I will be completely honest: I wrote and rewrote this article in my head approximately 100 times, before staring at a blank Word document for about 30 minutes.
I messaged friends — even called a few — and read through social media and message boards. There is so much to unpack with this team right now — or, depending on who you talk to, it’s actually a very simple situation.
In the latter case, we completely blame the goaltending. There is, without question, some credibility to this argument. Since January 1, 2022, the Leafs are dead-last in the league 5v5 save percentage. Whether they have been spotting teams early leads or allowing back-breaking goals at pivotal moments, the goalies have made it difficult on a team that is generally playing well.
Sometimes it really is that simple, and we don’t have to galaxy brain it into something bigger. When the goaltending is legitimately league-worst bad, it impacts the roster, and it makes every single mistake more glaring because it’s ending in a goal more often than it should. Every single team will make mistakes in a game, but most teams, especially the top ones, have goalies that often bail them out. That is, after all, part of a goalie’s job.
The Leafs are tied for seventh in points percentage, sixth in goal differential, first in power-play percentage, fifth in penalty kill percentage, third in goals for per game, 18th in goals against per game, fifth in team corsi at 5v5, seventh in team fenwick, and fourth in expected goals for percentage. They are effectively top 10 in just about every key performance indicator available to us. They also have (and I’m obligated to write arguably here) the best player in the league.
We can look at all of that and quite easily conclude that goaltending is the problem and that stabilizing the situation in net (internally or externally) will bring the goals against per game number down, rounding out the team perfectly. Maybe they are truly a goalie away. Any team would be good if they had a goalie blackout for a while, and beyond goaltending, the Leafs’ bottom-line results are great.
On the flip side, there are indicators that other issues exist beyond the netminding.
Friend of the site Justin Bourne discussed the Leafs‘ defense over at Sportsnet. I recommend you read the entire piece by Bourne if you haven’t already as it breaks down why the defense is problematic (and why the Leafs should likely add to it). In it, he wrote:
“Right now the Leafs’ goalies are getting lit up on high danger chances and are statistically among the worst duos in the league at allowing goals from directly in front of the net. I think that stat is affected by defending, as the Leafs simply don’t have the type of guys who keep bodies out of those areas, nor do they control sticks particularly well.”
While the goalies have struggled and certainly have conceded their fair share of bad goals, a common refrain at the moment when a “good” or “high quality” chance goal goes in is that they have to make a big save at some point — specifically, when it comes to tipped/deflected pucks right in front of the net. Almost the exact same conversation was had about Frederik Andersen last season, in particular on goals that were coming off of deflections. He has, of course, gone on to have a great season this season for Carolina — a team that ranks among the elite in shots allowed per game, corsi against, and scoring chances against.
Two different goalies performing poorly in the one location and performing well in the other location, before and after switching spots, is almost certainly not a coincidence.
The Leafs aren’t exactly bleeding chances with regularity, but when the mistakes happen, they are glaring. At the moment, this is a group with two true top-four defensemen, and even that Rielly-Brodie pairing’s numbers have likely been inflated by playing so much with the Auston Matthews line (they have played almost 400 minutes at 5v5 without them and are even in corsi, below 50 in fenwick and expected goals, and have been dead even in goals for and against at 16 apiece in those minutes).
Their other top defenseman, Jake Muzzin, has struggled and been injured this season, and even if he returns to full health and rediscovers his old form, it’s the same player who has had each of his last two playoffs ended abruptly due to injury, with last year being a non-contact injury. There are a number of things we can’t trust there.
At forward, the Leafs have an incredible top line and an effective third line that’s capable of checking and chipping in some offense. The other two lines leave a lot to be desired.
We’ve written about the second line duo of John Tavares and William Nylander more than enough at this point, and there’s really not much else to say. In two of their three seasons together, they have been outscored while on the ice together at 5v5. Over three seasons together, they have 94 goals for and 89 against at 5v5. Slice up any of the other numbers any way you want, the Leafs aren’t paying those two to be slightly better than even at 5v5 (and this season, they are at 35 for / 40 against). You can’t ask the top line to outscore other elite lines and make up for a middling second line.
The fourth line, which has generally had Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds on it, is not particularly effective in any specific area of the game. They aren’t a defensive line, they don’t score all that much, and they don’t bring any sort of energy. Their best asset is that Spezza is a second-unit power-play specialist.
Since January 1, the fourth line has been outscored 8-5 and is below water in corsi, fenwick, expected goals, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Recently, Sheldon Keefe has moved Alex Kerfoot there to give the line a jolt, and while it’s too early to make much of a determination, they still aren’t exactly leaping off the page with Kerfoot on the line, either.
And then there is the team at large, which has been guilty of flat performance after flat performance in most games of note — any number of playoff games, including five straight first-round exits, big Saturday night games, players returning home; you name it, and the big occasions have largely brought dud performances out of this team. Their signature win over the past five years might be the Curtis McElhinney game to clinch a playoff spot against Pittsburgh.
You can say it’s subjective, and the luck will bounce their way at some point – there’s likely some truth in that – but the evidence is too tough to ignore at this point. I don’t even know how they fix it within the current group, but we can’t just simply pretend it doesn’t exist at this point.
With all of that said, where exactly do things stand? The team is 5-3-2 in the last 10. The sky isn’t exactly falling. If you only read the top half of this article so far, you’d think the Leafs are an elite, Cup-bound team. If you read only the second half, you might be confused as to how they could even make the playoffs.
The reality is likely somewhere in the middle, with the issues being exacerbated by goaltending as bad as any team can get in the NHL nowadays. That goaltending bouncing back – and it should to some degree! – will normalize a lot of things. It will maybe even make up for a lot of the issues on defense.
