After 45 games, a merry-go-round of injuries, a Fall slump, a coaching change, and a recent winning streak, the Toronto Maple Leafs are not the simplest team to evaluate — and that’s understating it.
Still, with a bit of a “pre-All Star Break break” taking place in the schedule late this week, here are a few of my high-level observations on what has been a wild 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs season so far.
The Coaching Change
I suspected a change in direction after only three games under Sheldon Keefe. It’s usually a mistake to base anything on three games, but after having reviewed the shift in numbers and having studied Leafs statistics and hockey trends for a few years, I thought it was worth writing about back in November.
Anyone who has watched the Leafs under Keefe will know that the style of play, player usage, and team effort have all improved. Whether this higher-risk offensive style can work in the playoffs is still an open question, but for now, it’s been working just fine. Other writers at MLHS have already covered many of these system changes in depth, but I want to focus on the results.
By The Numbers
The numbers are now sufficient to reliably compare the 22 games under Sheldon Keefe against the 23 under Mike Babcock.
Just like the numbers I reported after three games, you won’t find anything that has worsened under Keefe.
Leading the league in goal scoring (4.05 per game) is not easy. I have zero doubt that the change in approach to offense is a huge part of this resurgence. A team that looked predictable and satisfied with distant shots by the defense is now marauding freely and moving through the OZ with sharp passes.
Auston Matthews may be the main beneficiary: He has 17 goals and 27 points in the 22 games. The other star players have also produced: Marner (24 points in 16 games), Tavares (10 goals and 22 points), and Nylander (11 goals and 21 points).
Special teams are critical to winning hockey games, and the results have rebounded like a playoff Kawhi, especially the power play, which now ranks second under Keefe and where players like Matthews are getting more ice time over the second unit (finally).
Scoring first is important and the Leafs have gone from last to first in that department. That speaks volumes about their effort and approach entering the game.
How do you gauge if the new offensive zone system is working as far as creating better opportunities? Well, the Leafs are now first with a 12.08% shooting percentage in all situations under Keefe; they were ranked 16th before. Finding a mobile open forward with a pass across the slot is a lot more effective than cycling back to the D for a 2% shot.
The team’s shooting percentage at five-on-five has exploded. It will be hard to sustain that level over the long term, but that trend is very promising considering it coincided with a change in approach by the new coach.
Although some of this could be random luck, the results have been impressive and the fact that the Leafs have risen to fourth in expected goal share at five-on-five under Keefe is worth noting.
Expected Goal Share
This chart shows how bad the xGF% situation was early in the season; the upward trend actually started a few days before Keefe took over (I thought they played very well in Vegas despite losing).
While the offensive side has shone, improvements have also been made on defense. Probably the biggest underlying improvement has been reducing shot attempts against at 5v5 despite the increased emphasis on offense. That suggests less opponent possession time in the Leafs zone as the Leafs spend more time up the ice. This has contributed to the team’s overall goals against dropping from 3.43 to 2.86 per game.
Other factors at play include the changing of the defense pairs – moving Cody Ceci down the lineup, promoting Justin Holl, breaking up the Muzzin-Barrie pair, and the change in focus to more of a “protect the house” system. That approach has focused on reducing net front and slot chances. As a result, the Leafs now rank eighth in preventing high danger chances. They were 23rd before.
See a pattern? It’s a different team.
How much of that is Keefe? The team taking responsibility? Weaker opponents? Whatever your theory is, the results have been consistent.
I do think that the Jake Muzzin foot injury and the nagging Morgan Rielly injury have exposed the Leafs defense and some of the improvements we have seen could be in jeopardy.
It seems Keefe is testing everyone in the top four slots, starting with Justin Holl, then Maritn Marincin, now Travis Dermott, and even Tyson Barrie — to some extent — is a test. Stopping the elite forwards of other teams remains a challenge for the Leafs defense.
I’ll touch more on that later.
This one is a little more complicated. I don’t think I can do it justice in a few words here, but I’ll touch on the “big things.”
First, the Leafs’ goaltending situation concerns me. I have been a vocal proponent of resting Frederik Andersen more for over two years, but without a proven reliable backup (despite Hutchinson’s recent shutout), they have pressed Andersen into service far too often in the first 45 games.
