Abysmal, ridiculous, crippling and jaw dropping. All of these terms, and more, easily apply to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defensive efforts last season. They allowed shots against at a rate comparable to the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, ’72-73 New York Islanders, ’92-93 San Jose Sharks and the ’93-94 Los Angeles Kings—the four teams that surrendered shots against at the highest rates ever in the NHL.
Three of the four were basically expansion teams (San Jose was in year 2), and the fourth team (Los Angeles) somehow imploded defensively a year after they lost the Stanley Cup Finals to Montreal. Those Sharks gave up 36.6 SA/G, the Kings 36.1 SA/G, and last season’s Leafs 35.7 SA/G)—basically, the 2013-14 Leafs were the third-worst defensive outfit of the past 39 years of NHL hockey.
The key distinguishing feature between those teams is goaltending. Having Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer in net is a nice security blanket, but it won’t make a difference if the defensive group in front of them can’t stop the bleeding this year. To that end, the Leafs brought in Peter Horacheck to run the D and Steve Spott to handle the forwards. Horachek had a relatively weak Florida Panthers’ side holding the opposition to under 30 shots per 60 minutes at 5v5 last season and previously worked with Nashville under Barry Trotz, who regularly led teams to some of the better defensive performances league wide. It seems Horachek will focus on controlling the neutral zone more than Toronto has in recent years, specifically with a focus on disrupting controlled zone entries by the opposition.
Theoretically this should force teams into more dump-and-chase efforts, which should allow the Leafs blueliners—particularly the mobile Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly—to retrieve pucks quickly and turn play back up ice. The Leafs are also moving away from the “swarm” to a more traditional defensive zone scheme that has the wingers more responsible for the points, shifting into heavier puck pursuit style when they read that the play is pinned or controlled along the boards. Under Spott, they are also re-designing their breakout tactics to improve puck support and appear to be working schematically to try and push pinching defenders back to allow spacing for more controlled exits.
But it’s still going to come down to the players on the ice and what they can and can’t do.
For years under Brian Burke, the Leafs have tried to add that “rugged” defender, full of intangibles, to lighten the load for Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson—UFA siginings Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek are great examples. But despite decent results in terms of possession, the team was never quite satisfied with the production—particularly due to atrocious penalty-kill results. Don’t forget, during the 2009-10 and ’10-11 seasons, the Ron Wilson-led Maple Leafs were a 50.0% Fenwick team. That wasn’t particularly on the merits of a defensively stalwart club—they ranked 24th in Fenwick Events Against per 60 minutes (42.6)—but still vastly outstrips the Carlyle-led Leafs (49.3).
Toronto’s defensive results the past two seasons actually represent the worst two-season stretch in the past seven years by any NHL team. Part of the problem may stem from the fact that the Leafs management has consistently targeted prototypical “shut down” defenders—tough-as-nails, shot-blocking, crease-clearing, physical stalwarts coaches laud more for their intangibles than their skill. Unfortunately those guys don’t actually excel in the defensive role they are defined by.
This chart compares current and recent Leafs blueliners the past seven years in terms of unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) while on the ice versus teammates’ performances without them.
Only Robidas has actually reduced his teammates’ Fenwick Against while on the ice. Recent shut down experiments Mark Fraser and Ryan O’Byrne both struggled, as did Tim Gleason. Despite the Leafs’ best efforts to convince fans that Dion Phaneuf is a defensive stalwart—largely by force feeding him tough minutes—it’s obvious the team does not excel defensively when he is on the ice. New shut down guy Roman Polak isn’t too bad, but the man he was traded for, Gunnarsson, is better. Polak had the lowest percentage of OZ starts of any regular Blues D-man over the past two years, but he was relatively sheltered in terms of the quality of teammates he played with. And as St. Louis added to its blueline, he dropped down the depth chart. Realistically his results were mixed, and it seems unlikely that Polak was driving the possession results St. Louis was seeing when he was on the ice.
One area he can definitely help, however, is on the penalty kill—28th-ranked last season. Since the start of the 2011-12 season he’s played 449 minutes on the PK and has blocked 89 of 715 shot-attempts against the Blues while he was on the ice (12.4 percent). And over the past four seasons, Polak was on the ice for 20.932 Fenwick events against every 20 PK minutes. Gunnarsson and Phaneuf are the only Leafs D-men that have played comparable short-handed minutes over the same time, and both of them were on the ice for over 25 Fenwick events against/20.
When the Leafs had success two seasons ago on the PK—finishing second overall—James Reimer had a very high .914 SV%, but Mark Fraser played a huge role. The number of shot attempts (blocked and unblocked) directed at the Leafs goal when he was killing penalties was comparable to the rest of the team’s blueliners, but while they were seeing 22-26 percent of the opposition’s shots get blocked, when Fraser was on the ice the number spiked to 37 percent. Fraser had 21 of those in 91 minutes of PK time while facing down 141 opposition shot attempts (14.8 percent), way more than any of his teammates.
Of course, one of the problems comparing players in different systems on different teams is controlling for context. Using dCorsi, which is designed to control for contextual factors such as age, position, time on ice per game, zone starts, faceoff wins, and team effects, we find that Robidas has largely been a possession driver while Polak has been a drag on his team possession-wise. On the Phaneuf front, for those who remain unconvinced, just be aware that he has only had a positive dCorsi Against in one of the past seven seasons.
If the Leafs can balance their defensive minutes more across all six defenders this season, things could improve quite drastically in their own zone. Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson have led Toronto in terms of defensive impact over the past few years, and both are deserving of a significant increase in their role with the club. Despite a poor plus-minus result last season and discussion of a dip in production, Franson’s underlying numbers justify an increase in responsibility. Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are both likely to improve significantly as they continue to develop. All of which would help reduce Phaneuf’s responsibilities.
Even if the kids have made huge strides and the systems look better, it may not be enough for the Leafs to stem the bleeding. For real improvement they’ll need more balance in their TOI distribution, Robidas needs to be healthy, and Polak has to work to change the direction of the impact he’s been making at 5v5. The new adds on the blueline may not be the difference makers, but the overall change in direction from the organization should make the Leafs blueline interesting to dissect and analyze this season.