TORONTO – We’re only an eighth of our way into the most anticipated Toronto Maple Leafs‘ season since your dad had hope and already a striking theme has emerged in the club’s losses.
A serious deficiency of Vitamin D.
Amazingly, the Maple Leafs’ three losses have all been field-goal battles ending in an identical 6-3 final score, putting the lie to the theory that NHL’s highest-scoring team can only benefit from games with bulky box scores.
So, what do those three Leafs beaters — Ottawa, New Jersey and, as of Thursday night, Carolina — have in common?
All of them are allowing an average of three goals or less, putting them among the NHL’s top 13 defensive groups. All of them are significantly more disciplined than the Leafs and operate in cities with a fraction of the hype.
Toronto, conversely, wows with its high-end, ultra-deep offence, masking the serious flaws head coach Mike Babcock has identified but struggled to correct.
“They deserved to win; we didn’t deserve to win. We didn’t work; they worked. They were organized; we were unorganized. They were prepared; we were unprepared,” Babcock summarized after his loss to the Hurricanes. “From the coaching staff to the players, we were all no good tonight. It’s on us.”
Yes, it’s on Toronto and all of its entertaining guffaws. But the other guys get paid, too, and credit is due to the teams that have limited the damage of Auston Matthews & Co. (Surprise, the kid was the best Leaf again Thursday.)
Tips to outscore the Leafs:
• Play patient and structured. The Senators trapped and lulled the Leafs Saturday to the point where Matthews described their style as “almost boring,” no doubt thrilling the Senators fan base. But the Sens have given this group fits since Guy Boucher arrived and, down the road, could be a divisional opponent Toronto must overcome to keep their season alive.
“Ottawa plays conservative, patient… what’s the right word?” Frederik Andersen said. Someone suggests boring. “If they win, it’s not boring, right?” Right.
Carolina, too, devoted itself to detail in the D-zone.
“They don’t really give up a whole lot. It’s tough to claw back into it,” said Nazem Kadri. “The chances we are giving up are just too quality.”
Jeff Skinner explains: “You want to be above them. You want to be on the defensive side of pucks. And you want to defend as a five-man unit. They’ve got some good players where if they beat you one-on-one or someone falls down, you need to have layers to support on the defensive side.”
• Seize an early lead. In all of Toronto’s losses, the blue side fell behind in the first period. When forced to play catch-up, the Leafs’ weaknesses — sloppy breakouts, cheating for offence, D-zone giveaways — get exacerbated.
• Dress the better goalie. If you’re starting a hockey team, do you take Cory Schneider and Craig Anderson before Frederik Andersen? Yes, you do.
Scott Darling, Thursday’s winner? Maybe not, but he’s just getting his feet wet as an NHL No. 1 behind a team he’s only known for a couple weeks.
“Losing is not acceptable here anymore,” asserted Darling, who, like Andersen, is trying to keep his save percentage on the happy side of .900.
Thursday marked the fourth time in nine starts that Andersen has allowed five-plus goals. Andersen’s save percentage has dropped to a career-worst .893, ranking him 26th among 30 goalies with at least five games played.
• Win the possession game and don’t let up. Carolina and Ottawa out-shot and out-attempted Toronto from start to finish.
“You have to weather the storm when they’re coming at you, [but] you can’t just sit back and defend,” said Carolina coach Bill Peters.
“Let’s win the face-off, have the puck and make them defend. Let’s have some heavy shifts in the offensive zone and not have to worry about it. That’s the best way to defend is to have the puck. When we were too respectful of their skill and had poor gaps, they made us pay. When we were aggressive and on our toes, then we’re a real good team.”
• Stay out of the penalty box. Every opposing coach comes in and raves about Toronto’s 1-3-1 power play, third in the league at 28.2 per cent, with two units equally scary.
“Very unselfish, very heavy at the net,” Peters said. “It’s very hard to defend if you have a shooter’s mentality. They do. They get the puck to the net here in Toronto. As importantly, they collapse on the flanks and are hard at the net. They really dig in.”
Carolina was intent on staying disciplined, and had to kill just one penalty.
“We don’t want to put them on the power play,” Skinner said, “and we did a decent job of that.”
Even though defensive-minded teams are catching on, Toronto is in fine shape, big picture.
The Leafs have yet to drop consecutive games, and some of their greatest talents are still grasping the importance of a consistent 200-foot game.
The Leafs are 7-3 and, as a disappointed Babcock noted, they’ve won their first two five-game segments, putting them on track for another playoff berth.
Defence and goaltending tend to come in handy in springtime, though, and Toronto ranks an alarming 25th overall in both categories, surrendering 3.6 goals per night and posting a scary team save percentage of just .892.
Andersen says he doesn’t look at his stats, only video, but the only other team currently in a playoff position allowing goals as often as the Leafs are the Penguins — and they cut ties with Antti Niemi, the main man responsible for their .887 save percentage — this week.
A popular school of thought says you don’t want to peak early, so the good news is that Toronto has time to tighten its own D (or use its scoring depth to trade for better personnel when the market shakes loose).
“By no means are we playing our best hockey yet,” said Patrick Marleau, who admitted the Leafs can get too cute when things are going well. “It can seep into your game, especially when you’re up two or three goals.”
The greatest need for change might be mental, a desire to commit to own-zone responsibility no matter how soft the night’s opponent may appear on paper.
“They’re giving up over three goals a game. If they can improve defensively….” Drew Doughty said this week, leaving the idea open-ended. “But that’s not just on their defence; that’s on their top forwards playing good defence too. That’s how you create a good defensive team. That’s how we did it here. That’s why we’re still good at D.”
Doughty says it took him a while to realize the importance of thinking D first, of cultivating a willingness to block shots, clog lanes and exit the zone as clean as a Lamoriello shave.
“Just hating to get scored on—that’s how we developed it,” says Doughty, who owns twice as many Cup rings as all the Leafs combined. “I would rather not be scored on than go out there and score a goal. That’s just the way I am.”
Toronto’s not that way yet — far from it — but there’s plenty of runway ahead.