With season officially done, Leafs can look ahead to possible return, Columbus series — Toronto Sun

Rick Vaive’s Maple Leafs record is safe. Read More

With season officially done, Leafs can look ahead to possible return, Columbus series — Toronto Sun
By Terry Koshan

Rick Vaive’s Maple Leafs record is safe.

For now.

With the news — which was expected — on Tuesday afternoon that the 2019-20 National Hockey League regular season is over, Auston Matthews’ charge for the Leafs’ franchise goal-scoring mark will have to wait until the 2020-21 season.
Vaive’s 54 goals in 1981-82 will remain the most in team history.

When the NHL went on pause on March 12, Matthews had 47 goals in 70 games, with 50 a true probability and a shot at Vaive’s record perhaps a little more difficult.

Matthews will score 50 at some point, and we would bet he eventually breaks Vaive’s record. And not that Matthews would require it, but he can take solace in the fact he led the Leafs in scoring with 80 points, the first time since he was an NHL rookie in 2016-17 that he finished a season as the Leafs’ scoring champ. In the two seasons in between, Mitch Marner led the Leafs in scoring. Count on one of the two finishing atop the Leafs for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, the confirmation of the conclusion of the regular season was one of several highlights in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s return-to-play announcements from the comfort of his own home on Tuesday. In a following interview on the Tim & Sid Show on Sportsnet, Bettman said there’s “light at the end of the tunnel” for the NHL as it puts plans in place to return in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

It’s expected the NHL will begin Phase 2 of the return to play in early June, with players moving back to their home facilities for voluntary, small-group, on- and off-ice training.

Phase 3, if the green light is given by medical and civil authorities, would include formal training camps, but not earlier than the first half of July.

Phase 4 would include what players and fans have been pining for since the NHL went on pause on March 12: The competition for the Stanley Cup with 12 teams in two hub cities, of which Toronto remains one of 10 in contention.

Bettman stressed the health and safety of players and club personnel was paramount, and the timing for the start of Phase 4 is to be determined.

Of course, the plans to return to play are at the whim of the coronavirus. It could be that we don’t see the NHL again until the start of the 2020-21 season, and there’s no certainty as to when that would be.

Let’s assume the NHL’s plans fall into place as the league hopes, even if there are moving dates on the calendar.

Toronto ended the season with a record of 36-25-9 for 81 points, including going 27-15-5 under Sheldon Keefe after the firing of Mike Babcock last November.

The Leafs, seeded eighth in the Eastern Conference based on points percentage, indeed, would play the ninth-seed Columbus Blue Jackets in the play-in qualifying round, with the best-of-five representing the first post-season matchup of the teams.

To put it simply, the series would pit the Leafs’ high-octane offence (their 3.39 goals a game was third in the NHL) against the Blue Jackets’ stifling, nose-to-the-grindstone defence (their 2.61 goals-against a game tied for third-fewest in the NHL).

We wouldn’t want to take anything away from Keefe, but the Jackets would have an edge behind the bench in coach John Tortorella, considering his NHL experience compared to Keefe (1,327), but we would take Frederik Andersen over Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo in goal.

Both teams would be close to full health, and for Toronto, getting defenceman Jake Muzzin and forward Ilya Mikheyev, who were injured when the season was paused, back for the penalty-kill would be crucial.

The Leafs and Jackets were to play each other on March 21 for the third and final time of the season. They met twice, with each team winning once, but not since Oct. 21.

Individually, the Leafs had some good things going for them when play was halted. Matthews was Matthews; Marner wound up with 67 points in 59 games, and captain John Tavares finished with 60 points in 63 games, giving him 148 in 145 in his first two seasons with Toronto. William Nylander and Zach Hyman shone, and Rasmus Sandin was taking steps on the blue line.

The final dozen games, record-wise, summed up the Leafs’ season to a degree. There were inconsistencies as they went 6-5-1, winning their final game against Tampa Bay after going 0-2-1 on a three-game trip through California that produced only three goals.

We buy into what many players have said during the past two months — that teams that are the youngest and most-skilled would have the best shot out of the gate. The Leafs would glide effortlessly into that category.

Now let’s keep our fingers crossed that the NHL positives revealed on Tuesday become reality in the coming months.

tkoshan@postmedia.com

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