Between now and the start of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, I'm going to key on a few key concepts that I believe will determine which one of the Columbus Blue Jackets or Toronto Maple Leafs end up surviving their best-of-five showdown.
It's been well documented that the two clubs are built completely differently.
The Blue Jackets have a staunch defense, a stifling forecheck, and an intense work ethic that permeates throughout the lineup. The Maple Leafs rely on a high-flying offense, creating time and space, and overwhelming the opposition in waves.
The Point Hockey's Mike Kelly (@ThePointHockey) is among the best in the business at combining video and data to paint a story. In his must-watch preview below, he examines how some of the Maple Leafs' biggest weaknesses coincide nicely with the strengths of the Blue Jackets (and vice versa). Check out his brief but data-packed clip:
Cycle Woes For Toronto
Per Kelly and data partner Sportlogiq, no team in the NHL has given up more even strength goals (52) off cycles than the Maple Leafs. A cycle, put simply, is an offensive zone possession where the attacking team rotates its players to create movement and confusion. The goal of a cycle is to move the puck from the corner (not dangerous/preferable for defense) to the slot or net-front (dangerous/preferable for offense). It's clearly a weakness that the Blue Jackets will look to exploit, and, luckily enough, they won't have to make drastic adjustments to make that happen.
The Blue Jackets are already, in the words of The Athletic's Justin Bourne, "big and heavy, which means they’ll try to live on the cycle."
While I take a bit of exception to the idea that a "big and heavy" team will employ forwards like Emil Bemstrom, Alexandre Texier, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and potentially guys like Liam Foudy and Nathan Gerbe, his point is well-taken. What the Blue Jackets lack in 'big and heavy' they make up for in tenacity. Their forecheck (which I'll get to) is among the best in the NHL at turning pressure into goals.
Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs' struggles against the cycle stem from several directions, most notably: below average goaltending (per Kelly's video, only five teams in the NHL had a worse goals-against average), a generally unimpressive defense corps, and perhaps its offensive minded stars cheating (even a little bit) for offense. It's also possible that the club is still trying to adjust to the less aggressive style of defensive zone coverage being employed by rookie coach Sheldon Keefe, though it's no longer a small sample size.
Forechecking Prowess For Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets, per Kelly's study, were second in the NHL in scoring chances created off of the forecheck (197) and first in goals created (22). I'll be doing another post in the coming weeks on the Blue Jackets forecheck from a defensive perspective, but for purposes of this article, let's just talk about offense.
That the Blue Jackets are among the best teams in the NHL at turning opponents defensive zone exits into offense is basically the thesis of this series. If the Maple Leafs can break out of their zone efficiently and with speed and numbers, the Blue Jackets could find themselves in real trouble. On the other hand, should the Blue Jackets stymie the Maple Leafs in their own zone, they will have a major advantage.
Putting It Together
I clipped the below video (note: thanks to YouTube user Adam Smith who did the heavy lifting by aggregating the Blue Jackets 2019-20 goals into larger videos. Adam's channel can be found here) to show more than a dozen goals that the Blue Jackets scored this past season on some combination of forecheck, cycle, or both.
Kelly sums it up nicely in his video:
The Blue Jackets do a better job of recovering shot attempts and rebounds than anybody. Forcing Toronto's "D" into quick decisions, combined with getting traffic in front of the net, will be key to creating scoring chances against a team that gives up its fair share. The template is there for Columbus. They did all this against Tampa Bay last year."
The forecheck and the cycle are two distinct concepts, yes, but often times, the lines can be blurred. When the Blue Jackets successfully turn failed breakouts into offensive zone possessions, they often lead to goals.
At least in this domain, advantage, Columbus.