Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs Will Make the Playoffs … Maybe

If Ben Affleck can start making good movies, the Toronto Maple Leafs can start making the playoffs.
December 6, 2016, 4:24pm
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs will qualify for the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Well, maybe not. It's possible, though, and possibilities are something that have escaped the Leafs and their fans for a long time.

Through a little more than a quarter of the season, we need to accept that the Leafs could reach the postseason, which hadn't been realistic at any point in recent (82-game) seasons. Even in January 2015, when the Leafs were 21-16-3 and occupying a wild-card spot, the idea of the playoffs was so unbelievable that the team fired coach Randy Carlyle.

Now, with the Leafs at 10-9-5 and 13th with 25 points in a much-improved East, it's doable.

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First, we need to move beyond the stigma. It's really easy to look at the standings and let the recent past affect your opinion about the current Leafs. So when you see the well-written headline on this story and think it's clickbait, that's partly because you're imagining either a team that spent all of last season trying to lose or just about any other Toronto team of the past decade.

Remember when Ben Affleck was in movies like Daredevil or Gigli or Jersey Girl or Paycheck or Surviving Christmas or Clerks II? And how as a result, when you saw him in another movie, you blew it off because history told you it would be an unwatchable mess? That 2001-06 run of movies was like the Leafs after the 2004-05 lockout. You have the right to expect a letdown.

Then Affleck made State of Play and you were like, "Huh, this is decent." Then came The Town. And Argo. And now he's freaking Batman for the foreseeable future.

This is the State of Play season for the Leafs, the one that lets you imagine the possibility that you're turning a corner and good things are coming.

Why is this not a Reindeer Games season for Toronto? Look at the numbers.

They are 13th in score-adjusted Fenwick (50.9 percent) and have a 99.5 PDO. Six teams below 50.9 percent qualified for the postseason a year ago, and the PDO says the Leafs are due to grab a few more saves over the rest of the season. The Leafs' current 85-point pace isn't good enough for the postseason but if they start getting a few more bounces, that number is sure to rise.

The biggest roadblock facing the Leafs is all the teams ahead of them. Two of the last three spots in the East belong to the Lightning and the Capitals, two Stanley Cup favorites that are sure to turn things around as the season progresses. The Bruins and the Flyers rank first and sixth, respectively, in score-adjusted Fenwick, which means they are unlikely to collapse. So where's the soft target?

It's in Columbus. The Blue Jackets have 32 points and a game in hand, and while their 101.7 PDO says a correction is coming, they're still playing well enough at five-on-five to minimize any future problems. Eight of the top 13 teams in score-adjusted Fenwick are in the East and six of those teams are ahead of the Leafs.

Hey, I said it's possible for the Leafs to make a run, not likely.

Toronto's goalie situation might keep them out of the playoffs. Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

If they rip off six straight wins, it likely will be because coach Mike Babcock clogged the holes in his porous defense, which is understandably bad but also the difference between finishing 13th and seventh in the East.

The only team allowing more shots than the Leafs is the Coyotes, who are almost definitely in the midst of a secret tank job. Goaltender Frederik Andersen has a .912 percentage, which is about four points below his career average and reflective of a player who has struggled at times this season. But that .912 has more to do with shot volume and the quality of those shots.

The Leafs aren't getting enough saves but, really, they don't need much more than what they've got. Last season's Dallas Stars finished with 109 points despite having two goaltenders who couldn't stop a shot. Andersen is much better than what was offered in Dallas, and Karri Ramo has to be better than the recently waived Jhonas Enroth, so, again, maybe?

With rookies Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner leading the way, the Leafs have the league's fifth-best offense. A team this young also has the built-in possibility of getting much better over the course of a full season.

Through 24 games, the Leafs have been fine. They've been the fun-bad team we expected, but they've also been more than that. They're decent. And with all the numbers and anecdotal evidence saying they have the potential for improvement, a wild-card spot by the skin of their teeth isn't as far-fetched as it seems.

And if they don't do it this year, it could be coming in 2017, along with Justice League, starring Affleck, Henry Cavill, and Amy Adams.

Worst case, you get another Smokin' Aces before the renaissance truly begins.

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