Comparing the Elite Forwards on the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Blue Jackets

RALEIGH, NC - NOVEMBER 24: Scott Darling
RALEIGH, NC - NOVEMBER 24: Scott Darling /

If the NHL does resume, it appears that the Toronto Maple Leafs will have to fight their way to the playoffs with a five game series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

As I wrote the other day, the Toronto Maple Leafs stack up well against the Blue Jackets.

The Leafs – despite injuries, learning a new system, and the worst season of Freddie Andersen’s career – underperformed this year relative to not only expectations, but also relative their team stats.

A deep dive into the Leafs reveals a team that didn’t get the results their play deserved, and with their main problems likely behind them, they figure to be a much better team than the 8th overall they finished under Sheldon Keefe.

The Blue Jackets lost Artemi Panarin last season- arguably the NHL’s best player –   then also faced quite the run of injuries.  Fortunately for them, their injuries led to the discovery of goalie Elvis Merzlikens, and the 5th best 5v5 save percentage in the NHL.

I think it’s fair to say that injuries impacted the Blue Jackets this season, but the difference between them and the Leafs is that the Jacket’s goaltending outperformed expectations so much that it didn’t really matter – if they had a perfectly healthy team but got only the goaltending they were expecting when the season started, they would have finished lower in the standings than they did.

The Leafs on the other-hand massively outperformed their goaltending,  despite the injuries.  The stats show that a healthy Toronto Maple Leafs team with even league-average goaltending would slice through the NHL like a hot knife through butter.

Anyhow, today we will look at the Blue Jackets Forwards to see how many elite players they have.  In the NHL, the team with the most elite players has the best chance to win.

Blue Jackets Forwards

The Blue Jackets have one forward who is elite, and two who are pretty good.

The best forward on Columbus – by a lot – is Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Bjorkstrand scored just 36 points in 49 games, but 27 of those were at 5v5.  He scored at a rate of 2.25 points per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time, which is solid first line production.

For reference Matthews scored at a rate of 2.34 P/60 and had a Hart Trophy-worthy season. (allstats

Bjorkstrand had an absolutely insane expected-goals percentage of 60% as well as elite numbers across the board.  It would not be out of line to say that he was among the best forwards in the NHL this season.

He is having a superior season to both Marner and Tavares, but I think if he was on the Leafs he’d still be #5 in the pecking order. (That is to say that, despite his amazing season, I wouldn’t bet that Bjorkstrand will continue to outperform Mitch Marner or John Tavares).

Cam Atkinson scored 40 goals last year, but this year he dropped off significantly, scoring just 12 goals and 26 points in 44 games.  I would suspect a large portion of that drop off comes from no longer playing with Artemi Panarin who is so good “elite” doesn’t really do it justice, but some of the drop just comes from bad luck.  He still put up solid – if not quite elite numbers.

Without the elite goal totals, he’s barely comparable to Zach Hyman (which isn’t an insult, it’s just saying he’d be like 6 or 7 on the Toronto Maple Leafs depth chart).

The next best player (and he’s arguably better than Atkinson) is Pierre-Luc Dubois. He’s 21 and could one day be an elite player.  His numbers are good, and he already probably a legitimate first liner, scoring over 2 points/60 and putting up solid expected goals numbers, but again, he is, at best, the 5th best forward on the Leafs (assuming he’s better than Hyman).

With Bjorkstrand, Atkinson, and Dubois, the Blue Jackets could put together a completely awesome first line.

With Alex Wenberg, Josh Anderson, Eric Robinson, Riley Nash, Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno, the Jackets have decent depth, but overall, their forward group is nothing special,

None of these players would usurp a position from a healthy Toronto Maple Leafs third line featuring Andreas Johnsson, Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen.  If Johnson is injured and Pierre Engvall is the next option, then one of those guys could (maybe) play on Toronto’s third line.

Ultimately the Blue Jackets have one player – Bjorkstrand – who is definitely elite, and the Leafs have four (Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Matthews).

The second and third best Columbus forwards would be in competition with Zach Hyman for being Toronto’s fifth best forward, were any of them on this team.

The Jackets have some nice depth pieces (Robinson, Nash) but they have too many of the type of mid-range players that NHL teams should avoid so that they can pump their money into star players.

The Jackets are paying over $20 million to Foligno, Atkinson, Wenberg and Gustav Nyquist.  It’s got to be one of the worst ways an NHL team is currently spending money.

Of the seven forwards on their roster not on an entry-level deal, exactly one of them (Bjorkstrand) is worth the money he is being paid.

In a line match-up situation , the Leafs first line destroys their first line, the Leafs second line destroys their second line, and so on and so fourth.

In terms of comparison, at least among playoffs teams, the Blue Jackets probably have the weakest forward group.  They may have more depth than other teams, but with only one elite forward, the end up on the short end up of a matchup against any team in the revamped NHL playoffs.

Next. Most Underrated Leafs Players of All-Time. dark

The Leafs have – at worst – the the #2 group of forwards in hockey.  Columbus has Oliver Bjorkstrand.