NHL Push for the Playoffs: Maple Leafs have strength beyond Matthews, Marner

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2021-22 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

Every year, usually after the latest postseason exit, there always seems to be a discussion about whether or not the Toronto Maple Leafs need to trade one of their core players. Either to shake things up and change the structure of the roster, or because of something salary cap related to allow them to build a more well rounded teama.

In Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander the Maple Leafs have a quartet of players that take up nearly $40 million in salary cap space, with Matthews, Marner, and Tavares each counting more than $10 million per year against the cap individually.

It is a lot, but it is not all that different from a lot of other Stanley Cup winning (or contending) teams. Good teams have multiple great players, great players cost money, and it forces them to get creative in building a roster around them. The best teams figure it out.

All things considered, the Maple Leafs have done a pretty good job. Matthews and Marner obviously get most of the headlines here because of their contracts and production (both are among the top offensive players in the league every year) but this current roster has become so much more than that top duo. Toronto’s front office has actually done a really solid job building a deep, well-rounded team around them even with the salary cap constraints.

A couple of weeks ago our James O’Brien already looked how this team is better defensively than it gets credit for being, and that group was strengthened at the trade deadline with the addition of Mark Giordano from Seattle. But they have also managed to build a pretty deep forward group around their big-four.

For example: Did you know that when none of the Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares quartet is on the ice the Maple Leafs not only outshoot and out chance their opponents, they also outscore them? That is the sign of a pretty deep hockey team, and it’s been pieced together through trades, shrewd free agent signings, and some strong player development.

Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds have been very solid depth additions on the cheap in recent years, while they also got one of the biggest steals in free agency this offseason by signing Michael Bunting to a two-year contract that only pays him $900,000 per year. After a promising debut in Arizona a year ago, Bunting was not given a qualifying offer by the Coyotes and allowed to become an unrestricted free agent. All he has done in Toronto is have a massive breakout year that has seen him make a push for 25 goals and 65 points while also put him into the Calder Trophy discussion. They also took a chance on Ondrej Kase, signing him to a one-year, $1.25 million contract. Before his injury more than a month ago he had scored 14 goals in 50 games. That means between Bunting and Kase they snagged nearly 40 goals in free agency for just a little more than $2 million.

Combined with their superstars it has helped the Maple Leafs put together the best regular season in franchise history (despite some major goaltending struggles) and have one of the league’s best teams.

They still have to win in the playoffs, at least a round, for anybody to really care about it (that is just the reality of the situation) and to avoid the yearly “who should they trade?” discussion, but it is still as deep and well rounded of a team as there is in the NHL right now.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY (sorted by points percentage)

ATLANTIC DIVISION
Panthers vs. Capitals
Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

METROPOLITAN DIVISION
Hurricanes vs. Bruins
Rangers vs. Penguins

CENTRAL DIVISION
Avalanche vs. Stars
Wild vs. Blues

PACIFIC DIVISION
Flames vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Kings

TODAY’S KEY GAMES

Lightning vs. Panthers, 7 p.m. ET
Wild vs. Predators, 8 p.m. ET
Sharks vs. Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Panthers – clinched No. 1 seed in Eastern Conference
Maple Leafs – clinched
Lightning – clinched
Bruins – clinched
Red Wings – eliminated
Sabres – eliminated
Senators – eliminated
Canadiens – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Hurricanes – clinched
Rangers – clinched
Penguins – clinched
Capitals – clinched
Islanders – eliminated
Blue Jackets – eliminated
Flyers – eliminated
Devils – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Avalanche – clinched No. 1 seed in Western Conference
Wild – clinched
Blues – clinched
Predators – 93.6%
Stars – 80.6%
Jets – eliminated
Blackhawks – eliminated
Coyotes – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Flames – clinched Pacific Division
Oilers – clinched
Kings – 99.2%
Golden Knights – 26.5%
Canucks – 0%
Ducks – eliminated
Sharks – eliminated
Kraken – eliminated

draft lottery
Getty Images

DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE (via Tankathon)

18.5% – Canadiens
13.5% – Coyotes
11.5% – Kraken
9.5% – Flyers
8.5% – Devils
7.5% – Blackhawks (*conditional)
6.5% – Senators
6.0% – Red Wings
5.0% – Sabres
3.5% – Ducks
3.0% – Sharks
2.5% – Blue Jackets
2.0% – Islanders
1.5% – Jets
0.5% – Canucks
0.5% – Golden Knights (*conditional)

“Beginning this season there will be a limit on the total number of selections (10) a team participating in the lottery can move up in the event it wins one of the lottery draws, a change announced by the NHL on March 23, 2021. Only the top 11 seeds will be eligible to receive the No. 1 selection in the 2022 draft.”

The 2022 NHL Draft Lottery drawing will be held May 10

ART ROSS TROPHY RACE

Connor McDavid, Oilers – 116 points
Jonathan Huberdeau, Panthers – 114
Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – 111
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 107
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs- 102
Matthew Tkachuk, Flames – 101
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 101

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 58 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 54
Chris Kreider, Rangers – 51
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 50
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 45
Kyle Connor, Jets – 44
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 43

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Push for the Playoffs: Maple Leafs have strength beyond Matthews, Marner originally appeared on NBCSports.com