After breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the Western Conference Canadian teams, it’s time to move East and check out the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs and Habs enter the qualifying round in very different scenarios; Montreal as the lowest-placed team just lucky to be here at all, and Toronto facing a lot of pressure to finally have some playoff success after three years of first round exit “learning experiences.”
Before we break down the biggest strengths and weaknesses for both teams, let’s look at how each of them fared at controlling play in the second half of the season.
Unlike the West where three of the four teams really struggled to control play at 5-on-5, both the Canadiens and Leafs were very strong even strength teams during the second half of the regular season. Toronto was the only team in Canada to register positive differentials in all these shot quality measures, while Montreal registered huge advantages in shots, but struggled when it came to controlling slot passes. Ironically, that’s Toronto’s biggest strength.
Even with a glaring weakness in passing, both teams were very strong overall in the regular season, so where are they exploitable?
The Canadiens’ biggest weakness was extremely evident in their exhibition game against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday night. Granted, it was the first game in nearly five months for both teams, but the Canadiens have a remarkably difficult time getting from their own zone to the offensive zone on the power play.
That happens to be an issue at even strength as well, and though the Canadiens aren’t the absolute league worst in that area at evens, they’re not far off it. For a team built around speed and depth, it’s somewhat remarkable how bad they are at transitioning the puck.
The other area that plagues the Canadiens structurally also has to do with their special teams, where they allow the second-most chances against of any team in the league — and those chances also have the highest proportion of screens of any team.
Combine the special teams struggles with Carey Price’s up and down season at 5-on-5 and it’s easy to see why a seemingly stellar even strength team could never cut the mustard this season.
For the Leafs, I noted in a previous piece that they’re relatively excellent at stopping teams at their defensive blue line, but if that neutral zone defence is penetrated, they’re awful. No team had a higher proportion of their controlled entries against turn into scoring chances off the rush, so we’ve got a situation where the Leafs are legitimately good at holding their blue line, but it hasn’t translated to good defence at all. It’s truly strange.
The other two biggest weaknesses for the Leafs are going to send the people who say the team needs to get bigger and grittier into a tizzy, because there’s some legitimacy to that. Maybe not necessarily getting bigger, but the Leafs genuinely struggle at removing possession from opponents in the neutral and defensive zones. They can intercept passes and pounce on mistakes as well as any team, but in actual physical confrontations they’re among the league’s worst.
Once the Canadiens do gain the offensive zone at even strength, they’re a buzzsaw in the crease. Brendan Gallagher is the keystone player, but the whole team drives the inner slot constantly, and their ability to win battles and get to loose pucks before opponents after a shot creates more possession time in the offensive zone and more dangerous shots.
Unfortunately for the Canadiens, that hasn’t translated into them being a top notch even strength scoring team. Whether it’s due to a lack of pre-shot movement or simply not enough high-level shooters in the lineup, it seems like there are far too many wasted golden opportunities. It can make them a frustrating team to watch if you want to see wins.
The Leafs are in many ways the funhouse mirror of the Habs. While the Canadiens struggle to move the puck in transition, no team goes from their own zone to the attack more efficiently than the Leafs. They don’t get as much volume of chances as the Canadiens do, but their combination of elite snipers like Auston Matthews, and killer playmakers like Mitch Marner, makes them one of the league’s scariest teams to deal with.
The Leafs hit the offensive zone fast and hard, and the puck is rarely stuck going north-south. The entire ice is utilized in the attack to get everyone moving and create lanes for passes through the middle. Their ability to score their way out of trouble makes some believe they play lazy at times, but I think they just lean into the strengths of their roster more often than not.