Behind enemy lines: a Q&A with Pension Plan Puppets
Let’s learn more about our opponent from those who watch them the most
As we like to do here before every playoff series, we reached out to our colleagues at Pension Plan Puppets, SB Nation’s Toronto Maple Leafs blog. When I emailed my questions to site manager Katya Knappe, I expected that she alone would answer them, or delegate to one of her writers. Instead, her staff answered in roundtable format. She apologized for the length, but I enjoyed the variety of opinions presented. If you enjoy this, be sure to check out their site for more analysis like this. They have a number of well-researched articles breaking down the Blue Jackets.
The Cannon: There are no fans in the stands and the players and staff are staying in the same hotel as the Blue Jackets, but do you think playing in their home arena will give the Leafs any advantages? Will the familiar environment help?
Species: There’s nothing familiar about a Leafs arena where there’s no one sitting on the glass wearing a suit and eating sushi.
Katya: Yes, and I think it’s a bit disingenuous to pretend otherwise, but the advantages aren’t very meaningful. Players know their own rink, the funky parts of the boards, the visual cues that tell them subconsciously exactly where they are, and where the ice is likely to be bad. I think for some players the psychological effects of knowing their kids are a five-minute drive away will actually be a bad thing.
Fulemin: I think the amount that it matters is microscopic. The main distinctive thing about Scotiabank Arena in August is going to be that the ice will suck, and insofar as that helps anyone it’s probably Columbus.
Hardev: It’s going to be really weird for everyone. I know the Leafs enjoyed their travelling fanbase when they played in different arenas, they’re often more lively than the home crowd. It’ll be interesting to see what the NHL does in terms of crowd noise and that stuff, but I think the players are just going to try and focus on the game. Perhaps the lack of distractions will keep the Leafs from straying into the physical game and instead focus on their gameplan?
Auston Matthews is one of the few NHL players to be publicly named as having tested positive for COVID-19. How is he doing now, and is he expected to be at all limited?
Arvind: By his own account, Matthews said he had essentially no symptoms, and appears to be 100% from here on out.
Hardev: His shot still looks pretty good, he’s added the backhand now.
Mike Babcock was fired in November and since then the team has gone 27-15-5 under Sheldon Keefe. What changed when Keefe took over? Is it a personality difference, or has there been a significant change in scheme, lines, or deployment?
Arvind: The offensive system has changed. There is a more noticeable emphasis on having a third forward high in the offensive zone as an outlet to retain possession, and it has the side effect of giving the Leafs an additional member of the team to prevent counter strikes. The downside is that it takes an offensive player and puts them in a less dangerous spot of the ice, which seems like something that plays into exactly Columbus’ defensive style of taking away the net front and conceding chances from undangerous areas of the ice. In terms of deployment, Keefe has played his stars more than Babcock, both at 5v5 and 5v4.
Fulemin: To elaborate on what Arvind said, the Leafs under Babcock were abjectly terrible defensively pretty much three years straight. They’re still not good, and defensively they pale in comparison to Columbus, but they’ve been a little less awful by virtue of a) sustaining offensive zone possessions longer and b) clearing rebounds quicker. It’s something, I guess.
Hardev: I think the players genuinely gave up under Babcock and lost all their speed and tenacity by November. It was so bad the coaching change had to be made between a back-to-back in Arizona, they couldn’t wait until the next game when they were back home. Often after coaching changes you’ll see a boost in scoring led by an increase in morale and a motivation for players to look good under the new boss. I think the players have enjoyed more freedom in their approach to systems. It’s allowed for more creativity and activating of the defense and rotations, like Arvind said. Since the Marlies, Keefe has always been of the mindset that as long as you can cover your spot in the transition back and aren’t putting your teammate in a compromising position, do whatever you want in the offensive zone. It’s really worked well for the Leafs.
On a scale from “can’t stop a beachball” to “Conn Smythe winner,” how confident are you in Frederik Andersen? Can he carry this team on a deep Cup run?
Katya: Ask every person and get a different answer. I’m more chill about the long wavelength of goalie ups and downs than most people are, but I’m happy there is finally a backup who isn’t terrible if something goes wrong. I think Andersen will be fine.
Arvind: He hasn’t had a good year, to say the least. Whether that will carry onto the playoffs is anyone’s guess. I’m not incredibly confident.
Seldo: I’m fine with Andersen in net. I don’t think he’d “carry” the Leafs though. As long as the offense is firing, we’re fine in net.
Fulemin: If he plays to his career level the Leafs are fine. If he plays to his season level Columbus is very probably going to win the qualifying round.
Hardev: He’s healthy and rested, which is all I really need to feel comfortable. Apart from his first year, October Freddy has always been quite good, so if he’s coming into the season cold, it probably works well for him. I’m generally more calm about the net this year because Jack Campbell is such an upgrade on every backup goalie the Leafs have had since Curtis McElhinney.
