Analyzing what the Maple Leafs defence really needs to improve the most

Joshua Kloke of The Athletic talks to Kyper & Bourne about the state of the Maple Leafs blueline and when GM Brad Treliving may make the first move.

The 2023-24 Toronto Maple Leafs do not have an elite group of NHL defencemen, this is true, but it’s not for the reasons most people think.

The talk about this group is mostly about how the Leafs need the type of bigger, stay-at-home defencemen who can kill penalties and clear the net front, thinking of the performance they got from Luke Schenn last season.

Nothing about this article should entirely change your mind there, as some snarl and defensive focus would definitely make life easier for the goaltenders.

That is, provided said snarl and defensive focus comes in a package that can skate. Offence from back there would be nice, but I’m just talking about guys who can really get around.

That’s because the Leafs’ problems don’t occur in-zone, they occur because they’re far too permissive at their own blue line.

Using SportLogiq’s data, I came across a defensive category I absolutely love: gap distance, which measures the distance from the defender to the puck carrier at the point of entry.

Toronto’s defence grades out terribly here.

I set the filter at a minimum of 150 minutes played so far this season, which gave us 185 defencemen. Of 185, the Leafs have four D-men ranked 149th or worse, and it just happens to be the four guys they use most:

• TJ Brodie: 149 of 185 (12.9 feet)

Morgan Rielly: 157 of 185 (13.0 feet)

Jake McCabe: 171 of 185 (13.4 feet)

Mark Giordano: 182 of 185 (14.4 feet)

Last season Giordano’s gap was 13.2, so it’s 1.2 feet worse so far this season.

Brodie was 12.3 the year prior, so it’s over half a foot bigger today.

Rielly was 12.1, so he’s up almost a full foot.

And McCabe was 11.4, so he’s allowing a full two feet more gap on average.

As a team, the Leafs’ average gap is 12.8 feet, which is 31st of 32 teams.

Now, this isn’t exactly tied to team success on a direct line, but if you’re more generous with space at the blue line, you’re going to spend more time in your zone. And so far, the Leafs have spent the seventh-most time in their own end per game, a number that’s way up from last season.

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This is why I say that the Leafs’ defensive failings aren’t in line with public perception: they’re the second-best team in the NHL at limiting shot attempts from the slot off the cycle. Once the opponent gets swirling in their end, Toronto tends to allow shots from distance, rather than in tight (you can think of a couple recent Minnesota Wild goals as examples).

It’s those bad gaps that leave the Leafs with stats like “28th at limiting slot shots off the rush.” It’s also why they’re 23rd in the league in “D-zone denial percentage.” (The outlier in all these stats for the Leafs is John Klingberg, who actually keeps a decent gap, yet somehow ranks 184th of 185 in D-zone denial percentage at 34.7 per cent. Meanwhile, Jamie Oleksiak and Brett Pesce are over 63 per cent.)

When I worked with Sheldon Keefe a huge focus for the Leafs was getting their defence to kill plays early in the neutral zone, with what was then called “early takes.” Essentially, the weak side D would come across and skate with the opposing break out, trying to snuff out rushes before they could start, while their partner fell in behind them.

All these things I’m mentioning point to Toronto needing defencemen who can really skate to execute the strategies. You can’t have tight gaps if you don’t trust your feet (and to some extent, your goalies), and you can’t kill plays in the neutral zone if you’re worried you can’t skate with the opposition’s speed.

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There’s no doubt Giordano has to protect against declining speed, but the Leafs defenceman who concerns me most is T.J. Brodie. His gap has gotten worse, and so the area where he thrived for the Leafs before – D-zone denial percentage – has dropped from ninth-best in the NHL to 51st.

That’s not even what stands out most with him.

For years the Leafs D have been good at going back on dumped-in pucks and making the type of savvy plays that help you get out of your end and playing on offence. This season though, Brodie’s ability to do it under pressure has been awful.

McCabe, though, has been excellent at this. While under pressure, he’s got the fourth-best “first play success” rate in the NHL, executing a useful touch nearly 93 per cent of the time. Rielly is just outside the top-20 here as well.

Meanwhile, Brodie is 156th of 185 with a 65.8 per cent success rate. The year before he was 35th in the league here, having success 80.8 per cent of the time under pressure. And this is with a deeper gap, which should help him on retrievals this season.

Now, what could be happening is his larger gap is leading to more retrievals where he’s not “under pressure.” In fact, Brodie’s rate of first play success on retrievals without pressure is 11th-best in the NHL (90.2 per cent, after being 85 per cent the year before). But to me all these numbers still paint a clear picture of what’s happening with this Leafs defence.

They either don’t skate well enough, or are just so concerned about getting burned wide and giving up a clean look that they’re backing off too deep and allowing the opposition the freedom to enter their zone and play in Toronto’s end.

As a team with elite scorers, the concern is less that they can’t defend their own end and more that if they are having to defend in their own end they aren’t spending as much time in the offensive zone, which defangs their bite entirely.

When the Leafs do eventually add defencemen to their back-end — and they will — the temptation will be to just add the type of bruisers who can hit and fight and slash and be “butchers.” And, sure, they could use that element too.

But more than anything, they need their defencemen to keep better gaps and make it harder to get into their zone, which will allow their forwards to produce more offence, and tip the scales in Toronto’s favour.

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