It’s been years since the public perception of the Toronto Maple Leafs defence has been in line with reality. They haven’t been bad defensively in numerous seasons, but last year they were downright good, while this year they currently sit fifth-best in goals allowed per game.
Among their quality defensive metrics, one stands out to me in a way that helps explain the others. They’re fourth in “o-zone possession time against,” with the opposition having the puck in their end just over seven minutes per game (at 5-on-5). When you excel there the opposition isn’t going to have enough time to accrue much of anything else, statistically.
Thanks to that reality, here are some of Toronto’s more positive league ranks in some key defensive categories (all stats are “against”):
Again, that bottom stat helps explain the rest.
There are some D categories where the Leafs aren’t top-10 of course, particularly rush chances allowed, where they’re 19th in the league, though they’ve been improving steadily there.
The thing about defending via Not Playing In Your Own End, as the Leafs do, is that it gets an awful lot harder to do in the post-season. Sure you can break it out against Anaheim’s half-committed forecheck, go ahead and skate it past the Flyers’ loose structure, but it’s going to be a little harder when it’s Tampa Bay or Boston seven games in a row in the post-season, and that’s a fact.
Toronto’s had success at defending via not-really-having-to-defend on the backs of their D who all skate well and can make plays, often getting the puck in the hands of their forwards early so their elite guys can go do what they can do. What’s concerning, though, is they’re getting visibly worse in this “grab-the-dump-in-and-go” department. Over the past five games they’ve allowed forecheck chances and cycle chances at an alarming rate, the latter stat tied to the first.
It’s all tied to retrievals. If your defenceman going back on the puck can make a good first touch and get past the opposing F1, you’re off and running. It’s when that opposing F1 gets the breakout stopped that you’re immediately vulnerable. Players are still coming back into the zone and unclear on their positioning, as you have to do a “return to D-zone sort out.” Essentially that means each forward has to figure out where he is in the queue of players getting back into the D-zone. So, if you’re first in the zone as winger, that means you now have to go play low as “centre.” Centre may have to switch to a wing, and read which wing based on who covered for him. It all takes 3-5 seconds to figure out who’s taking which role.
Defences are most vulnerable in those moments, and the Leafs have looked every bit of that of late.
We all know the most recent example, where the Boston forecheck bumped Rasmus Sandin off the puck, and the Bruins were on the attack before the Leafs could figure out they were no longer in “breakout” mode and were in fact suddenly in “panic help defence” scramble mode. It starts after the puck gets pushed into the corner and Sandin pursues it.
Versus the Ottawa Senators’ fast puck pursuit, Timothy Liljegren and Morgan Rielly can’t get it pushing up ice:
The same pair failed to use the extra second they may have had on this next breakout attempt below, and it all came crashing back down on them three seconds later.
This is a nice dump and forecheck, but they play it like they’re about to break it out, rather than worrying about defence first.
And the Isles did it to them again below, as they rushed back on a puck in their own end.
Allowing more forecheck chances against these past five games, the Leafs have been stuck in their own zone rather than going the other way more often, and as you can see on that second mini-table above, they’ve gotten shredded for ~50 per cent more cycle chances against per game as a result.
The Leafs have faced some teams with good offensive players and forechecks, but it has been concerning that when their breakout game isn’t working, their ability to stop a cycle hasn’t been there to bail them out. Here you’ve got Pavel Zacha (18) unmarked in front before he makes a great pass to Taylor Hall (71), who comes down Broadway with oceans of room.
Below you’ll see that as this puck comes up high, four Leafs are drawn to it without much concern for what’s happening below:
Below there’s some guesswork from the Leafs defenceman (37) in front who thinks the puck may go behind the net, so he starts to vacate the slot all too soon (and the weak side winger is too slow to provide the help):
(I feel like this is a real team video session, so I have the need to say “just two more guys, stay with me.”)
This next example is a longer one, off another dump-in, where they seem too eager to leave the D-zone when the puck almost clears (Pierre Engvall here in particular), rather than focusing on stopping the opposing cycle. It ain’t out until it’s out.
And finally, another retrieval failed, followed by a lost check who’s heading back to the net in a 2-2 game with a minute left.
The reality for the Leafs is that in scenarios like the above, Liljegren is going to see some ice time, because Jake Muzzin isn’t available, and guys like Justin Holl, TJ Brodie, and Mark Giordano can’t play every second of the game. One of Morgan Rielly or Liljegren or Sandin is going to be out there in these huge moments, and Liljegren might be the next most reliable, despite some of these clips. (As much as I like Rielly the total player, his D-zone play concerns me.)
This is the pressing question Kyle Dubas and the Leafs head into the break with. Yes, they need a winger in the top-six to help them score, but nobody will score if they play too often in their own end. And as well as the Leafs break the puck out on average, they’re also going to have to be able to stop cycles in the playoffs against the best teams.
This is a talented group that generally plays a tight team system, and can be a nightmare for their opposition. But Toronto is past worrying about 31 other teams, and are down to focusing on just two – or maybe even one, in Tampa Bay – meaning some big decisions will have to be made in the weeks ahead.