There have been many positives this seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs, from the emergence of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to Frederik Andersen playing like a legitimate starter to date. The one position we can’t be as positive about is the defense.
With Morgan Rielly out, the position has become even more scrutinized, particularly after a 5-2 loss to the Rangers in which the team was badly outplayed and gave up 41 shots at home.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Leafs defense compared to the rest of the league:
Sunday, January 22 games not included
NHL Team Production by Defencemen
|Team||GP||Total Goals||GPG||Total Assists||APG||Total Points||PPG||Total Shots||SPG|
Despite being one of the most explosive teams in the league offensively (ranking sixth in goals per game), the Leafs‘ defense is 26th in goals per game. They are 16th in points per game (driven by assists, where they’re 12th) and 21st in shots on goal per game.
Jake Gardiner is 25th in scoring among defensemen, while Nikita Zaitsev is fourth among rookie defencemen (even if he is 25). Meanwhile, Morgan Rielly — who went from 27 to 29 to 36 points in his first three years — has one goal and is on pace to not surpass his previous season’s totals for the first time in his NHL career.
Of course, defense isn’t all about scoring and producing offense, but with a forward group this skilled, the team shouldn’t have a defense this low on offense. Given their goal and shot production, it certainly suggests there is a need for a big shot on the blue line. They also often have to throw pucks off the glass to break out instead of advancing up the ice cleanly.
The big fish on the market is Kevin Shattenkirk – everyone links him to the Rangers and it sounds like he doesn’t want to play in Canada in general. After that, there is a collection of decent secondary defencemen like Michael Del Zotto, Michael Stone, Dmitry Kulikov, Karl Alzner, Trevor Daley, Kris Russell and old friend Cody Franson, to name a few. Not exactly players that are going to be moving the needle in a significant way.
In the minors, there is no blue chip prospect, either. Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott look like they have potential, but there’s no stud in the making in the system at the moment.
Toronto has given Morgan Rielly a lot of praise and responsibility under Mike Babcock, but the first question will be if the Leafs really views him as a number one long-term. He’s approaching 300 games played, and I’d argue hasn’t looked the part of a number one just yet. At $5 million per year, Toronto isn’t paying him like one, either.
Nikita Zaitsev has had a good rookie season and looks like a top-four defenseman, while Jake Gardiner has cemented himself as a top four and possibly more. The team can be patient with Connor Carrick, but he would be the ideal player to bump down the depth chart with a replacement in the Leafs’ top four.
It seems unlikely that Toronto will address the position during the season, but it has to be the focal point of their offseason plan in the summer. The Leafs have been stockpiling picks and prospects for a few years now and more cap space is on the way. It’s time to start cashing it in.
– Toronto has played in the most shootouts in the Eastern Conference this season with seven, and have gone 1-6 in them to date. Mitch Marner is 3/7 and Matthews is 1/6 while nobody else has scored a goal, including the traditionally-good-at-shootouts Tyler Bozak, who is 0/3 (he was 1/7 last season, so maybe it’s time to dispel that notion). William Nylander hasn’t taken a shootout attempt this season, although he was 0/2 at the end of last season. With all their talent, it’s a mental thing. With the standings so tight, you’d hate to see a playoff spot come down to losing points in a glorified skills contest. It wouldn’t be the first time for Leafs fans.
– Zach Hyman is always going to be limited in terms of his ability to beat goalies cleanly with his shot or score goals in general, but he has shown some ability to dig pucks out for his linemates and set them up as the season has progressed. Babcock appears intent on keeping him and Matthews together, at least for this season. If it’s going to be successful long-term, Hyman’s bread and butter is going to be retrieving pucks, getting it to Matthews, and going to the net.
|Zach Hyman||Games 1-22||Games 23-44|
|Shots on goal||49||51|
– Quietly, Hyman is also second on the Leafs in penalties drawn per 60 minutes (35th in the league). Nazem Kadri, formerly the king of this stat, is now in 37th. It was bound to happen, but the book is out on him now among referees.
– Even more quietly, Matt Martin is third in the league in penalties drawn per 60 minutes (minimum 20 games played) at 2.66. He is also 10th in penalties taken per 60 minutes (minimum 20 games), at 1.88. For a player of his role, that’s a small advantage compared to what the Leafs are generally used to from that position on the roster.
– Toronto was the only team to put a waiver claim in on Seth Griffiths last week. He has been productive in the AHL and has had some moments in the NHL, but it appears nobody in the league views him as an NHLer at this point in time.
– The most shocking development of the season has to be Tampa Bay’s situation – at the time of writing, they have the third lowest points per game in the league, tied with Winnipeg and Dallas and ahead of only Arizona and Colorado. That is a big boost to the Leafs. Not far ahead of Tampa is Florida in 22nd. The Panthers had a big summer and Tampa has been a contender for years, making them two teams almost everyone had in a playoff spot. Toronto has been solid this year — definitely better than most expected — but Tampa and Florida both being terrible is just as important in their climb up the standings.
