The contrast in the Toronto Maple Leafs record at home versus away is well known – they are 3-5-0 in Toronto and 6-0-0 everywhere else.
Typically, it’s supposed to be the other way around. The Leafs also set a franchise record for home wins last season.
So what’s happening here?
There seems to be a theory out there blaming the coaching staff for their line matching, but this is the same coaching staff that has line-matched their way to more points at home than on the road for three straight seasons.
|Home Record||Home Points||Road Record||Road Record|
Let’s take a look at some team stats to try to figure out what the big difference is so far this year:
|GF/GP||GA/GP||SOG/GP||SA/GP||PP||PK||Score 1st||1st period shots|
The first thing that stands out is obvious: The Leafs have been awesome on the power play on the road. It’s unsustainable and it’s going to come back down to earth (obviously), but when you’re pushing nearly 50% on the power play, you’re going to win a lot of games. To the eye, there does not appear to be much of a difference in style of play on the power play at home versus away. The Leafs did, of course, benefit from an early four-game road trip while a collection of their stars were red hot.
If there is one thing that shows to the eye and the numbers above, it’s that the team starts slowly at home. They shoot less at home and rarely score first. The reason why is anyone’s guess – games are starting almost awkwardly at home, with a quiet crowd expecting great things and a team that has often appeared either unable to live up to the crazy expectations or is just flat out playing too cute in front of their fans.
It’s also reasonable to note that teams come into Toronto playing a bit more defensive than they would at home – Dallas, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh all played drastically different styles of games against the Leafs depending on the location. Dallas, in particular, was basically a track meet in Texas, while Winnipeg’s game was far more grinding in Toronto, and Pittsburgh was much more committed defensively at Scotiabank Arena.
Some of these numbers are going to even out. The Leafs are still out-shooting teams, whether it’s on the road or at home (the margins are slightly different, but the point remains), and some shooting luck is clearly involved. Considering it’s not even American Thanksgiving, I don’t think this is anything to really worry about yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
The Leafs do need to make adjustments at home in response to how teams play them – get ready for every visiting team trying to trap them and slow the game down. But the early bet is these numbers even out a bit and the Leafs inevitably will have a hot streak at home.
– The Hockey Night in Canada broadcast had a good clip of Mike Babcock encouraging the players on the bench and being very energetic before the puck drop against the Penguins. He can be gruff and has a bit of a reputation for being cutthroat and hard to play for, but we’ve seen multiple times now that when the team is in a funk, he is actually very positive and uplifting.
Still haven’t really seen him call anyone out in the media, either.
– So far, Morgan Rielly leads the Leafs in power-play points with nine in 14 games, but in that time, he has only five shots on goal. Teams have started adjusting and concentrating players below the top of the circles (more on that below). Eventually, he’s going to need to start shooting. One thing he has worked on tirelessly is his shot – his goal against Pittsburgh was a beautiful snapper. Rielly has also shown the ability to snap pucks through traffic and get them to the net. That will serve him well as teams dare him to shoot. You don’t have to hammer the puck by defenders, but you do have to get pucks through.
– Conversely, Jake Gardiner only has two power play shots on net so far. For Rielly, it makes sense because the power play runs through Marner and they funnel pucks to the middle of the ice, but Gardiner should be “bombs away” considering who he is surrounded with. The alternatives are Tyler Ennis and Josh Leivo considering how the unit is configured, so he should be shooting.
– Not sure how trustworthy the stats are, but I was clicking around the NHL.com team stats and the Leafs led the league in two shot categories that definitely pass the eye test. The first is the least amount of slap shots taken, and the second is most tipped pucks in the league. Pretty much nobody on the team has a slap shot that is better than their wrist shot, so that’s not shocking, and the Leafs love the high-tip play where a player pulls up to around the top of the circle and the defenseman rips it at his blade for a deflection.
– Another thing that stood out – the Leafs are second in the league so far in total shots that have missed the net. Interestingly, according to Sean Tierney’s website, the Leafs also have the best average shot distance of any team in the league, so that’s not the issue. Kadri leads the team in shots missed, followed by Tavares, Marner and Lindholm, followed by a three-way tie for fifth between Rielly, Brown, and Kapanen. There are some players there that have been squeezing the stick tight and have had some goal troubles (Kadri, Lindholm, Brown), but overall, I don’t think this is a bad thing. They shoot to score, and while they miss the net a decent amount, they score quite a bit and shoot closer to the net than anyone else.
