Can an offence-first team like the Maple Leafs win in the playoffs?

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox break down the Toronto Maple Leafs' loss to the Florida Panthers, and explain why head coach Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs have reason to be optimistic despite giving up a four-goal lead.

It’s a common refrain whenever a great offensive team wins a string of high-scoring hockey games, as that playing style doesn’t fit into the collective notion of what “playoff hockey” looks like.

The idea is: “You can’t win like that in the post-season.”

For the Toronto Maple Leafs, that claim has rung true for years now, as they’ve been perceived as an offensively-gifted team that has “lacked defending and grit” – you’ll recognize those as Playoff Words - and as we know, they’ve fallen short in four straight post-season deciding games.

It's a neat and tidy little narrative, and hey, not without splinters of truth.

We associate playoff hockey with a heavy bent towards defensive and physical play, and we’ve all come to agree that the refs “put the whistles away.” Refs don’t, though. In fact, penalties are called at a higher rate in the playoffs, it’s just that players commit so many borderline infractions that we see potential calls get let go, and so we say they “put the whistles away.”

I mention that only because it’s a great example of how our brains use confirmation bias about playoff hockey to put together an easy-to-understand story for us, and away we go with it, despite the statistical truth of more penalties getting called in both raw totals and on a per-60 basis.

Here’s the truth about style of play and what wins in the playoffs: There’s no formula, none. There’s no “type of team” that wins, as bad as GMs around the league seek to emulate the previous Cup winner every off-season. Yes, almost every Cup winner has a great 1C and 1D and 1G, or as I like to call that trend, “The best teams have good players,” which is quite the revolutionary team-building philosophy. But beyond that the threads are less common.

I don’t want to go against the idea that playoff hockey is different, or to claim that it’s not more physical, or that it’s not better defensively. It becomes all of that, though, because you pare a league down to the best 16 teams, and those teams tend to have success because defence and physical play are effective attributes in winning hockey games, and winning is how you wind up in the top-16 to begin with. Combine that with effort levels being maxed out to 100 per cent per player, and we see better defence and more hitting, facts only.

Where we go off track though, is when we elevate “defence and physical play” as the utmost priority to be sought out before offensive play. Tons of big, mean teams who try to play D are left watching on TV come April. It’s simply not true that the best teams in those categories are the teams that take home Stanley Cups. (It’s just a proxy for “physical play,” but of the 10 teams with the most fights this year, seven will miss playoffs.)

Let’s get back to defence, which is apparently what Cup winning teams are all about. Here’s the regular season rank of the past five Cup champions in straight up goals against in the regular season:

2016-17: Pittsburgh Penguins, 17th

2017-18: Washington Capitals, 16th

2018-19: St. Louis Blues, 5th

2019-20: Tampa Bay Lightning, 8th

2020-21: Tampa Bay Lightning, 6th

As you can see, those are hardly the league’s best defensive teams, and some of those totals are flattering when you dig deeper. The ’17 Penguins were 22nd in the league in expected goals against. The ’18 Capitals were 28th(!). The ’19 Blues were 15th. They got better in the post-season, but that’s really more of an argument that average defensive teams can find a way to sort it out than the opposite.

If you look around the league over these years, the average rank of the past five Cup winners in goals for was a hair better than seventh. In goals against it was up between 10th and 11th. (And in the post-season, their average rank in goals for was better than third, while their defensive ranks averaged fourth of the 16 teams that got in.)

“You can’t score your way out of problems,” we’re told an awful lot, but the teams that win sure seem to be stronger offensively than defensively, and that checks out going back a decade.

I also harken back to a conversation I had on Hockey Central with Brian Burke, where we discussed playing styles, and he rhetorically asked when the last time a team won a Cup without an elite D-core. When I volunteered it was the ’17 Penguins he wasn’t overly pleased with me, but I’m not sure why we’ve all agreed to pretend that year, or the year the Caps won with not-a-defensive-specialist John Carlson as their 1D, didn’t happen. My point here is just that you can win a variety of ways. You obviously still want to excel defensively, but you don’t have to be like the 2012 LA Kings, who allowed just 1.5 goals against per game en route to their Stanley Cup.

