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About a month ago, analytics tracking company SportsLogIQ tweeted out some compelling information on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ability to break out of their own zone.

This information should not be too surprising to anyone. While Toronto is an elite offensive team, they are 19th in goals against per game, tied for 27th in shots against per game, and 28th in scoring chances against per 60 according to Corsica.

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The primary reason for this — and it’s alluded to in the numbers — is that Toronto dumps the puck out a lot. This is a trait that has become a bit of a trend with fast, skilled teams in the league. The Rangers do it often while trying to create neutral zone races and space off the rush, and it’s now something Pittsburgh and Montreal do frequently as well.

An easy example is this Mitch Marner goal against Florida where JVR gets the puck and simply chips out to the general area of Marner, who blew the zone to create a race.

Another example is this recent Mitch Marner goal against the Washington Capitals, where Jake Gardiner throws it up the wall, Bozak basically just fires it over into the area of JVR and Marner, and Toronto scores a breakaway goal.

The question for Toronto will be whether they can sustain their current offensive pace with this long-bomb style of hockey down the stretch. While it is true that the Leafs are a solid possession team at the moment (sitting 15th in the league), DragLikePull showed how their numbers cratered in November when they faced stiffer competition:

Here is Toronto’s CF% numbers in each month of this season, as well as the average CF% of their opponents:

MonthCF%Opp CF%
Oct53.250.5
Nov47.651.3
Dec52.648.7

The results rebounded significantly in December, when the Leafs played the bottom two Corsi teams (ARI and COL) each twice in December, as well as a game against the Canucks, who are only just barely out of the bottom five. Toronto’s possession share fell pretty drastically in November at the same time that their quality of competition rose considerably.  November saw the Leafs play five of the top six possession teams in the league (LAK, NSH, MTL, WSH, FLA) as well as #8 (CAR) and #10 (EDM).

One reason I believe this is happening is that the Leafs struggle to break out of their zone cleanly. While their natural skill can sometimes overcome broken zone exits, good teams make them pay for turning it over in the neutral zone.

Let’s take a look at some examples to paint a picture of the issues.

 

Here we see four dump outs in about a minute of play with Leaf players consistently blowing the zone. On the first, Kadri picks up the puck after some sound defensive zone coverage leads to a turnover. He is pressured almost immediately. Leo Komarov is already at center and William Nylander is in the process of blowing the zone. It’s designed to open up space, but really it’s setting up turnover scenarios.

When the puck does enter the neutral zone and Tampa retrieves it, Matt Hunwick now has a chance with the puck and a wide open partner on a regroup. He elects to fire it immediately off the boards and out. Another turnover. When Tampa dumps it back in, this time it’s Connor Carrick’s turn. With a wide-open Hunwick available, he shoots it out with a long bomb pass that doesn’t work. Another turnover.

After more offensive pressure by Tampa, JVR picks up the puck. It looks just like the Kadri dump out and results in another turnover. In one minute, we see four “shoot outs” that all result in turnovers. These are little plays that can tilt the ice and hand the other team possession.

 

Here against Florida are two more quick shoot outs. On the first one, Rielly has more time than he thinks and a partner he can move the puck to, but he instantly shoots it out. When the puck is dumped back in, Rielly goes d-to-d and Gardiner’s winger outlet blows the zone to center ice, where the puck is shot to.

Continue watching the video and we also see some of the ability of the Leafs at play. They are still able to create a turnover despite the broken breakout, and they actually end up drawing a powerplay at the end of the shift. A weird series of events happened shortly after that drawn penalty: William Nylander ended up scoring on a 4v3. A clear out resulted in a goal because of the Leafs’ skill in this case.

Every team inevitably has to use the glass and flip pucks out of their zone. It’s an unavoidable part of hockey. For Toronto, it will be about reducing the times they have to resort to it. We can expect that they will as they gain more experience as a collective unit.

Oftentimes, it is little plays like this transition below, where Rielly and Zaitsev get the puck with one time and one forechecker. They go d-to-d, and Rielly doesn’t come underneath to support after making the pass. Suddenly, Zaitsev is closed off and has to dump the puck out.

 

It’s important to keep in mind that the oldest defenseman in the Leafs’ top four is Jake Gardiner at 26. The next oldest is a 25-year-old rookie in Nikita Zaitsev. The old cliché is that it takes 300 games for NHL defensemen to settle in, and Gardiner is the only one in the top four who has passed that mark (Rielly will later this season). While part of it seems to be strategic, the team is also a little trigger happy when it comes to shooting the puck out once pressured.

While there are some similarities to the run-and-gun Leafs of a few years ago, there are too many differences to make a fair comparison or forecast that the 18 wheeler is headed for the cliff’s edge:

  1. The Leafs are good enough to sustain pressure in the offensive zone, which is why they are third in the league in shots-per-game and are 15th in corsi-for percentage.
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  2. They have legitimate scoring depth. The Leafs have three lines producing at high levels with each unit possessing a potential 30-goal threat (Kadri, JVR and Matthews).
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  3. They make long stretch passes, but they try to make a play after completing them, as opposed to the long bomb pass and deflection dump-in that Toronto used to practice under Randy Carlyle.
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  4. The Leafs have received high-end goaltending for the past few months.

With Florida and Tampa Bay (surprisingly) struggling this season, the door is wide open for Toronto to make the playoffs. As the games tighten up down the stretch, though, this is the kind of on-ice play that can create issues. Any sort of stumble in performance from Frederik Andersen, or a ‘rookie wall’ hitting any of Toronto’s big three, will make it very difficult to overcome the shots and scoring chances the Leafs give up on a regular basis.

Part 2 of the Leafs Notebook including Notes, Quotes, and 5 Things I Think I’d Do will follow tomorrow.

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