5 Maple Leafs Who Could be Difference Makers in the Playoffs


The Toronto Maple Leafs are about to break an almost two-decade drought. They are going to win a first-round series of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2004.

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Here are five players we believe are going to be the difference makers. We believe they will play major roles in the Maple Leafs finally playing more than just seven games in the postseason.

Ryan O’Reilly

Let’s face it. The 2022-23 season was not a great one for Ryan O’Reilly. He scored 16 goals and added 14 assists (for a total of 30 points) in 53 games this season. Overall he was a minus-21 in the plus/minus column.

Ryan O'Reilly Toronto Maple Leafs
Ryan O’Reilly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

However, if we break his season into two parts, there’s a huge difference in his success. First, we’ll separate the time he spent with the St. Louis Blues, a team that has slipped into mediocrity after hoisting the Stanley Cup four seasons ago. Second, we’ll look at his time with the Maple Leafs following his acquisition by Toronto in the middle of February. We see two different players. 

With the Blues, O’Reilly scored 12 goals and added seven assists (for a total of 19 points) in 40 games. He then scored four goals and added seven assists (for a total of 11 points) in just 13 games for the Maple Leafs.  

Related: With Ryan O’Reilly Maple Leafs Bring In Postseason Success

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Projecting his scoring pace to 82 games, with St. Louis, O’Reilly was a 24-goal, 39-point player. With Toronto, he was a 30-goal, 69-point player. He had a dismal minus-24 rating in 40 games for the Blues; but, he turned that into a plus-3 rating in 13 games with the Maple Leafs. 

It could be said the difference is that O’Reilly is surrounded by much better talent with the Maple Leafs than he was with the Blues; and, that would be true. It could also be said that O’Reilly and his talents are a much better fit for the Maple Leafs.  

Looking back at Phil Kessel when he was with Toronto, he was expected to carry more of a load with the Maple Leafs because they lacked top-end talent. When Kessel went to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was used further down the lineup. His level of play was much better suited to that role. It worked. He probably should have won at least one Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. 

Phil Kessel, Thomas Greiss
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Phil Kessel gets the puck behind New York Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

O’Reilly has already won a Conn Smythe playing the top-player role of a Stanley Cup winner. He’s highly motivated to do the same thing in a lesser role with the Maple Leafs. 

We expect he’ll be utilized on both the second line with top talented wingers and on the third line with solid defensive wingers against the Lightning. We expect he will be a difference-maker in both of those roles.

Jake McCabe

When Jake Muzzin was healthy he was the Maple Leafs’ best defenseman. He was a step down (albeit a small step) from Morgan Rielly offensively. However, at the same time, he was vastly superior defensively.  

Defensively he was physical, blocked shots, and gave opposing players fits. Offensively, he had a great first pass out of the defensive zone, had a booming shot from the point, and was smart with the puck. In his later years, his problem was staying healthy, especially around playoff time.  

Related: Phil Kessel – Biography

Muzzin is now officially diagnosed to have a cervical spine injury. Odds are the injury will end Muzzin’s career. With that in mind, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas acquired defenseman Jake McCabe, along with forward Sam Lafferty, from the Chicago Blackhawks. 

McCabe might not have the offensive credentials that Muzzin had. However, defensively he was as close to a clone of Muzzin as it gets. While McCabe is not as big as Muzzin, he’s just as physical. He’s also just as adept at blocking shots. 

While he might not put up much in the way of production, we have seen that McCabe is smart with the puck. He makes safe clean plays with it, and gets it out of the zone efficiently. 

After a feeling-out process where head coach Sheldon Keefe utilized McCabe up and down the lineup, it appears that he will be half of the Maple Leafs’ shutdown pair in the playoffs. As such, he’ll be tasked with facing Tampa Bay’s top guns in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Jake McCabe Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake McCabe, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Despite having played over 500 games in the NHL, McCabe has never played a single playoff game. We expect he will be motivated and excited to finally get that chance.

Ilya Samsonov

Ilya Samsonov just had the best regular season of his career. He posted the most wins (27), the best winning percentage (.738), the best save percentage (.919), and the best goals-against-average (2.33) that he’s ever had in a single season. 

We expect that to carry over into the postseason. Not only does his confidence level seem at its peak, but the skaters in front of him are playing sound defensive hockey. Both place Samsonov in a position to succeed.   

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Successful teams in hockey always have a strong symbiotic relationship between their skaters and their goalie. They trust that each other will be there to cover for them if they make a mistake. Samsonov definitely seems to have that relationship with his teammates. 

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner

We lumped Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner together because they’re the driving force of this team. They’ve paid their dues, have had their failures, and have taken their lumps. We’ve watched them become men. They’re ready to take the next step.

When they first stepped on the ice for the Maple Leafs, their raw offensive talent was obvious. They have not only maintained those offensive abilities but they’ve refined them and expanded upon them.  

Auston Matthews Mitch Marner Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner Celebrate a Goal (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

More importantly, they’ve learned how to play defense, and how to become complete 200-foot players. Both could receive some recognition for the Selke Trophy this season.

They’ve had a year to prepare for this moment. We predict they will be ready. 

Maple Leafs Difference Maker Off The Ice: Sheldon Keefe

Those are the five players we predict will play key roles in ending the Maple Leafs’ 19-year playoff drought. But, there’s one more person we predict will be a key figure. That’s head coach Sheldon Keefe.

He’s taken a direction this season much earlier than we’ve ever seen before. Rather than deciding weeks ago what his lines will be, and who will play with whom, Keefe has constantly mixed things up. As a result, the forwards can intermix with each other fluidly, and the defensemen have experience playing with multiple partners.  

Related: Remembering Maple Leafs Tough Guy Jim Dorey

There’s no way the Lightning coaching staff can possibly know ahead of time what the lines will be for the Maple Leafs and how to defend against them. People who follow the team day in and day out don’t have any idea what the lines and pairings will look like when they each take their first shifts on Tuesday. By their third or fourth shifts, they might look completely different. 

The Bottom Line for the Maple Leafs

It was no secret that success or failure this season will be decided in the playoffs. The Maple Leafs have had a year to prepare for this moment. How ready will they be? How successful will they be? We’ll know the answer in two weeks or less.

How confident are we? Let’s just say the Maple Leafs won’t have to worry about winning or losing a Game 7. We don’t believe this series will get that far.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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