One of the perks, one could surmise, of playing in the hockey-mad mecca of Toronto, is the incredible amount of attention it attracts.
No offense to Rick Nash or Artemi Panarin or Seth Jones any other Blue Jackets' star of past of present, but I'd wager that they could walk down High St. in the Short North and go relatively under the radar. Just the other day, "roughly 30" people showed up to watch the Blue Jackets scrimmage themselves. This type of thing is foreign in Toronto. Just ask Maple Leafs' legend Mats Sundin.
Of course, that all comes with a price. "With great power comes great responsibility", that's what Peter Parker and Stan Lee taught us in Spider-Man, and it applies to the current Toronto Maple Leafs in spades.
The Maple Leafs, like the Blue Jackets, has now qualified for the playoffs (yes, the qualifying round is a playoff, like it or not, NHL) for the fourth consecutive season. Unlike the Blue Jackets, however, the Maple Leafs have failed to get out of the first round on all four occasions (in fact, the last time Toronto advanced in a playoff series was 2004).
At first, there was patience. The Maple Leafs hit on William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews at the top of back-to-back-to-back drafts. The Maple Leafs won the coaching sweepstakes to hire Mike Babcock. Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, Lou Lamoriello, etc were hired to the front office and executive staff. Toronto was on the verge of becoming a powerhouse.
Except they weren't. They've finished third in a hyper-competitive Atlantic Division the past three seasons. The past two years, their reward has been the Boston Bruins, who both times vanquished the Maple Leafs in T.D. Garden in a pivotal Game 7. They've been close, sure, but close isn't good enough in that market.
This level of talent and the repeated playoff appearances now comes with the expectations for playoff success. Now, the pressure is there, both organizationally and individually. Babcock lost his job earlier this year, giving way to a rookie head coach. Lamoriello moved on to the New York Islanders in 2018. The list of players that carry heavy expectations into this series is basically a list of players on the Maple Leafs, plus whichever goaltender starts in net for the Blue Jackets. Here are a few that stand out:
- Frederick Andersen - Per EditorInLeaf, "Andersen has allowed three or more goals in 13 of his 20 playoff starts in Toronto, including four of those games in which he allowed five or more goals". Andersen will be a UFA after next season, and it's fair to wonder if he'll continue to call Toronto home if he continues his struggles in the postseason.
- Tyson Barrie - Barrie was part of the blockbuster that sent Nazem Kadri to the Colorado Avalanche last summer. The 28-year old is an impending UFA who had a rocky start to the season in Toronto. Nobody will confuse him with a shutdown defender, and it will be interesting to see how the Toronto media perceives his play in this series.
- The Big Four - Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and John Tavares make up $40.5M AAV, per CapFriendly. That's literally half the salary cap divvied up by four players who, haven't shown sustained success in the postseason. On the one hand, they're young (except Tavares), and I get that. On the other, patience has worn thin.
As a franchise, the Blue Jackets aren't exactly a perennial success story, as it took the better part of 20 years to get out of the first round of the playoffs. But for the youngest team in the tournament, a year after shocking the world and then hanging tight with the Bruins, and losing arguably their three top players to free agency, this team has done well to even be playing next month. That isn't to say there aren't expectations. If the Blue Jackets flop, people will question John Tortorella's goaltending decisions, a meek power-play, etc.
But whatever pressure the Blue Jackets may face pales in comparison to that of Toronto.