Last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs stormed into the playoff scene with a historic rookie class leading their high-flying offense.
The team has looked and felt different this season, but so far they are on pace for a higher goals for per game rate (3.08) than the playoff team of last season (3.05). While they struggled defensively last year, not only were they able to put the puck in the net, they were fourth in the league in shots per game and a 13th-ranked team in Corsi For percentage at 50.38%. This season, they are currently 17th at 49.77 CF% and are seventh in goals per game.
Their offense is also slowly drying up, month by month:
The key thing here is not just the goals, but also the shots, where the team is 19th in the league in shots per game after finishing fourth last season. They aren’t controlling the play as much – evidenced by their drop in possession in shot generation – and it is leading to a drop in goals and production in general.
There were five players that hit the 60-point mark last season – Auston Matthews, JVR, Nazem Kadri, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner. Only Matthews is currently on pace to pass 60 this season. In fact, only three more players are on pace to surpass the 50-point mark (last season, there were six). The easiest difference to spot is the entire Bozak line – each of them recorded at least 55 points last season, while none of them are currently on pace to hit that mark as of this writing.
That helps to highlight one of the biggest differences between this season and last: They were a three-line team in 2016-17. At the deadline, once they acquired Brian Boyle and Kasperi Kapanen was recalled, they then became a four-line team. Currently, they are back to having Frederik Gauthier next to Martin and a revolving door of Brown/Marner.
The Bozak line always struggled defensively, but at least they scored – according to Left Wing Lock, they have scored 13 goals this season and allowed 14, and that’s in heavily sheltered minutes loaded with offensive zone starts. Now they just struggle, and Babcock has bounced around between keeping them together and swapping out players hoping for a spark.
The Kadri line is breaking even in a shutdown role, scoring eight and giving up eight. The Matthews line remains awesome, scoring 21 and giving up only seven, but they can’t just be a one-line attack with a solid shutdown line — especially with a fourth line that currently has Gauthier and Martin getting caved in with roughly a 40% share of the shot attempts each night.
It was easy to keep the lines together last season – at most, they’d really just swap Nylander and Brown for each other in the top nine. This season, the units have somewhat struggled and the addition of Patrick Marleau – who has been good – has bumped down usually either Brown or Marner. That has left Babcock mixing and matching while trying to find the right combinations. To this point, it hasn’t happened. That’s left the team as a two-line outfit up front that relies heavily on Frederik Andersen and special teams to win.
Part of the solution isn’t just finding the right mix of players – many of the players simply have to find another level. These are the dog days of the season, and it is hard to imagine a team this talented steadily producing this little the rest of the way. In fact, many of the answers are right there in front of their faces.
– Declan recently pointed out this website that tracks icing statistics. There are some interesting things of note here. The Leafs are third in the league in total icings – only Arizona and Dallas have more. It is not surprising considering how they play, often putting the puck off the glass or looking for the stretch pass. The good news is that they have only allowed two goals off of icings (the Kings are the leaders at 6). The bad news is they are second in the league in penalties taken after an icing with eight.
– Further, we can see how so many icings and penalties slowing the game down ultimately take away from the Leafs strengths – offense, fast-paced games, opening up the attack. It’s slowing the game down, which is what most opponents want to do against the Leafs.
– Travis Dermott has settled right in so far. Against Colorado, he had a really nice sequence where he rushed it up ice, sliced through the neutral zone on his own, put a shot on goal, and then the puck came back to him in the slot off a Nylander pass and he he was robbed. There has been lots of talk on the broadcasts about his confidence holding the puck, but a telling thing is he that he’s had a few rushes with a shot on net and followed up his shot below the goal line — or just dumped it in and forechecked on his own. That means the team is giving him the green light and he’s going for it. Most defensemen peel back after a shot on net off the rush.
– I thought, based on Babcock’s comments that it’s a rotation between Andreas Borgman, Travis Dermott and Connor Carrick, Borgman would have the inside track since he’s paired with Polak. However, here’s the TOI in both games without Rielly:
|Player||Vs. Ottawa||Vs. Colorado|
– That was a tough 5v3 for the Leafs against Colorado. It was tough to tell what the goal was, but they got the puck low to Matthews, he had time and space, and he was reluctant to shoot. Making it more difficult is the personnel that was out on the ice: Matthews, JVR, Marner. Gardiner, Nylander. On paper, they are the group you’d want, but they haven’t really played together in two seasons and the lack of familiarity showed. I was surprised they didn’t look for a one-timer up top through Nylander – he and Gardiner weren’t even in position for them.