As things sit right now after being involved in two games that saw 23 total goals in the state of Florida earlier this week, the Leafs are second in the NHL in goals for (and still one of the best teams in that stat over the past 25 years), and 18th in the NHL in goals against. (The Panthers are 14th in goals against, the Lightning ninth.)

Obviously 18th isn’t good, but it’s a number in line with those Penguins and Capitals teams that own rings with one major difference: I mentioned the Pens and Caps were 22nd and 28th in expected goals against those years, well, the Leafs are seventh-best in that category. Their actual defending hasn’t been as bad as their defensive outcomes.

What a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs need, then, isn’t to change their playing style to be more like the Kings of a decade ago. They just need some ever-loving saves, like the Penguins got in 2017 with Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray combining for a .929 playoff save percentage. Even the Caps got a .912 from their goaltending in the playoffs, which I think the Leafs would settle for right now.

My conclusion on the Leafs is pretty simple: They’re legit, and not built in some way that prohibits them from post-season wins, as evidenced by recent history. Over the past three weeks they’ve dealt losses to all of their biggest competitors, Tampa Bay, Boston, Carolina and Florida. They’re in the mix of teams who just need some good luck at the right time, though it’s not guaranteed for anyone.

When I look at the Leafs right now and evaluate “Can you win playing that way" (with offence as the strength), one issue sticks out for me that they can clean up.

This season (and for years now) the Leafs' plan has been to be good defensively by playing in the other team’s zone. “The best defence is a good offence,” and so on. The Leafs have good puck moving D, they break the puck out, and they play at the right end of the rink. That’s led to their more favourable defensive stats (like expected goals against), but also, zone time. According to SportLogiq, only one team in the league allows their opponents fewer minutes with the puck in their end than the Leafs. You can see that here, as well as a bunch of other decent Leafs defensive stats:

The issue that needs cleaning up, or that’s at least a red flag for the Leafs, is that this possession advantage they’ve created all season dries up some against the best teams, and then they’re left to defend more. As you see they grade out excellent in cycle chances against, but that’s largely because they aren’t in their own zone much.

Looking at this category, here are Toronto's past five games against likely first round opponents, all over the past few weeks:

Cycle chances at even strength:

TOR 5  –  FLA 12

TOR 4  –  TB   9

TOR 9  –  BOS 9

TOR 4  –  FLA 6

TOR 4  –  CAR 7

The Leafs' defensive stats are generally decent, and yes, part of that is because they break the puck out well and play at the right end of the rink. But that part is harder against the best teams in the NHL (and those likely first-round opponents), and so it ups the pressure on their actual in-zone defence, which is where questions remain. What can help in this category, again, would be to get a few more saves. Against Florida, too many lost plays along the wall ended in goals.

I understand why people watch the Leafs and question whether their style is “playoff hockey” or not, and I think you can fairly conclude it’s not what the consensus believes “playoff hockey” to be. They don’t defend as a priority, nor are they physical as a mindset.

But teams like the Leafs have won Stanley Cups before – teams with offence as their main weapon – and a big part of that hinges on the obvious: you have to get goaltending. If the Leafs get that, with their defensive metrics you can argue they'd look an awful lot like some very good playoff teams who’ve gotten it done.

Yes, the Leafs lost a tough one against the Panthers on Tuesday, but on the tail end of a back-to-back on the road against a rested opponent who’s got a shot at the Presidents' Trophy, getting a point isn’t a terrible outcome. (I believe I’ve mentioned goaltending?) Considering their recent run of play, there’s plenty of reason to believe this is a Leafs team that has the make-up to win in the post-season, even if they aren’t the consensus’ shape of what “playoff prototypical” is supposed to be.

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