Why the Maple Leafs' most pressing deadline need is a defence upgrade

Jesse Fuchs and Luke Fox discuss how much pressure Jack Campbell is feeling right now, why Mark Giordano makes a ton of sense as a trade target for Kyle Dubas, and how close they think Jake Muzzin is to making a return to the lineup.

If you listen closely to the market in Toronto as the trade deadline draws near, the desires of Leafs fans change like the late winter/early spring weather.

It was all but consensus for a while that the team needed to add on defence, but then the counterwinds blew. Some smart people on Twitter “Well actually’d” the consensus by pointing out that it was really the team’s offence that was the issue in past post-season runs, so maybe the most important need was scoring. JT Miller might be available, Elliotte Friedman mentioned, and that got some brains spinning. And still some others have cited the Leafs' shoddy goaltending of late and elevated that as the team’s most pressing need.

I wrote about the goaltending, and my esteemed editor Rory Boylen wrote about it further here, to highlight how there’s no obvious solution in goal. If nothing else, it isn’t the place you’d want to spend your finite assets with no guarantee that anyone you bring in will give you better than the offering of Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek.

As for adding offence, the Leafs are scoring 3.66 goals per game, which is up from even last year and good for fourth in the NHL (that pace would see them score 28 more times over 82 games from their 2020-21 pace). Their defence, however, has dropped from seventh in the league in goals against per game last year, to 17th. This isn’t last year’s team, and everything they’ve gained on offence they’ve given right back the other way. Even if a lot of that is because of goaltending, their “expected goals against” rate is ninth in the NHL, hardly at a Cup-winning standard.

All we hear from those who lean on the numbers is that any prudent evaluator uses both analytics and the eye test, and for me the eye test means doing video. On that front: the Leafs need help on D, and they need it bad.

Here’s the disconcerting part: they aren’t structurally bad, not at all, and the issues aren’t in coverage. Going back over the past three weeks I found only a goal or two where you’d say something got lost in coverage. But I did find other trends, and I’m not sure they’re fixable without simply plugging in different personnel. A healthy Jake Muzzin would go a long way to help, but even that won’t be enough.

Here are the Leafs' defensive numbers (brought to you by SportLogiq) by league rank. You can thank their offence for where they sit in “OZ possession time” (against), spending the least time in their own zone defending than any team in the NHL. Toronto plays a ton at the other end, ranking third in O-zone possession time.

All of which is to say, to end up 17th in goals against despite rarely defending in-zone means you’ve got a certain type of defenceman. They likely don’t excel in their own end, but they’re great at getting the puck up and out of their own end. Unfortunately, when you start playing the best teams over and over in the playoffs, you’re going to spend a lot more time in your own end, inevitably, so you better be able to play there.

There are four recent issues, and the first stems from something that was ailing the team a month or so ago, and an overcorrection. You’ll notice where they sit in rush chances against.

That happens for three reasons. One is that their forwards are unquestionably offence-first players who take the odd risk other teams may not, which means sometimes they don’t have a third man high. Second is that all of their D are active (that pinching helps with O-zone possession time), even guys you think of as more “stay at home” like T.J. Brodie. He'll move up off the blue line, so will Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljgren and basically everyone but Muzzin (who still jumps up occasionally). That style leads to a few extra rush chances against, too.

But with the lack of a high guy to slow down rushes against, it seems like the D don’t want to get straight up burned wide, so they back way off and lose control of the gap. When your gap is bad and you back too far in, you can screen your own goalie, you allow offensive players to move laterally, and you’re just too easy to play against. The examples in the following video are all from the past 10 games and came about for a variety of reasons, but all ended in what I’d call “sagging.”

The Leafs D are on top of their own crease as the pucks cross the line.

This is an area maybe you can coach up in theory, but with the next couple issues, I have my doubts.

Right now the Leafs' goalies are getting lit up on high danger chances and are statistically among the worst duos in the league at allowing goals from directly in front of the net. I think that stat is effected by defending, as the Leafs simply don’t have the type of guys who keep bodies out of those areas, nor do they control sticks particularly well.

It’s easy for the opposition there. These are questions of strength and physicality, which isn’t a – no pun intended – strength of the Leafs' D, who mostly skate and move the puck well to be effective. But as mentioned, in the playoffs, it's a guarantee that you’re going to spend time in your own zone.

First thing is tipped pucks. Because the Leafs are structurally sound in their D-zone, there aren’t many breakdowns. They abide by the Barry Trotz coaching philosophy that if the opposition is going to shoot from anywhere, let it be from out wide and out at the blue line. You expect your goalies to stop those shots, and I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “If they can’t stop them from out there, we’ll find guys who can.” But that axiom only works if those shots get to the net relatively clean, which for Leafs keepers they do not. Every puck seems to change direction on these guys right now.

