Systems Analyst: Four problems the Maple Leafs must solve by the playoffs

Nick Kypreos joins Evanka Osmak on Sportsnet Central to discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs ahead of the trade deadline, breaking down the team's top priority, the goaltending situation with Joseph Woll coming back, and more.

Flawless rosters no longer exist in the NHL, if they ever did. These days, they really don’t exist. The stagnant salary cap means teams have been allotted only so much to go around and elite players cost money, so you have to scrimp and save in other places. To that end, the Leafs are not alone in their lineup imperfections.

All that means is GMs and coaches have to enact a form of triage on their rosters, assess which areas of need are most pressing, and deal with those first before concerning themselves with whatever surface level scrapes exist elsewhere.

For the Leafs, their Tuesday night defeat against the Vegas Golden Knights may just have been a loss to a pretty good team in Game 58, but it shouldn’t just be shrugged off. From puck drop to final buzzer, a few of their major areas of need were highlighted, and all but laid out a “to-do” list for GM Brad Treliving and head coach Sheldon Keefe.

Goaltending aside — which is a larger topic unto itself — here are the four main issues the Maple Leafs have got to get sorted out in the coming weeks.

Defenceman handedness

The Leafs’ handedness problem hit a nadir Tuesday night when they dressed six lefties on the back-end, meaning half of their guys were playing their off-side.

Some players can thrive doing that, as T.J. Brodie had for much of his career. But most find they need a special set of tools to make it work, and not everyone possesses those tools. Righty Timothy Liljegren is hurt, but his return will hardly be a good enough solution as we speed towards the trade deadline. They need at least one more righty.

A few examples of why from Tuesday night.

First, Mark Giordano finds himself going back on a puck, offering an option to his goaltender who stopped a dump-in. If Giordano were a righty, he could have kept the puck going along the wall past the first forechecker to his winger. Instead, as a lefty, he’s jammed up to make a one-timer on his backhand, tries to make a neat little slip to the centre, and when he’s off by a few inches it leads to legitimate scoring chances against:

Next, Brodie goes back on a puck that he could turn up the wall on his forehand with and keep it somewhere safe, if he were a righty. He could go glass and out, or maybe look to the middle if he had time, but at least the puck would have started going north. Instead, as a lefty, Brodie goes east-west on this play that Morgan Rielly doesn’t handle well and it results in another chance against.

Below, Brodie again (it was not his finest night) skates on to a puck that, if he were a righty, would be protected by his body from a forechecker and he could then keep moving with his feet. From there he could have slipped it to Pontus Holmberg or dumped it out, but he’d have options to get going the other way. Instead, as a lefty, Brodie had to make a cute play to juke the forechecker, tried to reverse it behind his own net (rarely a good decision), and it resulted in the Grade A-est of Grade A chances against.

Unfortunately, Brodie’s regression this season means they need him playing the left side. With Liljegren, and maybe Jake McCabe (on his off side) playing the right side, you’re still short one quality body there. We’ve talked about the names ad nauseam of late, but Will Borgen, Ilya Lyubushkin, David Savard, any of these guys would at least take some pressure off the Leafs’ heavily taxed left-shooting defencemen.

Obsessing over offence

The Leafs are maybe the most offence-hungry roster in the league. And in fairness, they do eat. They’re currently first in the NHL averaging 3.66 goals per game. They haven’t been shut out in over 200 straight games. Goals baby, they want ‘em. The problem is sometimes they get just so focused on that scoring. In a 0-0 game (below), the Leafs got a chance off a draw — Max Domi shoots it, Tyler Bertuzzi whacks at the rebound, and the defence and forwards creep in smelling a goal.

Meanwhile…Ivan Barbashev slipped in behind them, and the puck went the other way.

This has been a theme with Toronto for years. It happened later in Tuesday’s game, too, after a William Nylander rush where five guys were drawn towards the opposing crease.

Hockey is a two-way game. It’s not just: “What’s the play I can make that gives me the best chance of scoring.” You also have to care where the opposition is. Incidentally, this is why I got so annoyed at this next play, where Domi tried to tip a puck out on the breakout thinking “rush,” but when it obviously didn’t get out, he just kept skating on.

Really disliked that (even if he doesn’t know it’s been knocked down, if you don’t see the puck get out, you stop). I know they were down a couple goals at this point, but there’s almost 10 minutes to go in the game and Toronto is a loaded offensive team. You still gotta play hockey.

D-zone coverage by wingers

Most of the Leafs’ defensive zone errors stem from players obsessing about getting the puck back, and not just asking themselves “OK, we’re in D-zone coverage here, who’s my man?”

(As a small tangent: Most of playing the game at the pro level is assessing “what state of play are we in,” which lets you know where you should go on a breakout, a regroup, D-zone coverage, a forecheck, etc. Accepting you’re in D-zone coverage is part of that.)

I thought Domi had a high-event night, both ways. In the D-zone, he seems to just hold an area of the ice and wait for the team to get the puck back so he can do the fun part of the game. I’m highlighting him, though he’s not alone in letting his mind wander in that end. Here, Domi is the winger on the weak side (Tavares is playing centre low, Bertuzzi went down hurt so they had switched sides), but he just stays in the slot as it becomes the strong side and never even part-way concerns himself with the opposing defenceman. So instead he defends nobody in the middle.

On the goal against where Domi is the centre, he didn’t look for a check and seemed to have a bit of a glitch moment where kinda just stands in one spot boxing out nobody.

It’s a mindset and that mindset can’t always be “how do I turn this moment into offence.”

All these things I’ve mentioned are about defending their own net, but the final point isn’t.

Getting to dangerous ice against great defenders

It’s been greatly publicized that the Leafs scored just two goals in seven straight games to end their post-season run last year. That’s what happens when you play against very good defence corps that have a game plan against your best players. Vegas has arguably the best group of six defencemen in the league, and having just played and given up seven to the Leafs last week, they were motivated to shut them down.

SportLogiq had the Leafs with just five Grade A scoring chances Tuesday night (all strengths), a number they’ve been below just three times in 57 other games this season. What it looked like to me was superb team defending, where every time the Leafs thought they’d have a clear path to the net for a shot, they were smothered and blocked out.

Watch the layers the Leafs would have had to get through to get better chances in this video, mostly after the first rush play:

[brightcove videoID=6347926625112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

We know the Leafs can generally score, and we know that scoring on Vegas isn’t easy, as they’re a top-10 NHL team by goals-against per game.

But it won’t matter how the Leafs do against the rest of the league over 82 games, because both the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers are top-five goals-against teams (with the Metro-leading Rangers being sixth-best), so Toronto is going to have to keep scoring in the face of great defending when the puck finally drops on the playoffs.

In all, these are not issues that are beyond repair. But it’ll take a different mindset — one less offensively-focused — and likely a new body or two if the Maple Leafs hope to have another playoff run that extends past the first round.

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