Leafs’ newfound commitment to defence ‘foundation’ of impressive start

Follow The Money takes a look at NHL Futures on teams that are the best bets to win their divisions and that they are 'all-in' on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — You could gather a bunch of NHL head coaches in a room, have them watch the same game tape and never find anything close to consensus on the number of scoring chances for and against.

It’s an inherently subjective exercise.

Still, it’s no small thing that the man who has watched the Toronto Maple Leafs more closely than anyone over the last 15 months came away from their biggest test of the season Wednesday night in Montreal saying that they’d surrendered their fewest scoring chances against during the 4-2 victory.

That wasn’t captured in the data publicly available on a site like Natural Stat Trick, for example, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe has repeatedly stressed the need to take away the middle of the ice and net-front while limiting odd-man opportunities, and he’s almost certainly grading the Leafs on that curve — which may differ from how others are scoring it at home.

Against a high-volume Canadiens squad that is particularly dangerous off the rush, his team limited turnovers and transition opportunities after an early Josh Anderson goal. And despite the Leafs’ own offensive instincts and abilities, they kept it from becoming a track meet.

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“That to me is the greatest area of growth,” Keefe said Friday amid an 11-2-1 start that ranks among the best in franchise history. “The commitment to do it even at times when our offence hasn’t been going the way we would like, or the way our high-end offensive guys expect, they haven’t sacrificed that part of it. It hasn’t been perfect, but we’ve seen a lot of commitment in that area.

“I think that’s been the foundation for the success we’ve had to this point.”

It has made Toronto the class of the Group of Seven — five points clear of the Canadiens heading into their return meeting at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night.

These are not the Leafs of old, or even last year. There’s been a shift in mindset that Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas started establishing through a mixture of personnel moves and off-season communication with returning players.

Despite playing in the high-flying North Division, where “defence is optional!” could be the tagline, Toronto has given up the six-fewest shots per game and seventh-fewest goals per game league-wide a quarter of the way through the new season.

That flies in the face of their previous reputation. These Leafs seem to be maturing into a group that remains patient even when it’s 1-1 entering the third period, as it was in the wins over Montreal and Vancouver earlier this week.

“I think that we just continue to try to do things the right way and continue to keep our foot on the gas,” said forward Zach Hyman. “And know that if we keep playing the way that we are, we’re not going to give them much and we’re eventually going to break the game open.”

Added newcomer Zach Bogosian: “I just think we’ve as a group taken a step in the right direction from what I’ve heard from the guys that have been here in the past.”

Confidence is high, understandably, after banking 23 points already.

It’s much easier to stick to the plan when it produces immediate results. Where Keefe is looking for more growth is in the way his players break out of their own end and make their way through the neutral zone.

That should open up even more chances to play in the offensive zone — Toronto is already among the NHL’s best in possession time there — and could bump up its shot-based metrics in the process.

“I think the whole point of what we try and do is don’t panic in our (defensive) zone, try and control the puck, come out with the puck in our hands. That’s when we’re at our best,” said Mitch Marner. “I think right now when we’re doing well on our D-zone it’s all five guys who come back strong, staying in the middle. When we do get the puck, it’s no panic, it’s calmness, everyone’s talking to each other.

“Trying to get out of the zone clearly with the puck in our hands so we can try and make plays going the other way.”

Scoring hasn’t been an issue for this organization since Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander were all brought into the lineup four-plus years ago. The Leafs have produced more than enough goals to be among the NHL’s elite during that time frame, but fell short when it came to keeping the puck out of their own net.

They’ve struck a much healthier balance early in 2021 — slightly outpacing the Tampa Bay Lightning for the league lead with 3.71 goals per game while also making life easier on goaltender Frederik Andersen.

“I think we’ve had greater commitment,” said Keefe. “Just a renewed focus around here about what needs to get done and the guys have been really good about staying with it.”

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