As if the John Tavares signing didn’t blow up Twitter enough July 1, Las Vegas oddsmakers just couldn’t resist hurling an aerosol can in the fire pit. They declared the Toronto Maple Leafs odds-on betting favorites at 7 to 1 for the 2019 Stanley Cup before Tavares even put the cap back on his pen.
Was the sportsbooks’ decision justified or merely tapping into hype? There’s no doubting the Leafs are a contender, as they already were without Tavares. They’re fresh off their highest point total in franchise history, their farmhands won the AHL’s Calder Cup, and a team built around stars barely finished their teenage years stands to keep ascending. Adding an all-world player like Tavares makes a talented team even deadlier.
But if we’re measuring the Leafs as a contender versus the NHL’s other juggernaut squads, how much better did this team get? One of the league’s top offensive centers joins a team that already had the league’s No. 4 offense and No. 2 power play in 2017-18. That’s a case for the law of diminishing returns. Tavares will help the Leafs win games 6-3 instead of 5-3, but he doesn’t excise their warts. Toronto allowed the fourth-most shots in the league at 33.9 and finished 24th in Corsi Against per 60 minutes.
Tavares, a fantastic all-around center, will improve the Leafs’ puck control and defensive play, as he’s an excellent stick checker and puck interceptor and an above-average faceoff man. He finished eighth in Selke Trophy voting in 2016-17. His presence will result in fewer shot attempts on goalie Frederik Andersen. Tavares’ impact, however, won’t be enough to transform the Maple Leafs from a weak defensive team into a strong one. That won’t happen until their blueline improves markedly.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are as talent-rich as Toronto up front, with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point leading the way, but they also offer Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev on defense, with Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. The Leafs got absolutely blitzed with shots by the Boston Bruins, especially the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line, in a first-round playoff loss. Boston arguably offers more roster balance at both ends of the ice right now. So we don’t even know if Toronto will be the best team in its own division, let alone the Eastern Conference, let alone the NHL in 2018-19.
And even if the Leafs emerge from the Atlantic Division, they’ll have to contend with either the still-star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Cup-champion Washington Capitals or the defensively sturdy Columbus Blue Jackets from the Metro.
Where the oddsmakers really have it wrong, though, is in the West. The Winnipeg Jets match the Leafs’ talent at forward as well as any team in the league and boast a dynamite D-corps including Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, with Connor Hellebuyck in net. And why lose faith in the Nashville Predators so quickly? They just won the Presidents’ Trophy, and every member of their elite defense quartet of P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis remains in his 20s.
There’s reason to believe the Leafs will improve defensively under new GM Kyle Dubas, who’s already started making personnel decisions with his unmistakable advanced-stats bent. “Playing the game the right way” gets you nowhere now in Toronto. Bye-bye Roman Polak, Matt Martin and Leo Komarov. Even Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, never known as defensively responsible forwards, have new teams.
The Leafs get a full year of D-man Travis Dermott, who showcased a strong impact on the possession game as a rookie, and it’s a fair guess Dubas will keep pursuing defensive upgrades, be they cheap-sleeper free agent signings or mid-season acquisitions.
For now, if you’re making a futures bet on the Leafs, pick them to lead the NHL in goals. Heck, they should blow enough teams out that they might wind up with their first Presidents’ Trophy. And Tavares should get this team at least to the second or third playoff round. But champions? Not yet. Not while this team is flawed. That’s not a word used to describe truly elite Cup threats.
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.