How the changes for The Maple Leafs over the last season are leading to consistent success and where management needs to look going forward
After a gut-wrenching playoff disappointment, the Buds in Blue and many of their fans were left wondering what comes next and will they ever get there. What was a glaring issue all through the 2021-22 season of defensive capabilities and even in seasons prior has been addressed. Even if it looks like it is short term. Despite injuries, a slow start from many and question marks in some roster spots. Dubas and company, as well as credit to all the players have found yet another recipe for regular season success in the area of team defence. Here’s how they did it.
Throughout much of the 21-22 season, much of the story was on the explosive offensive domination that was Auston Matthews. Many players followed suit having exceptional production seasons including Marner, Bunting, and many others up and down the lineup. What was a consistent issue for them despite setting franchise records in points was defensive responsibilities through the line up, playing a full 60 minutes, and giving less opportunities to their opponents. Let’s look at how they got to where they are now.
The Leafs were plagued by injuries, inconsistency and unsureness through much of the 21-22 season when it came to who was defending the net. The numbers showed the Leafs getting below average goaltending for much of the season particularly following the great month they had in November. During the season the Leafs had to rely on 5 different goalies, none of which posted a Goals against Average (GAA) positive relative their expected GAA. In short, all Leafs goalies let in more goals than the numbers projected. Through injuries, it brought inconsistency in the goal. No goalies on the team were also positive in terms of their WAR. The closest was prospect Joseph Woll (He is having an outstanding season with the AHL Marlies, recommend watching him play) where he posted a net zero in WAR and only -0.01 GAA below Expected.
The reason the team goaltending numbers look semi okay is the hot streak of Campbell in November; where he posted an impressive .959 save% and a 1.27 GAA in 11 contests. With almost all their goalies being a non-option coming into this season, Dubas acquired a new tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray. Since playing for the Leafs, they have posted quite excellent numbers. Both are trending in a opposite direction with positive ratings in WAR, and GAA relative to their expected numbers. This allows them to have a winning chance in games more consistently. Now why is all this happening? Well, no major injury troubles and not having to use have your all of your goaltending depth helps, as does not shouldering much of the burden on 1 goalie. However, a lot of credit needs to go to the way Leafs are playing in front of them.
The more you practice something the better you get at it (most of the time). Could this be the result for the Leafs patience and hard work? In the 21-22 season the Leafs had pretty league average defensive numbers giving up a combined 30.62 Shots against per game on average. They also had the 5th worst percentage of giveaways in their defensive end at 64.51% and had the 4th most giveaways in the entire league.
Moving into this year, the Leafs have made strides, a more mature defence returning and largely unchanged from the end of last season and bolstering the blue line by adding depth pieces like Jordie Benn, Victor Mete. The Leafs overall right now stand at approximately 28.38 SA/Per game breaking down their numbers further they have seen an uptick in High danger shots by about 1.75/gm (up from 1.62 last season) but have dropped their medium and low danger shots by almost 2 per game this season so far. Not only this but they’ve improved their giveaways numbers as well giving up the puck to defenders at about 5.09 per game and less often in the defending zone. They are still amongst the league leaders in Giveaways across the league unfortunately. While not always the heaviest of shot blocking teams they’ve done more of it. Per game, they are blocking 14.58 shots, for all last season it was only around 12.15/game (4th worst). Team commitment to defence has brought these stats up. Despite injuries, the emergence of young players like Liljegren and Sandin into their potential as top 4 defence in the NHL and veteran presence through Giordano and Brodie has really stabilized them on the back end. There are other players who have made massive strides and the way they are being utilized has been incredibly impactful. This has been to great success and a large portion is due to one significant change on the forward group.
The Leafs largest asset for many of the last few seasons has been their offensive prowess. With such high power offense leading the way and almost always being top of the league in terms of team offensive production the defensive capabilities of the forward group and in particular the core players always somehow comes off as a surprise. Last season the Leafs has the charge lead by a top line of Matthews, Marner, and Bunting. In 22-23 the Leafs have shaken things up for the better. To this point in the season Marner has played more with Tavares and a handful of left wingers, and Matthews has been re-paired with William Nylander. What has this offered? While seeing a almost negligible decline in offense these top two lines now play a more defensive and responsible game. Through the 21/22 season the Marner Matthews Bunting line produced at 5.95 goals per/60 and had a GAA of 3.03 per 60 (their numbers at 5v5). While Nylander and Tavares shared a line they had production of 3.21 GF/60 at even strength and a 3.96 GAA/60.
This trend continued into the early parts of the 22-23 season, the Matthews line from last season having a GF/60 of about 2.7 and a GAA/60 of 1.7 and the Tavares line with a GF/60 of 2.22 and a GAA/60 of 2.54. Since splitting up the players this season, the line of Nylander-Matthews-Bunting has a GF/60 of 4.48 and a GAA/60 of 1.48, and the Tavares-Marner-Player X line boasts a GF/60 of 3.14 and a GAA/60 of 2.09. With one swap they’ve increased goal differential by almost 2 across the top 2 lines. What is also important is these lines have also seen a decrease in of approximately 2 High danger chances against (HDCA) per 60. This may seem small, but these shots account for 75-80% of all goals scored taking away a full 2 chances across your top 2 lines gives less opportunity for opponents to score.
The season is far from over, with an almost certain first round match up with the Lightning, and a second-round match-up with the Bruins if the Leafs can get there and still just under 40 games the Leafs are rumored to be testing things out and looking ahead. So, what could GM Kyle Dubas do? Many think he should pursue a winger, or another defense for depth on the backend. There is a case to be made for both sides of the coin here. The LW position on Tavares line could likely use a bolstering. Jarnkrok has found success but what if he gets injured. With Nick Robertson not returning, and Kerfoot finding success with the 4th line it makes for some hard choices. On the other side of things, the damage to the blue line has been difficult, without going into the injuries, the Leafs have already had 12 defense dress and every year there’s been an injury in the playoffs to the backend.
So, one question…Do the Leafs need offense or defensive help? The answer… Yes! Dubas needs to entertain all avenues including trying to cut Boston and Tampa’s legs out from underneath them at the trade deadline if possible, the last thing Toronto needs is for their opponents to get better. After the way defensively the team has stepped up all season, including new in-season acquisition Connor Timmins, the Leafs have a deeper defensive roster than in years prior. Outside your top 6 of that looks like Brody, Reilly, Gio, Holl, Sandin, and Liljegren. They have Timmins, Benn, Mete, and at this point, unsure, Muzzin could return if safe to do so. (He is scheduled to be re-evaluated in February.)
Looking to the forward group, they appear one bad injury from having to shake up the lines. If you take away Jarnkrok that leaves you with Kerfoot and then a call up to fill in the bottom 6. For this reason, Dubas needs to prioritize the top 6 winger, whether its another player to play with Matthews and Nylander goes to LW (where he has played before) on Tavares line, or just another top 6 LW that’s available to plug in on the Tavares line. Whichever direction Kyle Dubas goes, he can’t afford to miss on the gamble. Dubas and the Leafs require some notion of post season success this year in order to continue going forward beyond this season, but only time will tell.
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