The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a long, tough grind. To be the team who wins the last game of the season, you not only need your stars to shine, but also contributions from further down the lineup. Can the Toronto Maple Leafs find this much needed production from their depth?
Just look at recent Cup winners if you doubt the importance of depth. The Tampa Bay Lightning had an insane amount of depth both on forward and on the back-end. Ditto for the Blues and Capitals before them. Even when you go back further to the run of Stanley Cups for the Kings (x2), Blackhawks (x2), and Penguins (x2) between 2012 and 2017, those teams obviously possessed elite talent at the top of the lineup, but had crucial performances from players further down the lineup.
Let’s face it, when teams go into the playoffs they have a full scouting report on their opposition, and are going to game plan to shut down the opposing teams’ best players. This makes the importance of these “X-factors” come playoff time gigantic.
For the Lightning, the “X-factor” was the leap made by Brayden Point from star to superstar, as well as a great deadline pickup in Blake Coleman, who penalty killed and forechecked like a madman. For the Blues, it was Patrick Maroon coming up big in big moments and an insurgent Jordan Binnington that took them over the top.
After a couple of years learning from Mr. Game 7 himself, Lars Eller stepped up into the 2nd line centre role for the Capitals in 2018 when Nicklas Backstrom missed four games and played some of the best hockey of his life. Then of course there was Tom Wilson, Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly who set the tone with their grittiness, not to mention Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen on the defense.
Even the top-heavy Penguins found key contributors in the bottom of their lineups in 2016 and 2017. In 2016 it was Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino who helped support Crosby, Malkin, Letang and the Penguins stars. In 2017, it was the ability to get key minutes from Ron Hainsey (21:07), Ian Cole (18:50) and Olli Maatta (20:37) which supported their stars (stats via HockeyReference). Not to mention the goaltending duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray.
The lesson from all this? In order to succeed in the NHL Playoffs, a team needs to have players who can step up and play an important role when called upon.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had shades of it last season, with Nick Robertson providing a short-lived spark and Jason Spezza getting into a fight to ignite a miraculous comeback, but there was not consistent support from the bottom of the lineup. To win in the NHL Playoffs, you can’t wait until your back is against the wall to play desperate. Will any of the new additions to the lineup add the support necessary for a long run in the 2021 NHL Playoffs?