in the middle of his own career-year, and was the best forward for the Jackets all season.
Just like during the 2019 playoffs, the Lightning could skate figurative circles around Columbus on paper, but there’s a reason the games are played. Now you add in a four-month hiatus, and a positive COVID case for one of the Leafs top players, not to mention all the other intangibles like rust and playoff hockey, it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens next.
No question, the Leafs take the cake in terms of offensive firepower and depth. They have two number one scoring lines. and it’ll be up to Columbus to be able to limit scoring chances against some of the best players in the league on one team. Columbus is still hoping to find offensive consistency at the most important time, and no time like the present with a now healthy team.
These lines are subject to change and we’ll have even more to go off of as the Blue Jackets play the Bruins in an exhibition, a playoff tune-up if you will, tomorrow, July 30 at 7 pm in Toronto.