A slow start for the Maple Leafs: Analyzing what’s good, what’s bad

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Nikki Reyes to discuss the Maple Leafs play without captain John Tavares, most specifically, Mitch Marner, who’s having a tough time bouncing between lines.

Fourteen games into their season, it’s fair to say this is not the start the Toronto Maple Leafs were looking for. Things are far from dire with a 6-5-3 start, but having lost eight of those 14 games is just not good enough compared to the expectations placed on this team.

It’s not like everything is going bad for the Maple Leafs. According to Corsica.Hockey they’re fifth in score-and-venue-adjusted Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 with a strong 53 per cent mark, meaning they’re controlling the flow of play better than most teams.

So what has led to this stuttering start?

Let’s look at how things are shaking out from a shot quality standpoint for and against, since the Leafs are usually a team that outperforms averages in shooting percentage, and Frederik Andersen is remarkably consistent in terms of save percentage (he’s given his teams a .917 to .919 save percentage each of the past four seasons). Andersen’s .901 save percentage this season could be chalked up to his nearly annual October struggles, or it could be a sign that the Leafs are struggling.

We can look at differentials and find how much the Leafs are controlling play, but I want to do something a little different. So, I’ll break down each factor in shot quality for and against, then look at how much better or worse the Leafs are than league average at each one.

This will give us an idea not only of which areas the Leafs are struggling in, but by how much compared to the average team. In the NHL this happens to be around the cut off for playoff teams.

In this graph, if the percentages are positive, that shows how much better the Leafs are than league average in the specific area.

Looking at things this way, we can see the Leafs have been nearly 10 per cent better than league average at protecting their own inner slot, but nearly 13 per cent worse at getting shots from there themselves. This is a big change from last season, when they were average defensively in that area, but were the second-most dangerous team on offence. This season they’re getting just the 25th-most high danger chances from the inner slot per minute, which is a bit of a shock.

When we cast the net a bit wider and look at the slot as a whole, the Leafs are better offensively and defensively than league average in shots on net, but below average in shot attempts against. You can look at that positively and say Toronto is forcing dangerous shots wide or blocking them, or you can say the bigger number in the smaller sample size (the shot attempts) is more representative of true performance.

Considering the Leafs are also way above league average at preventing inner slot shots, I think it’s fair to give them credit here and say there’s a concerted effort to cut down shots on net against from the slot, and that it’s working so far.

Moving on to scoring chance types, the Leafs are producing slightly more off the rush than most teams, and are getting more chances off the forecheck than anyone else. But they’re also giving up more of each type, especially off the forecheck.

So the Leafs’ forecheck has been extremely effective for them, while opponents have been nearly as effective at forechecking against them. This is a lot of time to spend on a style of play that doesn’t produce a large quantity of chances; only about 15 per cent of all scoring chances in the NHL last season were produced by forechecking plays, whereas rush plays and cycle plays both accounted for more than 30 per cent.

The Leafs were vulnerable to forechecking last season as well, but seem to have given up a huge portion of their off-the-rush offence (they ranked third last season), in order to attack more on forechecks of their own. This season they’re way down at 13th in offence generated off the rush, which is barely above average.

With that said, the rushes the Leafs do get are more dangerous than almost any other team. That’s because of their ability to complete passes on those rushes, another area they’re well above average. This is an area Mitch Marner and William Nylander usually excel in, but this season Auston Matthews has added a lot of rush passing to his game as well.

Defensively, the Leafs are good at preventing rush passes against, both by being decent at defending entries overall, and strong at defending once the zone is gained.

Where the Leafs are struggling a bit more with passes is moving the puck into the slot. Last season they completed the fourth-most passes to the slot in the league, and this year they’re down at 13th.

Sign up for NHL newsletters
Get the best of our NHL coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

NHL Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

Defensively not much has changed. The Leafs continue to have trouble protecting the high slot area from dangerous passes, but that shouldn’t be so much of a surprise. They ranked 22nd in the NHL there last season and are in the same position right now.

Overall compared to 2018-19, the Leafs are actually improved defensively at 5-on-5, and yet Andersen has seen his even strength save percentage drop from .927 to .906.

From a team perspective, the bigger issue is the lack of offence compared to what was being produced in 2018-19, and some of that can be laid at the feet of losing John Tavares for a stretch. But even Tavares had been struggling to produce offence at the same clip, as had Marner. Marner has since recovered significantly, but is still producing about 15 per cent fewer scoring chances for his teammates, while Tavares was producing almost 30 per cent less, and failed to produce a single inner shot slot on net before his injury.

If Marner continues to recapture his performance from last season and Tavares rebounds from a slow start to the season when he returns, it would go a long way towards quieting anxious minds in Southern Ontario. But if Andersen’s performance doesn’t start to reflect Toronto’s improved defensive play, it may not matter.

A lot of focus is on Mike Babcock right now, but at the end of the day the most important players on the roster have to perform.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.