For the first time this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are facing some real adversity. They are 5-5-0 in their last ten, are currently on a three-game losing streak, and their superstar is out with an undisclosed injury.

I wrote a few weeks ago that it’s never as good as you think it is when you’re winning, nor as bad as you think it is when you’re losing. That still holds true.

But there are legitimate things to worry about with this team and the warning signs were there for a while.

First, the good news:

  • They are tied for the second-best goal differential in the East (with the Rangers; Tampa is first).
  • The Atlantic Division is terrible.
  • This is the toughest part of their schedule (eight of nine on the road with three back-to-backs!).
  • In the second half of the season, they have 24 home games.
  • The losing streak is happening without their best player, who is probably a top-10 player in the league.
  • Did I mention the Atlantic Division is terrible?

In the context of making the playoffs, the team has not quite fallen into the territory of concern about qualifying yet because the Atlantic is just that bad. But they will need to make adjustments if they want to go anywhere in the playoffs because their opponents have adjusted to them.

After the most recent game against Detroit, Tyler Bozak was asked about the team’s speed not looking like it did in October. He tried to suppress a big smile before saying, “No, I think we’re all the same guys. We’ve got the same speed. I think [other] teams just do a really good job of limiting speed.”

In most post-game pressers, Mike Babcock laments the neutral zone, discussing how tight it is and how hard it is to make plays in that area. The freewheeling October days are over. Teams have now committed to forcing the Leafs to dump the puck in.

Here is a screenshot of a common look the Leafs see at 5v5, with one man pressuring the defensemen and opponents stacking up the blue line. There are three Flyers along the line here and the other man not along the line is protecting against the far-side play:

There is no option here but to dump it in based on how the Leafs are aligned.

It is an interesting contrast from Babcock’s final seasons in Detroit, where he once said:

“We’ve got to be tight, tight, tight. I’ve always wanted it, but we could get away with it before. We don’t move the puck as well, so it’s real simple. When you’ve got Lidstrom, Rafalski, Stewie (Brad Stuart) and Kronner (Niklas Kronwall), they go back, they turn the corner and they fire it to someone who hasn’t had to work quite as hard to be quite as close, to be in the exact position. We can’t play like that anymore. We have to be closer and tighter and more available, and better defensively. Sometimes it’s not very pretty, but that’s just the way it is.”

This current Leafs team doesn’t have the calibre of defensemen mentioned, either, but they are spread out anyway. Instead of the forwards circling deep, they are stretching the neutral zone. Philly responds by stacking the line, and Ron Hainsey isn’t going to do anything but dump the puck in this situation.

The look the Leafs need to create consistently is the forwards circling low in their own zone, keeping it tight. This play below happens on a line change, which is why Nylander winds up low. He generates speed and is able to slice through the defense that creates a chance off the rush with speed. There was an actual scoring chance for Hyman, but he couldn’t handle the puck. The Oilers, having already played the Leafs once, are trying to trap – they’ve sent in one guy and want to stack their blue line. But with Nylander coming with such pace, they have to back off.

 

Instead, the Leafs usually camp out at the far blue line. Even if they do get the puck there, they are flatfooted and can’t do anything but dump it in. On this play against Pittsburgh, Gardiner makes a pretty good play to weave through the neutral zone. But when he advances the puck, Komarov’s feet aren’t moving, so all he can do is chip it in. When you send two guys out to the far blue line to stretch the zone, this is often what happens.

 

This is how teams want to play the Leafs: Clog up the neutral zone and force them to forecheck instead of skating it in. Part of countering this is that the Leafs actually do have to get in on the forecheck to make teams respect it. Here against Minnesota, they send the standard one man in against the defense in the neutral zone. The Leafs chip it in, and create a turnover and a scoring chance.

 

This is a rare sighting, though. Despite sitting seventh in the league in goals for, Toronto is 24th in shots per game. Only Anaheim has a bigger discrepancy between shots they take and shots they allow; the Leafs are also second in the league in PDO. In fairness, the Leafs are 16th in team corsi at even strength and they have the talent to band-aid over some of these issues (including good special teams). But teams aren’t opening up the middle of the ice anymore and trading chances with the Leafs the way they did last year and in October of this season. Toronto has to start adjusting in order to create more zone time.