That said, short of a number of players stepping up and/or emerging down the stretch, I don’t see a team that’s simply “fix the goaltending” away from getting where it wants to go. If anything, based on the pedigree of their past performance and ability, the goaltending is the most reasonable bet to normalize (the question is whether that would be good enough to make a serious Cup run; a goalie would almost certainly have to go on a heater of some sort knowing that’s what a deep run in the playoffs generally calls for).
The defense improving will help the goaltending improve – and “defense” includes the play of the forwards here, by the way. It is entirely possible that a fully-recovered Muzzin returns and finds his game, although that is a massive unknown to bank on. They might want an insurance policy for Muzzin knowing the current group is not good enough (and Kyle Dubas has indicated he wants to add a defenseman).
The coaching staff needs to figure out how to configure the right forward combinations that produce a second line capable of regularly outscoring opponents as well as a fourth line that provides some sort of purpose.
“I take it as I got to play better. I want to be in the lineup every night.”
– Jason Spezza on being healthy scratched for two games in a row
Honestly, I figured Jason Spezza was sitting out for load management reasons, but based on these comments, it sounds like it was more driven by his play. That was a bit surprising.
They should be load managing him and other veterans, but if we are to take this comment at face value — which I do, because why would Spezza lie here? — then load management doesn’t appear to be a consideration at this point in time. A missed opportunity, if so.
“I don’t pretend to be a doctor or have the ins and outs of that. There are people far more qualified than I who the league employs and our team employs. We just care about his health and getting him healthy. Once he gets to the point where he feels like he is ready to get himself back into competition, we will probably get him some conditioning games with the Marlies before we put him back in the lineup.”
– Kyle Dubas on Jake Muzzin
Dubas provides a rough idea of the plan here, and a conditioning stint makes sense. It might even allow them to keep the LTIR space and get him into some games.
Ultimately, though, playing Jake Muzzin in NHL games before the playoffs probably still makes the most sense — asking him to step directly into the playoffs and play a prominent role is a tall task for an aging defender who was struggling prior to the injuries.
“You’re just battling in front of the net. I felt like I kind of rode up his shoulder and his shoulder pack rolled up a little bit. That’s hockey; you’re competing out there.”
– Auston Matthews on his altercation with Rasmus Dahlin
Honestly, watch a sample of NHL games, and you’ll witness a number of scrums that get similarly testy. I can’t believe this is even a discussion, but that’s what happens in Toronto, where the media effect is huge.
When the game ended, it was one of the first talking points for the Sportsnet panel. Every single week in this league, there are a handful of incidents that are notably worse than Auston Matthews on Dahlin that aren’t even mentioned after the fact.
Tweets of the Week
Worst save percentage in a calendar month, Leafs history
March 1982 .821
January 1986 .832
March 2022 (so far) .836
October 1989 .838
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 11, 2022
When you are in the company of the 80s teams, that’s really saying something.
Scoring the 3rd of his @MapleLeafs 5 markers in a win vs CBJ on Monday, Auston Matthews has reached the 40-goal mark in just 53 games. It's his 3rd straight season with 40+ and 4th in his 6-year NHL career overall, tying him behind just 3 great young centres on this all-time list pic.twitter.com/6XtlmgnooE
— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) March 8, 2022
Elite of the elite company to be keeping.
Great catching up with pal Harry Neale, who took one look at me walking into the KeyBank press box & said “I knew they should have never reopened the border!” Good point by him. Harry turned 85 yesterday & is still sharp as ever. Happy Birthday my friend. pic.twitter.com/5L61j23IVf
— Mike Zeisberger (@Zeisberger) March 11, 2022
I loved seeing this and hearing that Harry Neale is doing well. For so many of us, he was one of the true voices of hockey and the Leafs. “Watch the lawsuit, Tie!” lives on forever.
Five Things I Think I’d Do
1. At some point, I think you have to protect Timothy Liljegren and manage his role a little bit better. He has been burned multiple times. Against Buffalo, he played just 10:35. Liljegren has had a good season overall, but he’s still in his first full-time NHL season, and it shows.
I understand their defense has issues and someone needs to play in the top four, but even if the Leafs platoon Liljegren and Ilya Lyubushkin, they are giving Liljegren a bit of a break versus playing him full-time in the top four — in front of struggling goalies, in a market that has the team under the microscope right now.
2. I think I don’t mind the TJ Brodie – Justin Holl pairing. Holl, in particular, has been quietly solid for almost a month now, and while other issues have emerged, it is a significant development for the team that he has managed to quiet his game down and give them some dependable minutes.
3. I think we are approaching a point where it will be difficult to have Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds in the lineup at the same time. They are both fourth-liners at this stage of their careers, and they don’t particularly mesh together stylistically or bring out the best in one other.
Eventually, the Leafs really decide on a direction for their fourth line. When they do, it should mean only one of the two is in the lineup.
4. I think the Leafs’ coaching staff should really start considering using power lines to start games and to start/close periods. There have been too many occasions over the past few weeks where the team has come out flat or ended periods poorly. Those pivotal moments within games only take on more importance at playoff time.
I think it would be good for the whole team to start games with a loaded-up line, then follow it up with the third line before settling the regular lines in. Typically, coaches look to get all 12 forwards out there as soon as possible to settle them into the game, but for this group, I think there’s real value in starting games by swinging for the fences.
5. I think I would start Erik Källgren in the next game. There isn’t much to say. Petr Mrazek hasn’t been great, so give the kid a shot and see how it goes.