The Toronto Maple Leafs for most of the first half of the regular season have been in a position of having played more games than some of their Eastern Conference competitors, but with the arrival of their bye week and the NHL All-Star break, division rivals like the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning have finally caught up in games played, giving the Leafs a better gauge of how high of a hill they have to climb in the remaining 33 games.
Toronto has played 49 games, and currently the only club ahead of them that has played less is the Lightning at 48. The Panthers made up two games in hand after the Leafs last game Saturday (with one goal victories over Minnesota and Chicago) and have a four-point lead over Toronto for third place in the Atlantic.
Carolina (61 pts), Columbus, and Philadelphia (60 pts) have all played 50 games, giving the Leafs a game in hand to close the gap in the race for one of the two wild card spots.
The dramatic change in Toronto’s fortunes is attributable to their poor defensive play and recent subpar goaltending from Frederik Andersen. The Leafs are 1-3-2 in their last six games, while the Panthers (6 games) and Blue Jackets (5 games) are on long winning streaks and the Flyers and Hurricanes have an over .500 record during that stretch.
The Leafs will have to hit the ground running when they return to action next Monday in Nashville to stay in the playoff race, otherwise they risk falling too far behind to be able to make up the ground over the final two plus months.
In his weekly “31 Thoughts” column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reflects on the recent trade chatter regarding Leafs winger Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen has been connected to recent rumors involving Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev, but the sense around the league is that Toronto GM Kyle Dubas will only move the 23-year-old winger in a big deal that will make the Leafs significantly better.
That would likely rule out a move for a backup goalie or a rental, but would fit in a deal for a controllable defenseman of a similar age and contract status.
Friedman also indicates that the Leafs have been asked about the availability of pending UFA defensemen Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and Jake Muzzin, but their being shopped as rentals would only occur if Toronto falls out of the playoff race and if one of their younger blueliners is capable of handling a top-four spot.
Reports last week indicated that the Leafs and Muzzin’s representatives have had initial talks regarding a contract extension, but his age, along with term and salary demands will be factors in whether those negotiations prove fruitful.
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