One thing you can do to stop players from being able to tip pucks is keep them away from the net with box outs, a la basketball. The key with box outs in hockey is that if you do it away from the net (like coming off the boards after the puck has gone high), refs will never call the interference. If you do it near the net they will, and it’s also harder to do it that way. Once guys are close to the net they’ll spin off and skate through the crease and start causing a problem. They can already effect the play, so you want to engage the battle early.

Just by chance, as I was mostly watching goals against and not chances against, the worst instances in the past few weeks were all T.J. Brodie. But I’ve seen it happen with every other Leafs D-man (though rarely Muzzin when he’s in), and I don’t think these guys are going to fundamentally change who they are between now and playoffs. This is a real problem.

There’s just always someone skating through the goalies eyes.

There is another problem that can be coached, but here’s the thing with “can” be coached:

Jake Gardiner was a Leaf for a long time, and he was talented, and effective, and good. But he was prone to the odd mental gaffe that made people lose their minds and go “If he can just eliminate that, he would be unbelievable.” To my eye, that odd gaffe never left his game. Sometimes “it can happen” is fantasy. Players who typically blow assignments rarely become players who don’t typically blow assignments, and while it’s possible they could shed that trait, would you like to bet on them figuring it out during the playoffs?

Timothy Liljegren is a good skater and puck mover and has proven he’s going to play in the NHL for a while. The expected goals numbers love him (partially because he plays a ton with Auston Matthews on a strong possession team and starts in the O-zone a lot). But over the past month or more for the Leafs there is no player on the roster who you would single out more as the direct cause of a goal against than Liljegren. There are lost puck battles, and lost checks, bad gaps and more. It’s not that he can’t play in the league, it’s that he would make his coaches very nervous against good teams in big moments, even if he can figure it out at some point.

The most glaring for me is just how bad he’s been off lost D-zone faceoffs. The Leafs have the fourth-best faceoff winning percentage in the NHL in their D-zone, but when they do lose the draw, they’re awful. They’re 25th in the league in allowing shots off lost faceoffs. From SportLogiq:

As you can see below, when Liljgren is on the ice, those lost draws result in shots against at a much higher rate, spiking to nearly 40 per cent of the time. As a team defending in that spot, you’re all starting on the right side of the puck with the offence stationary. That shouldn’t happen.

From what I can tell the Leafs' D plays man-on-man off lost D-zone draws, which makes plays like the one below pretty simple to understand. Liljegren gets beat off the wall.

When Liljgren does go with his guy, he’s not always been able to prevent him from getting a shot off. (It seems like they don’t want to start with Liljegren protecting the net front, but it could just be circumstantial based on how they want to execute off a won draw. That part is speculation.) He’s on the wall again here, though on the other side:

Bad rebound or not, Liljegren’s job is to take care of his own guy just in case. He’s had a habit of standing beside guys shooting it in lately.

And when he has followed his guy up and around, the rest of the Leafs are occasionally caught napping, as William Nylander was here on the backside. Alexander Kerfoot did a poor job getting out through the pile, too.

Even this one below where Liljegren's not the first guy you’d blame, it feels like his thinking is just off. He’s on the wall again. Once the play settles in, I doubt they want him to think man-on-man forever. They’d want him to drop back into their zone as the puck settles behind the net. He ends up on the same side as Dermott and covering off a non-threat after getting put in the spin cycle off the draw.

The Leafs start Liljgren in the O-zone over 57 per cent of the time, which is the most on the team among their regular seven D.

Toronto's D isn't bad, neither statistically nor by the eye test. But "not bad" isn't the goal of Stanley Cup contenders. Yes, they’ve got a certain type of defender that leads to the play going up and out of their own zone, which leads to spending time on the right end of the rink. That part of their roster construction has worked.

But in the post-season, they will likely have to protect leads, and they will be playing teams with firepower. Tampa Bay has elite offensive talent and the Panthers are scoring at a clip the NHL hasn’t seen in years, with 4.12 goals per game, first in the league by miles. Someone on the Leafs will need to jump over the boards and defend at some point, I promise.

The Leafs have plenty of good young D in Rasmus Sandin and Dermott and Liljegren. Justin Holl can be useful as a defender-proper when he’s on his game. But those four guys taking up three of your six D spots in playoffs isn’t going to be good enough. They need Muzzin back, and they need someone who’s legitimately impactful back there, or it’s going to be same ol’ same ol’ for this hyper-talented team after Round 1.

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