Here’s where he sits right now in terms of workload:
Frederik Andersen has played the most minutes and ranks second in shots. Last season, after 45 games, Andersen had played in 31 games, ranked 14th with 1,838 minutes, and faced 1,001 shots. (He also played with a groin injury in December and had to be shut down. We also know he peaked around February, and then had a mediocre playoff series.)
As MLHS has reported, Sheldon Keefe made it clear this week that the Leafs want to rest Andersen more:
Does that speak to a high level of cognizance of the importance of the bigger picture with Freddy’s workload?
Keefe: Yeah, we’ve had these discussions. It is part of why we are trying to get a little more traction with the backup goaltender. It can allow us a little more freedom and confidence to make such decisions. Freddy has been here in the organization long enough that there is enough history and data there as it relates to him specifically and others around the league as it relates to workload. Sometimes, later in the season perhaps, there will be situations where we’ve got to do what is right to win that particular game. That really always is the focus, but we are trying to get Freddy at a manageable number. We’ve got to make some significant steps to get there. Decisions like last night and the other day to play Hutchinson are all a part of it.”
Why Workload Matters
Here is an article by Owen Kewell, “Does Goalie Rest Help Win a Cup,” that looked into goalie playoff performance. It’s not conclusive, but I think it’s a good starting point in understanding and discussing how rest now may prove important later.
It may be that the hockey Gods just chose teams with less-worn goalies in this small sample, but a team with a goalie playing over 60 games hasn’t won the Cup since LA did it back in 2011-12. We saw Binnington only play 32 games last year and Holtby play 54 the year before. Frederik Anderson is currently on pace for 64 games.
Even 60 games may be unwise; that’s what he played last year, and he objectively finished the season and playoffs below his normal standard, although the Bruins had something to do with that — especially on the power play. Whether nagging injuries mixed into his results, we will probably never know, but the more minutes and shots he faces, the greater the chance of injury this season as well.
There is also some evidence that the middle third of the season is the best time to rest a goalie. After all, he logically needs to tune up before the playoffs start and probably benefits more from rest after playing through the first third of the season.
Of course, making the playoffs is the priority right now. But Andersen needs to be November Freddy for the Leafs to have the best chance of getting past the first-round gauntlet.
Frederik Andersen’s Performance
So far this season, Andersen has had flashes of brilliance and periods of average performance. When I look at goals above expected based on the quality of shots he has faced, he ranks 12th among the 30 goaltenders playing at least 22 games. Last season, he finished seventh by the same measure.
Andersen has improved since Keefe took over, but it’s important that we look at a larger sample with goalies.
The penalty kill ranking is shown in the chart below. The penalty kill has been the biggest issue in Andersen’s results. He ranks 27th out of 30 starters who have played 22+ games with an 84.89 save percentage compared to an expected percentage of 90.46% given the danger faced.
I personally think this is probably a mix of factors. One of these is the Leafs’ early-season PK issues, including the inability to stop cross-seam passes that can’t be tracked by xG models. That’s something they appear to have improved on, but it has to be working in the playoffs. Both Boston and Tampa will feast on any penalty-killing weaknesses.
There is little doubt that Andersen has been a top-eight goaltender the past few seasons — especially considering the load he has faced — but he needs to reach another level entering the final stage of the season and playoffs. There is evidence that he and Michael Hutchinson have improved over the past month. Let’s hope that continues.
(Reading this, I feel like I am piling on one of my favourite Leafs and one of the team’s most important players, not to mention an All-Star. But I would be glossing over the best facts I have at my disposable if I didn’t spell this out.)
I don’t think one individual has more on his shoulders than Frederik Andersen. Hopefully, the Leafs find a way to manage his load down closer to 55 games — not 60 or 64. That means playing only 20 more games this season out of the remaining 37.
That’s why I could see a trade for a backup sooner than later, even if it means weakening the team elsewhere. The risk, of course, is that no one really knows how well a backup will perform over any given stretch. It’s a big gamble, either way.
More on the Toronto Maple Leafs Defense
I have read with interest many discussions about the Leafs defense. One thing I want to add to the mix is a better understanding of how they have been deployed against elite forwards. The majority opinion among analysts is that quality of competition is not that important because it averages out over a season with so many teams, lines and players involved — but that’s only if you look at it that way.
