What is the Maple Leafs’ bigger concern: Defence or goaltending?

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston discussed the Maple Leafs resilient rebound performance against the Lightning, and what Jake Muzzin’s injury could mean for an already decimated blueline.

After a long stretch of uneven play, a familiar question is coming from fans and media once again: What’s wrong with the Toronto Maple Leafs?

As usual, the focus has been on the Leafs’ defensive play, or lack thereof, with leads evaporating and goalies being lit up on the regular. I was asked how the Leafs have been doing defensively in February because this month they’ve posted the 29th-ranked team save percentage in the NHL at 5-on-5, so it would be logical to assume they’re giving up far too many chances.

Looking at things in a general sense, though, that hasn’t been the case.

Obviously, this doesn’t completely capture how the Leafs have performed defensively — where there are some glaring weaknesses — but they do look closer to league average than being bad at 5-on-5 in February by pure rankings. With that said, let’s see if we can’t glean a little more nuance out of their defensive numbers to see if the issue is more than just Frederik Andersen struggling.

Using the same method I used to evaluate the skills of deadline targets for goal scoring, playmaking, and defending, let’s see how much better or worse than league average the Leafs have been in various categories each month of the season.

In this instance, because we’re measuring events that occur against the Maple Leafs, negative numbers are good as they show the events are less frequent than league average. For the purposes of looking at impact on save percentage specifically, we’re going to stick to shots that hit the net in our analysis.

Breaking it down on a month-by-month basis, we can see where things have been a bit more varied over time, and where there are persistent strengths and weaknesses.

The Leafs started the season strong with one of their best months in recent years in limiting shots from the inner slot and cutting down traffic in front of their goaltenders – but they gave up slot passes more often than most teams. Overall, by limiting rush chances, one-timers, and inner slot shots, things should have been going great defensively, but Andersen struggled mightily out of the gate and the Leafs’ offence was terrible during the same period, so despite these good metrics, they got off on the wrong foot.

Andersen rebounded in November and December, but the defence in front of him struggled to limit chances against and allowed more volume from dangerous areas, more deflections, more one-timers, and more rush chances.

In January the Leafs pushed back on the inner slot area, but they were killed from the high slot and hence, the slot overall, giving up over 20 per cent more scoring chances on net than the average team. That extra focus on the inner slot also came with a more conservative approach to defending the blue line, and as a result the Leafs were ripped to shreds off the rush, giving up nearly 47 per cent more than the league average.

In February, things have shifted once more, as the Leafs have given up more inner slot chances than at any other point in the season and are also allowing more deflections on net. But they’ve drastically cut down on slot shots overall, one-timers, rush chances, cycle chances, and slot passes. Overall, February is likely their best defensive month since October, and it hasn’t come at the cost of neutering their offence, but they’re losing the net front battles.

The deflections look a little scary on that chart, and it’s never good to give up a ton of those, but I do think the sample size is so small that there’s a lot of randomness involved in any single month. There appears to be a heavy correlation between deflections and inner slot shots though, so it is an area in which the Leafs are struggling.

There’s still no way I would call the Maple Leafs a strong defensive team, but at 5-on-5 I see more positive movement in February than negative. They’re just not getting the goaltending every team needs to win consistently.

The biggest positive to my eye is that the Leafs’ most consistently bad area has improved to league average levels. All season long Toronto has given up about 10 per cent more chances off the cycle than the average team, until February when they gave up about 0.5 per cent less. Cutting down on slot passes and one-timers should make a huge difference for goaltenders, even if it hasn’t been the case so far with the Leafs.

Another point I’ve seen made recently is that the Leafs are terrible while shorthanded, and their 26th-ranked penalty kill percentage at just 76.5 per cent would lend a lot of credence to that. But are the skaters the problem, or something else?

The Leafs give up more one-timers than the average team while down a man, and that likely coincides with giving up more East-West passes by forwards below the tops of the faceoff circles. But overall, they protect the slot very well and have been flat out incredible at fending off opposing forechecks.

Despite the Leafs’ inconsistent defence at 5-on-5, the penalty kill hasn’t been a problem for the skaters. They’ve been doing their jobs at an above average level even if they’re lacking natural centres to start the shifts off. This is on the goalies as well.

Unless Andersen is able to recapture the form he’s expected to have very quickly, we might see a bit more Jack Campbell, who has been very good since joining the Leafs.

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