While it’s true that the Toronto Maple Leafs need to focus on finally finding a way to break through the First Round, with the hope of extending this run all the way to the league’s peak, it’s relevant to reflect on the teams they’ll get to avoid along the way. Ironically, the organizations they would have feared facing the most are far from the ones that scare the rest of the NHL.
It might seem like a stretch to call a First Round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning advantageous, but the fact that Toronto was able to split the season series with the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions suggests a more fortuitous probability than the one in place if they were up against any of these particular franchises.
Sharing more than just a commonality that each ended 2021-22 with a winning record against the Maple Leafs, these three organizations also happen to be among the half of the league already on the outside looking in this postseason.
Coyotes Cast Season-Long Dry Spell
Whenever there seems to be a storyline that surrounds the Arizona Coyotes, rarely is it one centred around success. Whether it’s relocation rumours, personnel issues, or performance failures, this club just can’t seem to catch a break. Despite enjoying some rookie performances that should spark optimism in their fanbase, like the one Karel Vejmelka was able to string together, the Coyotes still finished in second-last overall.
Good thing they had the chance to play the Maple Leafs twice in 2021-22, since it offered them a couple of opportunities to justify dramatic defeats. Yet, rather than following what should have been a Toronto-dominant script, the Coyotes chose to confuse matters by outplaying the Atlantic Division’s second seed.
In fact, Toronto was only able to muster up one point against Arizona this past season and it was thanks to an overtime loss.
Regardless of their lack of overall output, the Coyotes should find some comfort in having achieved a 2-0-0 record against the Maple Leafs. Toronto was one of only four teams across the league that went winless against Arizona throughout 2021-22. The other three didn’t make the playoffs.
Sabres Make Success Seem Difficult
It’s not as though the Buffalo Sabres entered 2021-22 with the highest of expectations placed upon them, but they are also not a city simply willing to raise a white flag before attempting the battle. The drama surrounding Jack Eichel certainly didn’t help them maintain any early-season focus, either.
After coming out of the gate hot, riding a three-game winning streak, they went on to lose seven of their next nine. The latter pattern persisted from there forward.
Eichel ended up being traded fairly early on in the season, so that can’t be looked at as a lasting distraction. Yet, his former franchise never found a way to snowball enough success to make a true push into playoff position.
However, that certainly didn’t stop them from playing up to their cross-border rival. Regardless of where either lineup lands in the standings when they meet, a Buffalo and Toronto matchup rarely lacks passion. It was no different this season. The Sabres accumulated a 3-1-0 record against the Maple Leafs through 2021-22, outscoring the league’s second-most potent team 19-10. And they didn’t even need Eichel to earn any of them.
Canucks Battle to Be Canada’s Team
Objective onlookers can comfortably attest to the fact that Toronto garners the vast majority of Canada’s national hockey coverage. There are certainly a number of justifiable reasons as to why. They’ve had over 100 years to accumulate a following, so their spotlight will reflect that reality. Just don’t try to explain that to Vancouver Canucks supporters, as their bias demands more attention than they typically attract.
Beyond beginning every season with the same goal as the rest of the NHL, it’s safe to assume that the Canucks are always looking to become more readily recognized across Canada. Although ending the 2020-21 campaign at the bottom of the North Division didn’t do them any favours in that regard, it certainly worked to propel their aggressive offseason efforts.
Unfortunately, Vancouver didn’t start winning until it was a little too late into their 2021-22 calendar. Only collecting eight victories through their first 25 contests built a hill that was too high to overcome the rest of the way. Interestingly, having collected a record of 9-3-5 against their Canadian counterparts, it’s safe to say the Canucks would have welcomed another year of playing in the North Division.
Most impressive in that respect, Vancouver handed Toronto two of their only 21 losses this season while not allowing Canada’s top team through 2021-22 to earn a single point the other way. It may not have been the type of campaign the Canucks were hoping for when it began, but there’s no doubt that going 2-0-0 and scoring an average of over four goals per game against the Maple Leafs is a welcomed consolation prize the country’s most western franchise.
Toronto Needs to Focus on the First Round
While one can argue that Toronto — one of 2021-22’s most dominant rosters — was merely caught playing down to these specific underdogs, that doesn’t bode well for a team attempting to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Sure, having won far more often than not this year meant that the Maple Leafs earned the luxury of being able to rebound with a fresh start following every upset. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that they allowed these defeats to occur in the first place.
Toronto certainly deserves kudos for all they achieved this season, including having secured home-ice advantage to kickstart the playoffs. However, they could have also added a Presidents’ Trophy to their accomplishments, if not for their cumulative record of 1-6-1 against Arizona, Buffalo, and Vancouver.
Fortunately, for the Maple Leafs, their potential path toward the league’s most coveted award won’t include having to pass through any of those cities.
Freelance thinker, paying too much attention to digital aesthetic. Oxford comma enthusiast. Spider-Man supporter. Sports fan, with two favourite hockey teams. If the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs ever meet in the Stanley Cup Final, you can find me wherever they’re playing that night.