This grid shows the ice time each Leafs defenseman has faced against Elite, Middle, and lower-tier “Gritensity” forwards, according to a rules-based definition developed by WoodMoney at PuckIq. PuckIQ has done the work to look at every shift and map the competition to these tiers for every player.
Dangerous Fenwick percentage (DFF%) is basically five-on-five unblocked shots that have been weighted by rink location danger. It is correlated to xG model estimates much more than raw Corsi shots. DFF% is shown as a bold percentage below the minutes.
This grid isn’t necessarily the final answer on defensemen’s effectiveness, but it might be a piece to the puzzle and worth understanding.
I have a few takeaways from the grid:
- Morgan Rielly (49%) and Cody Ceci (52%) have played the most minutes against elite forwards and have performed the best at DFF%. That doesn’t mean they’ve had a great season. They haven’t. I assume much of Ceci’s elite competition occurred earlier in the season paired with Rielly. Since then, Ceci’s performance has dropped, as has his role under Keefe.
- Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl were given the shutdown role more recently, although each hasn’t performed all that well on this measure, with matching DFF%’s of 43%. In November, I saw Jake Muzzin’s xGF% number’s fall off (when he was paired with Barrie, mostly under Babcock); this, plus what might have been a health issue, may have impacted him. The health issue (before the foot injury) is my suspicion, anyway — I could be wrong.
- Justin Holl is new to this level of competition. While he has looked good most nights, he hasn’t reached breakeven yet on DFF%. He’s done well at the two lower tiers, however, and that might have prompted the promotion.
- Like most defensemen, Tyson Barrie does much better lower in the lineup facing middle and “Gritensity” attackers. His giveaways can be glaring, though, and for him (and probably Ceci), showing okay in a measure like this is only part of the story.
- Travis Dermott has flipped the tiers. In his limited time against elite forwards, he has looked better versus elite forwards than he has against lower-level ones. This is probably tied to his excellent mobility and his skill at challenging forwards in the neutral zone and by maintaining a close gap.
- His good early results against elite forwards tend to support Keefe’s decision to promote him. I don’t think we will really know what he is in the top four for some time.
- Marincin is Marincin: a replacement-level defenseman who is fine against lower competition but has difficulty higher up.
The point of the above chart is simple: Understanding a defenseman’s performance is complicated and what may seem like a good or bad result in the aggregate may look a little different when we drill down. Context is important.
That’s why I included several context measures in my SKATR tool to try and help address that issue. This is just one of them. We should never oversell ourselves on how well a sheltered young defenseman will perform after being promoted. It’s a big step — not unlike moving from the AHL to an NHL third pairing.
By the way, Rasmus Sandin only played six of his 71 five-on-five minutes against elite forwards. Let’s be careful in how we set expectations and develop these young players. Erik Brannstrom was at a similar level to Sandin in the AHL, and he is facing more than his share of challenges playing in Ottawa.
Right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs need a healthy defense. I believe their top four with Morgan Rielly at 80% and Muzzin injured is vulnerable. Players like Travis Dermott and Justin Holl show promise, but it may be a trial by fire in the short term.
On the plus side, so far the Leafs forwards have been leading the charge and that has been enough to win many games — but we can’t expect that every night. I mean, Auston Matthews’ goal-scoring streak has to end eventually, right? Right!?
The coaching change has proven to be the boost the team needed and it puts the team in a much stronger playoff position. It exceeded my expectations, and it’s been fun watching this team the past 22 games. Let me tell you this: Being invited to write a game review in December after the Leafs put on a show is not work — it’s fun.
Looking ahead, goaltending is likely to be a critical issue down the stretch. We could well see a trade for a backup goalie before the trade deadline, even if it’s only to add depth at the position.
I think the Leafs are playing some of their best hockey right now and they still have players returning from injury — all except one.
On that note, I will end by giving a shoutout to Ilya Mikheyev, the player who captured my full attention in training camp and has since won my admiration and touched my heart.
Let’s all wish him the fullest of recoveries. He rocked the house in his first season with the Leafs. Well done, Souperman!