– Lots of talk about Jake Gardiner and the 2v1s in overtime. The big thing that stands out is the lack of communication, and that falls on the defenseman. If you watch the top ones in the league, they are constantly pointing at players, telling teammates where to go, and controlling the zone – that’s part of the job. There were breakdowns in coverage and, in many instances, a collection of players (not just Gardiner) that should have done things differently, but it’s ultimately the defenseman who has to communicate and take charge in the zone.
“We can move guys around if we feel it is going to help us get better. I just think that, when I look at our last couple of games, we are in a good situation. I guess I don’t feel like you guys do. How’s that? Not one bit. But when I do, we’ll change some things. How’s that?”
– Mike Babcock after the Flyers game
The team has been picking up points lately and their games have been close (blown leads, OT losses). It’s understandable that he feels like that. But the team has six regulation/overtime wins in their last 22 games. I think they are just kidding themselves a bit here – I’m actually not entirely sure what they are watching? They snapped a nine-game regulation-winless streak by beating the lowly Ottawa Senators with a massive comeback. It’s not sound-the-alarm time, but you can’t look at that — and in general the way they are playing, including players calling each other out — and think everything is okay.
“I think a lot of guys on the bench too, (would be) pretty frustrated to not be on the power play and seeing that kind of effort (on the Simmonds goal, which came on an odd-man rush). I think we have to look each other in the eyes and determine where we want to go from here.”
– Frederik Andersen after the Flyers game
I thought this was a shot at Bozak in particular, and I don’t think Bozak has done too much to respond since, if anything.
“I didn’t really tell them anything they didn’t already know. Great effort in the third to come back and get the two points we desperately need to turn things around here. That’s a step in the right direction.”
– Patrick Marleau after he spoke up between periods before the Leafs‘ comeback versus the Senators
It wasn’t talked about too much, but Marleau was also wearing an ‘A’ that game with Morgan Rielly out.
As the games get tighter, we’re going to see a lot of teams jam the middle of the ice and block shots. On this sequence, what I want to highlight is that the Leafs get the puck back to the point and the defensemen don’t move their feet at all.
One area where Morgan Rielly is really distinguishing himself this season is his ability to get shots through – he’s 21st among defensemen in shots on goal. One thing he’s doing is moving his feet and walking the line, along with firing a quick snapper. If you watch the best – Brent Burns – he’s amazing at walking the line and creating lanes for himself.
The Leafs are going to have to work on walking the line and getting shots through. This is too stationary.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. If you’re ranking the three young defensemen right now, I think the order is pretty clear: Travis Dermott, Connor Carrick, Andreas Borgman. The reason is actually the same for all of them, too – puck skills. Borgman still really struggles handling it and making decisions. While Carrick is skilled and dangerous on the offensive zone blue line, he’s slow and struggles with the puck everywhere else on the ice. Dermott has distinguished himself to this point with his puck moving and carrying abilities, and it isn’t really close between the three.
2. I think I have actually liked Connor Carrick on the PP. He has a big shot and the right shot back there changes the dimension of the unit – this is something I mentioned as an idea earlier in the season. That said, I’d be splitting those duties between Carrick and Dermott, alternating each on the PP. If nothing else, it would be good to see what Dermott can do there. Maybe he can jolt a unit.
3. I think the Leafs have to recognize that the power play is beyond slumping at this point. Since December 1, it is 22nd in the league (15.8%). We’re coming up on two months of struggles now, and really, their PP was buoyed by a hot week to start the season. Teams are taking away the high-slot tip play and pressuring the half-walls. Against the Avalanche – who have the second best PK in the league – they finally got some traction taking point shots. Personnel aside, they need to get back to basics a bit here – point shots and traffic in front. That will open up the half-wall for prettier goals.
4. I still think Dominic Moore should be in for Frederik Gauthier. If you’re going to play Marner (or even Brown for that matter) on the fourth line, at least give him someone to play with who is even remotely capable of controlling a puck and scoring.
5. I think Josh Leivo still exists and this team is having trouble scoring. The bottom two lines have really struggled lately, and the team is performing poorly in general. At what point does something change? Leivo isn’t a saviour, but they need to shake up these bottom lines and Leivo, along with Moore, can’t be worse than what’s happening right now.