The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ struggles seemed to be a never-ending spiral of a confluence of factors this season, but the higher ups in the organization decided that the best way to move forward and attempt to salvage 2019-20 was to change the voice giving direction in the dressing room. So Mike Babcock’s eight year, $50 million contract comes to an end a little more than half way through it.
Leading the Leafs behind the bench now will be Calder Cup-winning coach Sheldon Keefe, who has worked his way up with patience and perseverance alongside current Leafs GM Kyle Dubas since 2012-13 when he took over behind the bench for the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL. Dubas has stated before that he believes that move turned things around for the Greyhounds.
Everyone will be looking for Keefe to do the same thing for the Maple Leafs, who we now know for sure have one organizational direction that flows from team president Brendan Shanahan, to general manager Dubas, and now down to head coach Keefe. Now it’s Keefe’s job to get the most out of his players.
The remaining question then is what specifically does Keefe need to fix for the Leafs’ season to turn around?
Not to say that the 2018-19 Maple Leafs were the ideal team by any stretch — they were bounced in Round 1 by a vastly superior Boston Bruins team last spring after all — but I think everyone can agree that the Leafs of last season were good. With that in mind, let’s compare and contrast this year’s Leafs to last year’s and see what has changed compared to the rest of the league.
We’ll examine the Leafs by league rank in a variety of metrics offensively and defensively, then work to find out what is driving the results of both. Since it’s always a hot topic of discussion, we’ll start with defence.
Looking at a variety of important metrics that influence goal scoring, we can see that the Leafs have cut down significantly on the most dangerous types of chances teams can allow. Toronto’s gone from significantly below average in the number of inner slot shots they allow at 5-on-5 compared to the rest of the league to just a hair above average, and the improvement is even more pronounced in the most dangerous of all chances; uncontested shots from the inner slot. There, the Leafs have gone from being ranked 23rd (allowing the ninth-most), to ranking fifth. That’s a huge change.
Similarly, the Leafs have cut down the number of scoring chances on net overall, the number of shot attempts against, and they’re approaching average team level in cutting down passes to the slot, though they still have a ways to go.
Overall, things appear to have improved in a big way, but there are a few wrinkles to consider.
When you move from shots to shot attempts you can see that while scoring chances on net are down, the Leafs are giving up more attempts from the slot than ever. Those chances are coming more often off the rush as well, which makes them more dangerous. Contrast that with last season when they were poor at preventing chances, but were above average at stopping opposing chances.
The takeaway here is that the Leafs are challenging puck carriers far more when they’re in a good shooting position, forcing more shots wide and blocking more as well. But they haven’t actually been able to prevent teams from carrying the puck into and through the slot. Old school types will likely read that as a glaring need to add more toughness, but aside from the frequent breakdowns and mental lapses that have always plagued this team defensively, the job of cutting down shot quality against has actually been more or less accomplished, and not just at 5-on-5.
Freddie Andersen's all situations expected save percentage last season was .9133, this season it's .9174. Every game he's facing 2 fewer high danger chances, 2 fewer passes to the slot, and one less screened shot on net. The Leafs ARE better defensively.
— Andrew Berkshire (@AndrewBerkshire) November 18, 2019
At 5-on-5 the Leafs have jumped up from an average rank of 21 in these areas to 17.5 this year, but the issue for the Maple Leafs isn’t necessarily the sustainability of their defensive improvement — it’s more about what they gave up in order to achieve a moderate uptick in shot quality prevention.
That’s what brings us to the offence.
Offence is where the changes for the Leafs really show, and nothing could sum it up more succinctly than the Leafs ranking second in shots from the inner slot at 5-on-5 last season and tumbling all the way down to 27th this year. That seems impossible for a team with two players like Auston Matthews and John Tavares, but the Leafs have gone from incredibly potent to impotent on the attack.
The drop isn’t restricted to the inner slot either. The Leafs are producing just barely above average levels of scoring chances on net, and they’ve gone from the team that connects on slot passes the sixth-most in the league to 17th — a slightly below average passing team.
Strangely, the Leafs have drastically increased their passing off the rush, attempting to create more high-end plays that give opponents fits, but they’re turning far fewer of those rushes into scoring chances. Toronto has gone from being the third-ranked team off the rush to 16th, and when we cut that down to chances on net, they’re just 24th.
In terms of shot attempts, the Leafs are the same team. They’re shooting just as often, but the shots are coming from worse areas, and they’re generating them in less desirable ways. They’ve increased their chances off the forecheck, but that has come at the cost of their rush chances, and the relationship is directly related.
In writing about the return of Zach Hyman, I noted the Leafs were dumping the puck into the offensive zone far more often this season, choosing to do so on 54.7 per cent of their entries at 5-on-5, as opposed to 46.7 per cent of the time last season. That eight percentage point jump may not seem like a lot, but it dropped them from carrying the puck in the sixth-most often in the NHL to the 22nd-most often, which will limit their ability to create chances off the rush.
One reason for this that I’ve seen people guess about is that the Leafs have cut down on their stretch passes. They led the league in those attempts over the past several seasons by a wide margin, but have only attempted the 11th-most stretch passes this season. Their completion rate on those stretch passes this year has significantly improved, though, and the net loss has been just two fewer completed passes per 60 minutes. Meantime, they’re connecting on an extra six more outlet passes this season, so I’m not sure if that change in pass placement and forward positioning in the neutral zone is enough to cut down their overall team speed and ability to attack the offensive blue line with control of the puck.
The shift to dumping the puck hasn’t carried over to their zone exit strategy either. They exited the defensive zone with control the 10th-most often last season and are ranked ninth this season, so it really appears that the decision was made to focus on forechecking and change the strategy at the offensive blue line.
If I had to guess at where Keefe’s focus will be as he takes over behind the bench, it would be on decisions made at both blue lines.
Offensively, the Leafs are a Ferrari that’s been saddled with stone wheels. They need to be allowed to attack with speed and overwhelm teams while taking risks, and defensively…
In their own zone I think we all know that the Leafs are not a roster that boasts a wealth of big time performers. There are a few players like Jake Muzzin who have great in-zone coverage and win battles like it’s nothing, but overall they’re a finesse roster of players whose hockey IQ is all about creating.
They do, however, have a lot of great skaters with good sticks. Because of that, the focus defensively has to be all about preventing entry in the first place. With players as fleet of foot as the Leafs have, there’s no excuse to be allowing so many chances off the rush. They need to be more aggressive about stopping entries and regrouping to get their own transition game going.
This is an area where players like Travis Dermott and William Nylander — not stalwarts in the defensive zone by any means — have excellent impacts defensively. Lean into that strategy, take the lumps from opposing forechecks, and the Leafs should be OK.
This roster might never be great defensively, but that adjustment could get them to average. That might be all this team needs.