In the defensive zone, the Leafs can be found racing around and flipping pucks out off the glass only for teams to regroup and shove it down their throats.

If you dig a little deeper into their shot discrepancies, here’s what you’ll find when it comes to shots allowed from opposition defensemen:

OPPSASA by D
DET297
MIN265
PHI3916
EDM4113
PIT3616
CGY4821
VAN2613
EDM4516
CGY208
WSH216
CAR4717
FLA4314
ARI3113
MTL3312
NJD4210
BOS3915
BOS353
MIN379
VGK289
STL3211
LAK288
ANA2911
SJS3916
PHI3020
CAR388
LAK3816
OTT357
DET3312
WSH308
MTL3410
NJD315
CHI215
NYR3514
WPG3715

League wide, defensemen have taken 29.8% of shots so far this season. The Leafs give up 33.7% of their shots to defensemen. In the last month, that number is nearly at 36%.

Years ago, Justin Bourne spoke with Babcock about the wingers’ roles in the defensive zone:

“Today what you gotta do is find your D-man and cut off the top. And from a low sagged position, otherwise there’s too much room. So they made it way harder, wingers used to be able to sleep, they could pick up their guy coming out of the offensive zone and take the guy back, they didn’t have to do anything. Now, you gotta compress the zone, you gotta make it smaller, you gotta give the offense no time and yet, you gotta find a way to cut off the top, and if you don’t, you gotta find a way to get in the shooting lane, so the job of the winger is way harder than it was… When I say “cut off the top,” there can be no direct passes from the puck to the top man, you have to be in a lane to cut off the top. So I say, find the D, make the zone small, cut off the top.”

It’s clearly not happening. As the Leafs struggle to penetrate the offensive zone (Toronto is actually last in percentage of shots taken by defensemen), the puck is coming back up the ice, where teams are cycling them down. It’s a vicious cycle. Watch here how the Flyers regain the zone quickly after the puck exits the zone, control possession, and cycle the puck to the points for multiple strong scoring opportunities late in a tie game.

 

As the games are slowing down, the ice is slowly tilting against the Leafs. This losing streak is no coincidence. Almost a month ago, I suggested some smoke and mirrors were at play here, and in the beginning of November, I discussed teams beginning to cycle them down and clog the neutral zone. Seemingly everyone is doing it now.

This is a young team that is learning how to work through these adjustments. The games only get tighter as the season goes on.


Notes

– The toughest thing to quantify when your top player is out is how everyone moves a spot in the lineup and how the dynamics of just about everything shift. Nazem Kadri moves up to 1C, Marleau shifts to 2C, and Bozak is counted on to produce more. In the first four game set that Matthews missed, Kadri went a point-a-game, but in this set, he has zero. Marleau recorded three in the first set, and one in this set. In all eight games that Matthews has missed, Bozak does not have a single point. That’s your top-nine center group without your top center – you won’t win many games with one point between the three over four games.

– Earlier this season, Kadri sniped Howard short side high; he had the same opportunity again and Howard moved all the way over to make sure he wasn’t going to get beat there again. Kadri tried the same shot and was stopped.

– I haven’t seen the Leafs get beat much off the rush on the penalty kill like they did against Detroit. Rielly got caught watching Zetterberg instead of his man (Tatar) charging in. So far, the Leafs have done a good job of stacking the blue line with three across and having a disruptive “pressure man” on the penalty kill. Sometimes a team just executes a great play.

– This is definitely the most mixing and matching of lines Babcock has done with the Leafs. The Hyman – Marleau – Marner line is comprised of three guys that were not regular linemates. Last season, he tried to keep things as status quo as possible. While there has been more mixing and matching, that line combination was a bit more of a dramatic change.

– It came in a losing effort, but I thought Curtis McElhinney was excellent again, this time against Detroit. Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard have done everything in their power to get their names in the conversation, but he has done a good job of settling in and providing some stable relief.

– To date, Frederik Andersen leads the league in ice time, shots faced, and saves. At what point do they try giving him rest beyond just back-to-back sets?

– It caught my eye when Andersen hired marketing agent Brad Robins to represent him. That is not something you would think Lou Lamoriello would necessarily endorse. But as far as I can tell, Robins was representing Martin Brodeur from at least 2004 onward and there never seemed to be an issue, so I wouldn’t anticipate one here, either.