– I was sad to hear that Clarke MacArthur has been shut down for the season, as he is a good guy and was always a favourite on the Leafs. It’s also tough reading this story on Mikhail Grabovski, who has been sidelined all year with a concussion. Grabovski had a divisive end to his Leafs career, but he was a warrior throughout his time in Toronto and a really good player at one point. Get well, MacArthur and Grabovski.
“It’s definitely something we talked to our group about prior to the game. They’re a team that boxes out a lot; whether you want to call it illegal interference, that’s been a trademark of their coach’s game wherever he’s been, whether it’s Toronto or Detroit.”
– Alain Vigneault, talking about the Leafs boxing out the front of their net after the Leafs beat the Rangers in New York.
Babcock’s teams are notorious for running “picks” and interference all over the ice, whether it’s in front of their own net, off the cycle in the offensive zone, or off faceoffs. It’s a little thing, but it adds up.
“I didn’t really enjoy it too much in the beginning, to be honest with you. I was normally used to playing on the flank and liked getting a lot of touches on the power play, moving the puck around. In the middle, I adapted and now I love it.”
– Nazem Kadri, on playing in front of the net on the powerplay
Kadri is first on the team with nine goals on the PP, far ahead of William Nylander, who is second with five. Since he first broke into the league, Kadri has completely altered his game – In London, the PP ran through him on the half-wall and he was all offense. Now he matches up against top lines, does well in that role, and mucks it up in the dirty areas to score goals. He took a lot of crap for a long time, but he isn’t getting nearly enough praise for transforming his game.
“We don’t get slapped around ever. Last year we got abused, we never get slapped around now. Not only is he a good player, he’s a great man. He treats those kids with kindness, with a firm hand of accountability at the same time he’s a good pro. He lives right, he acts right, treats his teammates right. He’s got a huge fan in me, I’ll tell you that.
– Mike Babcock on Matt Martin.
Martin is on pace for seven goals and four assists this year, which isn’t exactly what you want from a guy you’re paying $2.5 million per year, but that’s not really his role, either. He’s taking a regular shift, on the fourth line to date, and has stepped in physically and even fired up the group a few times. That said, Babcock has continually heaped praised on Martin throughout the season, and to channel my inner Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Video Tidbit of the Week
This is something the Leafs often do off of faceoff wins in the offensive zone. The center wins it to the wall and the winger that lines up on the wall drives to the net, picking the defenseman on the other team, while the winger that lined up on the hashmarks cuts across to get the puck. The Rangers actually played it well here, but the point is to get the opponent switching on defense a few times off the draw to create mismatches.
Ultimately, the Leafs did get the puck back — in part because Matthews is special and made a special play — and worked it around for a good opportunity.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1) I think I’d play Nylander and Matthews together in 3v3 overtime. Matthews is primarily playing with Brown in the extra session; while I’ve got nothing against Brown, Nylander is far more dynamic offensively and Toronto has been bad in the shootout. They have to push to end the game in the overtime at this point. Load up the skilled guys together.
2) I think I’d be rotating Josh Leivo into that fourth line spot with Martin and, for now, Frederik Gauthier. A larger point to that is I don’t think Soshnikov has done enough to be an automatic regular, which is what seems to be happening. He was all over the ice when he first got called up this year, but he has slowed right down lately. Having him on at the end of the game on the penalty kill when Ottawa tied it was beyond questionable (Soshnikov shot it around the boards weakly to the Sens before they scored).
3) I think I’d be moving Marner around a little bit throughout the lineup at different times. The top two centers on the team are Matthews and Kadri, and he barely plays with either. Keeping the lines relatively stable makes sense, but when the game is going south or they need a jolt, moving Marner up a bit with a better center and seeing if it spark the team isn’t a bad option.
4) I think the defense pairings make sense — keeping Gardiner with Carrick (which has been the second pairing throughout the season) as well as Hunwick with Polak while sliding Marincin in with Zaitsev. I’d like to see Corrado get more than one game to make an impression, but it’s hard to see Babcock trusting him anytime soon after the Rangers game. Depending on the team, I’d consider playing Gardiner with Zaitsev against very good top lines — potentially against Philadelphia this week if Rielly still isn’t back.
5) I think I’d give McElhinney the Red Wings game Wednesday and Andersen the Flyers game on Thursday. Detroit is the weaker of the two teams and I think Toronto has an opportunity to get four points from those two games. To date, the Leafs have generally played these safe, putting their starter in against the weaker team first followed by the backup against the stronger team.