– One other thing that caught my eye clicking through the team stats: The Leafs lead the league in hits against per 60 minutes (according to Corsica.hockey), so if you thought that the opposition has tried to be particularly physical against the Leafs, you’re right – they have been. And most have admitted it (Winnipeg in particular). With a fairly undersized team, it’ll be interesting to see how they hold up. Obviously, Matthews was hurt on a clean hit.
“It hasn’t been as effective as we’d like it to be. We haven’t been able to clear the puck very good this year. We have been scored on so many times when we’ve failed to clear. We were able to do a good job tonight. I think DJ [Smith] does a real good job with it. It hasn’t showed in the results so far this year. We want to be a good penalty-killing team and we’ve got good people. That’ll round itself into shape.”
– Mike Babcock on the penalty kill
I thought this was interesting considering the Leafs penalty kill went into the game ranked 13th (it was now sixth as of this writing). Killing at 80% at the time of writing, that isn’t great, although certainly not awful. Babcock has always done a good job of pushing for ‘good enough’ to turn into ‘really good.’
One other thing I thought was interesting on the Leafs penalty kill while looking into it – going into the game against Pittsburgh, they had the least amount of shorthanded faceoff wins in the league. I don’t think there’s a correlation there, but that is something Babcock cares about.
“Their gaps were great. I mean, right on top of our guys. You know, coming through the neutral zone just seemed like it would be a pain in the ass every time. They made it tough on us and certainly congested the neutral zone area and that was the difference.”
– Nazem Kadri on the game against Calgary
We’ll say this a lot this season I’m sure, but this will be the opposition’s game plan. The Leafs have a mobile defense and can definitely take advantage of that by activating them to skate through these neutral zone traps instead of ripping pucks up ice to smothered forwards. Of course, the forwards can also just swing low, particularly a player like Mitch Marner, who can slice through neutral zone traps on his own once he has speed (as well as a certain skilled young winger currently idling in Europe).
“We were skating a lot. We were putting it behind their D a lot. We weren’t fooling around with it, top of the circles, blue line, we made sure when we got it up there we were throwing it down and playing down low.”
– Mitch Marner discussing the game against Pittsburgh
It was a bit of a different game for the Leafs, seeing them control the game, cycle, and not look for rush offense so much. The game felt pretty well over as the third started and shots were 30-18 going into the period. Funny enough, three of the five goals were off the rush — which is generally how offense happens, and that’s fine. But they controlled the game in Pittsburgh’s zone while missing Matthews and Nylander and they didn’t open up a track meet.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think Mitch Marner is going to have to start shooting more on the power play, or at least diversifying. Against Pittsburgh, he tried a down-low pass to Tavares instead of his usual slap pass to Kadri in the high slot, and while it was a lucky-ish bounce, it resulted in a goal. Teams are completely collapsing to the middle against Marner and everyone knows about the slap-pass play. He’s going to have to mix it up to keep PK units honest.
2. I think I’m a fan of throwing Zach Hyman in front of the net on the second power-play unit (if he was a lefty, I’d even consider putting him on the first unit; it needs to be a lefty to give Marner a down low outlet). First and foremost, it’s a good reward for a guy who is all effort. He also causes havoc in front and can recover pucks below the goal line. I’m not sure he’ll score very much, but he can keep the puck in the offensive zone and at least create some good shifts for a unit I’m not expecting much from in general.
3. While I’d like to get a look at Trevor Moore, I think I wouldn’t change the lines unless someone gave me a reason to – and right now there’s not much reason to. The Ennis – Gauthier – Leivo line sounded pretty weird on paper, but it’s working, all things considered. They take reasonable shifts, generate the odd scoring chance (that Ennis cut in against Pittsburgh was great; he drew a penalty right after, too), and they definitely are not hurting the team. Johnsson finally showed some legs and probably had his best week as a Leaf so far, while they aren’t taking the center in Lindholm or penalty killer in Brown out of the lineup. At some point, Moore will get his chance.
4. I think the Leafs have a good strategy with Igor Ozhiganov, acclimating him to the NHL schedule and resting him on occasion to keep him fresh. Generally speaking, his play has improved and he has been solid, though; if they can put him in, they should. Marincin and Holl are adequate for spot duty, but the top six seems set (until they hopefully/finally make an upgrade?).
5. I think eventually the Leafs have to try swapping Nikita Zaitsev and Ozhiganov and just distribute the minutes evenly as well as the matchups. If nothing else, it’s worth trying. We’ve seen Zaitsev struggle with both Rielly and Gardiner over extended periods. Maybe the third lefty is the charm?