– With a few minutes left against Philly, the Rielly – Hainsey pairing gave up a partial breakaway to Valtteri Filppula on a bit of a strange play where Rielly had gapped up his man in the neutral zone and Hainsey came over to Rielly’s side for seemingly no reason. That opened up space for Filppula to shoot the gap. Against Calgary earlier in the season, Andersen made a fantastic save on a play where Rielly pushed over to Hainsey’s side for no reason and they miscommunicated. They have been a good pairing this season, but there have been a few weird moments from them in transition.


Quotes

“The contract stuff usually sorts itself out. It becomes pretty clear what’s going on. You just play and we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
– JVR on how he’s handling his contract year and what the future holds

Things can easily change, but at this point, the Leafs haven’t engaged in any meaningful negotiations and JVR is playing under 15 minutes per night. That is pretty telling.

You try to physically maintain a game that is above the position of it. Practice good. Keep a good attitude… The Toronto Maple Leafs have been around long before Connor Carrick and will be around a long time after him. There’s something special about being in the NHL. You’re never too good to understand that lesson.”

– Connor Carrick on coping with being healthy scratched consistently

Considering some of their difficulties in transition and their set of back-to-back games last week, I was a little surprised Carrick did not make an appearance in either game. This is two seasons in a row now that Polak has been signed as a depth option and worked his way into a key role on the team in terms of ice time and responsibility.

“I think the first thing you do is just go home and have a day off. That’s what I’d do. And breathe. And then just come back to work. Whether you are a scorer or a checker, you just come each day and you put in an honest day’s work. If you’re a scorer, how many shots are you getting? How many scoring chances are you getting? How hard are you working? If you work hard, everything turns your way. If you don’t, it takes longer to get back to what you want to be. But the league is a good league. It’s a challenge for everybody. You’ve just got to believe in yourself and keep on grinding.”

– Mike Babcock, on the next steps after losing their third game in a row

That’s a nice perspective to have, especially in this market. They aren’t playing great hockey right now and they need to tweak some things (as noted above), but they are a good team with a ton of skill. They will be fine.


Video Tidbit of the Week

 

The Leafs have a few variations of this (including one where everyone blows this zone), but this is a good example of a neutral zone long-bomb type play. This is a set play off of a faceoff.

They win the draw clean, Brown releases the zone, and Gardiner throws up a hail mary type of play.

When the Wild pick it off, it is very similar to what is referenced above – they gain the zone, cycle it to the point, and create a scoring chance.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  I think the Martin Marincin call-up makes complete sense. He has proven himself on the penalty kill, where the Leafs have just lost their second-leading man (Zaitsev). He can play left and right, and has experience. If he plays well, I think they might have tough decisions to make moving forward.

2.  I think a good general rule of thumb for Leafs prospects is that you don’t call them up unless it is for good. I think back to a guy like Stuart Percy, who looked reasonably promising at one point. They yo-yoed him around and he never fully developed (plus he had injury issues). Players like Travis Dermott (who is hurt and missed their most recent game) should stay down with the Marlies unless they are being called up for good, especially at this time in the season when teams are in the middle of their campaigns compared to, say, an end-of-year look before summer training. For Dermott in particular — in a perfect world — he stays down for the year, the Marlies go on a long playoff run, and he cracks the team next season.

3.  With Matthews out in particular, I think James van Riemsdyk has to play more. He’s the leading goal scorer on the team and third in points, and he has not played over 16 minutes over the last five games (Matthews has been out for four of them). In the last five games, they have eight goals – four were against Pittsburgh – and JVR has two of them. Without Matthews, the team has averaged just over two goals per game. Unless you’re planning on winning all the games he is out by a 2-1 score line, he just has to play more.

4.  If Kasperi Kapanen keeps playing like he did against Detroit, I think I wouldn’t be able to take him out of the line-up.

5.  I get that Babcock wants to play the matchups, which is why he doesn’t have William Nylander at center, but I think I’d still play him there when Matthews is out. 1) That is how he’s going to learn. 2) When he isn’t riding shotgun with Matthews, he is having trouble creating time and space for himself, and playing at center will help. 3) I think Marleau has been solid at center, but he’s better on the wing, which is where he’s played for the better part of the last decade.


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