There has been a common refrain from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ opponents so far this season that has gone something along the lines of: “That team is very good offensively and we can’t trade scoring chances with them.”
The Leafs are scoring at an absurd 4.63 goals per game rate; Tampa Bay is second at an even 4. They have four players producing at a point-per-game or above right now in Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri and JVR. The only player to play at least one game and not register a point so far is Eric Fehr. There are 12 players on the team with at least five points in the first eight games (that’s a 51-point pace), and Mitch Marner isn’t even one of them.
They are clearly one of the most skilled teams in the league and they have a superstar leading the group in Matthews.
The team is 6-2-0 through eight games, and it is very clear they can win a lot of games on talent alone. Most teams in the league just can’t handle their depth on a nightly basis.
But their two losses this season have exposed a few weaknesses and there is a bit of a blueprint in there for beating the Leafs. In fact, since the start of last season, the Leafs are 1-2-2 against Ottawa and have generally struggled against them. The game on Saturday was a good example of how more teams are going to play them – clog up the neutral zone, get pucks in deep, forecheck the Leafs‘ weak defense into turnovers, and don’t let the Leafs open up the offense.
At the same time, as soon as the Leafs had a little crack to open the game up, we’ve seen that they are explosive enough to almost always make it a game. It took Matthews and Nylander one give-and-go in the neutral zone to score a great goal.
While the New Jersey Devils by no means trapped them – Corey Schneider played really well in that game – they did forecheck the Leafs defense into a lot of turnovers.
After the Ottawa game, Matthews accurately diagnosed the issue:
“We just kind of played right into their whole system. They kind of play that trap and just sit back and let you make a mistake and we weren’t really getting the puck in too deep so they obviously are pretty good at their whole system and they made us pay for it.”
The Leafs play a freewheeling game and want to skate pucks in, put pucks on net off the rush, and create races through the neutral zone by flipping pucks in the air from their own zone to generate races. The Senators clogged up the neutral zone big-time against the Leafs and were able to consistently outnumber them. Below, we can see four defenders back for the Senators compared to the Leafs’ two attackers:
The offense has been fun, but as Babcock said a few games into the season, this isn’t going to last.
“Come on, it’s like a fantasy tour [right now]. It’s going to get real here. Teams aren’t in tune quite yet defensively so you make mistakes, and teams score. Things are going to tighten up. It’s nice that you can score goals but you have to be able to play [without the puck] and you have to take care of it when you have it so you don’t put yourself in so many bad situations.”
Opponents would be smart to clog up the neutral zone and ‘trap’ the Leafs to some degree. Almost nobody can match-up with them man-to-man skill wise. How the Leafs adjust to this is going to dictate where they end up in the standings.
– Last season, Roman Polak led the Leafs in average shorthanded time on ice per game and was a staple in their top six. The ‘Hunlak’ pairing was the butt end of a lot of jokes to start the season, but in the second half of the year, Polak posted a 49.6CF% and they settled in as a reliable pairing for the team down the stretch as the games got tighter. In the one full playoff game he played, he was fourth on the team in time on ice. This signing is not too surprising. The Leafs will have a better handle on this since he’s been on the ice with them all this time, but the real question will be: How is his skating? He was never a graceful skater, but he moved around the ice well and even had some speed once he got going.
– Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev are both averaging over five minutes per game shorthanded and that is not sustainable. Last season, Chara led the league playing 3:46 per game shorthanded, and the guy in second, Ben Lovejoy, was 31 seconds behind him. The season before that it was Matt Hunwick at 3:42, and the one before that was Andy Greene at 3:58. If nothing else, the Leafs are looking to bring the shorthanded minutes of Hainsey and Zaitsev down a bit because they are very important for this team at 5v5 as well.
– The Leafs defense pairings so far, at a glance:
|Pairing||5v5 Time on Ice||CF%||GF%|
|Rielly – Hainsey||105:49||56.89%||53.85%|
|Gardiner – Zaitsev||115:43||50%||58.33%|
|Borgman – Carrick||49:21||51.19%||57.14%|
The numbers in a vacuum look more than fine, but the Leafs are the highest scoring team in the league with arguably (probably) the deepest forward group and the forwards are carrying the team. Some of that is strictly due to strategy — the Leafs are absolutely content to flip pucks down the ice and make their forwards do all of the work.
– Interestingly, the defenseman who has played the least the last two games is Connor Carrick, not Andreas Borgman. Carrick’s best work in the preseason came on the PP and he’s not going to get on that unit regularly with Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev ahead of him.
– Besides all the talent spread out between the two units, the Leafs two PP units are particularly difficult to defend because they are so different. The unit with Matthews and Nylander is setting up that shot from the outside; the one Nylander scored against Ottawa and that we’ve seen Matthews score a bunch of times already in his short career. The Kadri unit funnels a lot more pucks to the bumper in the middle of the 1-3-1 and to JVR down low for tips or little plays down there.
