Given the parity in today's NHL, the primary goal of every team is to make the playoffs. From there, great goaltending, tight defensive play, timely goal scoring and a good dose of puck luck usually marks the Stanley Cup champion.
With the new playoff format, the top three division finishers get automatic spots. After that, the rest of the conference battles it out for two wild-card spots. Entering Tuesday night's play, the Leafs would be the second wild-card team with a four-point cushion on the third-place wild-card team.
Recent history tells us that it is exceedingly difficult to make up more than a four-point deficit on the eighth spot after the first part of November. Essentially, with the "extra" points available for overtime and shootout losses, teams continue to pick up points even when they don't find the win column.
Of course this applies to all teams, but we don't often see teams' form change drastically by this point in the season. The teams in a playoff spot currently will benefit from this and are likely to continue to have a higher winning percentage.
This factor alone makes the Toronto Maple Leafs a playoff contender. They hold down a spot currently, and history tells us that it will be difficult to remove them from one of the coveted eight spots. This is the first year with the new format though, so it will be interesting to see if form holds.
The schedule also falls in their favour in that they have played a number of Western Conference games, and now have a schedule weighted to playing more Eastern Conference teams, the weaker of the two conferences. Interestingly, the Leafs are one of only five teams to have a winning record against the West to date.
They also have a winning record against the Eastern Conference teams.
Regardless of who they are playing, the Leafs have been outshot and out-chanced on most nights this year. It can be argued that they cannot sustain this over a long period, but they have been doing so for better parts of the past two seasons.
Some of this is personnel (young and inexperienced) with another factor being their style of play. An additional element is the confidence the team has in their goaltending duo of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. Many players on this team take risks that they would not otherwise take if the club had weaker goaltending.
Reimer and Bernier continue to be one of the top duos—if not the top duo—in the NHL right now. The case is stronger if we consider them as a true tandem versus a bonafide starter and clear backup situation as there is in Montreal with Carey Price and Peter Budaj for instance.
The stats also indicate that the Leafs give up the most goals against in the third period. Fitness, attrition and leaning disproportionately on veteran defenders are likely factors here.
However, they have also led a number of games heading into the third period and sport a .786 winning percentage–good for only 23rd place in the NHL. Expect that number to rise as head coach Randy Carlyle will be able to spread his minutes around more evenly as his younger defenders improve their defensive-zone skills.
Finally, the Leafs have been hit hard with several injuries at the forward position. Could it get worse? Yes, it could; but this is unlikely. If the Leafs don't get healthier at the centre ice position in particular, expect general manager Dave Nonis to pick up a veteran centre who can play top-nine minutes.
Are the Maple Leafs Playoff Contenders?
If Dave Bolland can return by early 2014, as some have predicted, and first-line centre Tyler Bozak is also healthy by then, the Leafs should be able to challenge the top teams in the East in the final two or three months of the regular season.
There is a lot of hockey to be played, and Toronto fans can expect the Leafs to be a playoff contender in the spring of 2014.