We all know the big names and big contracts: Tavares, Mathews, Marner, Nylander, Reilly, etc. Who is an under-the-radar player we should pay attention to, and who you think could be a difference maker in this series.
Katya: Ilya Mikheyev has a lot of similarities to Oliver Bjorkstrand with a little Cam Atkinson thrown in, but with less shooting skill. He will play in the top-six for this series, and he is unpredictable and dynamic.
Arvind: Kasperi Kapanen is a bit of a pest and an absolute speed demon. It’s almost a guarantee he’ll get at least one shorthanded breakaway during the series. Whether he puts it away could determine a lot.
Fulemin: You will hear Zach Hyman’s name a lot. He is a relentless forechecker who loves trying to bash the puck in point-blank, and this year it’s actually been going in for him; he was on a 34-goal pace. The Leafs are not a gritty team, but Hyman is a workhorse forward.
Hardev: 18-year-old Nick Robertson is the Leafs second-round pick from the 2019 draft, and he just earned himself a top-nine spot in the lineup after an amazing summer camp and a OHL season where he scored 55 goals. He’s been the most talked-about Leaf since he was confirmed to the summer camp team. If he can hold his own in the playoffs, he’ll be quick and lethal.
Just in general, what is the perception among you and your fanbase about the Blue Jackets? What are the first things that come to mind, and what is your assessment from afar of this season’s team?
Katya: The Leafs fan base fears one thing above all else: defensive teams. Sticks in lanes, hard forechecking and offensive dampening systems make every single fan fear they’re looking at the Bruins all over again. PPP’s fans are starting to think that there’s a bit of a conflation going on between this year’s CBJ squad and last year’s, and they have noticed what’s missing.
Arvind: I think the general idea among Leafs fans of the Blue Jackets is that they have less forward talent than the Leafs, but are super annoying to play against because of how good they are defensively, and how well they pressure and forecheck their opposition. I certainly don’t think anyone is looking to them as an ‘easy’ series, though many feel that if we can’t beat a good, but not amazing team like Columbus, then we have only ourselves to blame.
Seldo: Not to be a jerk, but I don’t think there is much of a perception about the Blue Jackets other than the sweep over Tampa and maybe the cannon? This series will be a learning experience for a lot of Leafs fans.
Fulemin: I get the impression Columbus has had a rough go in trying to keep or support marquee talent going back to Rick Nash. This year they seem like a team that is more than the sum of its parts, and I think John Tortorella (who I honestly thought was near the end of his coaching career when he arrived in Columbus) has done an excellent job with them. There are three teams that seem to especially torment the Leafs style-wise: Boston, St. Louis, and Columbus, and I’ll tell you honestly, I would have preferred to play just about anyone else behind Toronto in the East this year.
Hardev: As an AHL writer, I’ve had more opportunities to see the Cleveland Monsters than the Blue Jackets. Both the Monsters and Marlies had terrible seasons this year, so I feel the pain from the farm team. There’s a rivalry between the two teams, who faced each other in the playoffs last year and games tend to get aggressive and physical quite quickly. They also tended to end up in overtime, funnily enough. I don’t know if any of that will translate, but there are a lot of Marlies on the Leafs right now, and the Marlies coach from the past four and a half seasons is the head coach on the Leafs now (who also played under Tortorella in Tampa Bay). I know the Blue Jackets graduated a fair number of players from last year to this year, and with all the injuries, a lot of the Monsters got ice time in the NHL. I’m kind of expecting the same style of hard, annoying hockey.
Finally, what is your prediction for this series? How do you see it playing out?
Species: Being a Leafs fan has taught me to hope for the best, but plan for the worst. It’s either the Leafs in three, of the Jackets in three. I don’t think there’s a middle ground here. This won’t take five games to be resolved. Whichever team wins Game #1 will sweep the series.
Katya: I keep casting my mind back to how many of the Leafs players showed up on day one of the voluntary training. They had 20 guys in the first week. They had a full complement on day one of training camp. They have their full roster set and ready to go. They are the bull in the shoot ready to burst out and finally play this series. I want to see that rewarded, so I’m saying my crystal ball tells me it will be.
Arvind: Series predictions are tough, because you’re choosing one option among a finite set of options, and a lot of them have similar probability. But if I’m committing to one, I guess I’ll go Leafs in 5, with the caveat that basically no result would surprise me, and I think the Blue Jackets are pretty close to 50/50 to win the series.
Seldo: It’s going to be a close series, going the distance to five games, with at least one overtime. Oh, and one blowout win for Columbus that sends all of Leafs Nation into a depression for three weeks.
Fulemin: Leafs by a hair. I think—sorry—the Leafs have too much of an advantage in their top six, despite my admiration for Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand, and that will narrowly outweigh the things that go in favour of the Jackets. But I doubt there’s a Leaf fan alive who thinks that this will be easy.
Hardev: Lots of overtime.
Species: I hate when there’s lots of overtime.