– All the attention was on Connor Brown starting the season on the fourth line, but with the team having a lacklustre two periods in Ottawa, Babcock changed the lines by swapping Leo Komarov and Mitch Marner. It made sense because they needed offense, but it appears that the ninth and tenth forwards right now are Marner and Komarov, depending on the score.
– After concussion issues all summer, it’s nice to see Nikita Soshnikov has five points in six games and 19 shots on goal with the Marlies. He was very tentative throughout the preseason and did not look like himself. With all the youth and talent on the NHL roster, it’s easy to forget about players like him, but he has shown he is an impact penalty killer and physical presence on the team.
“They just showed us they’re the big boys and we aren’t quite ready. We turned the puck over and over. We had a whole bunch of guys who were really average tonight. We weren’t up to the task and that’s down to me… I thought this game was a great opportunity, because this is what the league gets to. If you think you’re just going to play toe drag and run-and-gun, you won’t. There’s a message we have to get better than we are.”
– Mike Babcock, after the loss to Ottawa
I thought Boucher out-coached Babcock for most of the night. The Leafs had no real answer for Ottawa’s trap or forecheck for the first two periods before finally breaking through in the third period and making it interesting. Considering they had two days off to prepare for the game and came out flat, that’s not good enough for a team of this calibre.
“These guys are young guys. They deserve to go out once in a while when they have a break. My advice is just be aware of your surroundings. You don’t need pictures on [Instagram]. You’ve got to be accountable and you’ve got to have fun. And make sure you have some friends outside hockey. Because those are your real friends … they’re a great support system, not the followers. Honestly, that’s something I’m glad I had, and glad I still have.”
– Doug Gilmour on being a star on the Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the biggest benefits of what Babcock and Lou Lamoriello bring to the organization is they are quite good at shifting attention away from the players and keeping everyone focused. I’ve also heard the occasional story of someone seeing a Leaf at a social outing and being asked (respectfully) to not take photos or videos (to clarify, this would be in a more private setting, not, say, walking down the street). Once these guys all sign their big money deals, it will be a different feeling around them and it will be imperative for them to handle those expectations accordingly.
“First of all, before you look at the player, you look at the person. When they have talents like he has, all you have to do is go back to the very first game he played … he scored four goals and yet, after the game, people (media) spoke to him and he said he would like to have a certain situation back in overtime … winning was more important to him, and because of that, I don’t think we have to manage his success, he manages it himself.”
– Lou Lamoriello on Auston Matthews
Matthews does a lot of the little things off the ice really well. You might notice, after his intermission interviews, he almost always thanks the interviewer by name. He also called Joe Bowen to congratulate him on calling his 3,000th game. They seem like little things, but they are big things. He gets it.
Video Tidbit of the Week
Matthews has somehow looked even better offensively this season, but the defensive side is where he has made the biggest strides. Henrik Zetterberg is getting old, but he had 68 points last season and nine points in nine games so far this year. He still has it. In the second half of a back-to-back in the third period, Matthews takes him on down low one on one and wins the puck battle. Later in the shift, Nylander picks off a pass and clears the zone. This has quickly become a line Babcock can matchup best vs. best.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. If I were the Leafs and being honest with myself, I think these flipped pucks to the neutral zone breakouts are going to work a lot during the regular season. They will torch any average (or below) team doing that because they are so talented. But it will present problems against the top teams. They need to work on tighter breakouts out of their zone with tape-to-tape passes and make use of the center lane. Zaitsev had a giveaway that HNIC replayed a few times against Ottawa — and when it goes bad it’s ugly — but this is the time to work on those things. Not the playoffs. They are elite once they cross center ice, but the rest needs a lot of work.
2. I think it would be hard to justify moving around the top-four defense group at this point to accommodate Roman Polak in the lineup. The first two pairings have generally played well so far this season, so that means one of Borgman or Carrick has to sit. My guess is that they will sit Carrick. His role has been reduced over time and he did not look comfortable at all on the left side. The easiest move is to sub in Polak for Carrick.
3. I think, at some point, you have to get Josh Leivo into a game. Thursday against Carolina appears to be a good opportunity to have him in for Martin against a, 1) strong defensive team, and 2) a team that is not very physical and doesn’t dress a tough guy.
4. I think the Leafs really need to consider splitting up Bozak and JVR. They are a liability on defense. On the season, over 58% of their total faceoffs have come in the offensive zone, and they have a 46% goals for percentage (with a 54 CF%). Babcock is hiding them defensively as best as he can. Last season, he needed to use Kadri as the shutdown center as Matthews developed, but this year Matthews can go head-to-head against top lines and they can work the matchups down from there. They are four lines deep. They don’t need a checking line and an all-offense line that can’t play defense. Split it up.
5. I think Curtis McElhinney is in a really tough spot. He did not look good in his debut. Neither did Jhonas Enroth last season in the same role. It’s a really tough gig not playing at all and then only going in for the second half of a back-to-back game. In the second half of the year, it’s actually going to benefit Calvin Pickard if they call him up for games because, unlike McElhinney, he’ll have been steadily playing games.