You don’t fall short as often as these Toronto Maple Leafs have in the post-season — particularly in potential elimination games, where they’re now 0-11 — without a variety of causes.
Yes, the Leafs could use one close-out game where their goalie just blacks out and steals it. Yes, they could use a game where their superstars just decide ‘Sorry, this one’s ours’ and take it for them with massive performances. But you’re also allowed to win games the way you have all season, which for the Leafs has been by getting reliable play from their defencemen, defending well as a team, then asking their elite players to create enough offence to come out on top.
In this series, the Leafs have certainly created more than enough offence, leading the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 4.2 goals per game. They have six players among the top-18 playoff scorers, which includes their big four plus Morgan Rielly and Ryan O’Reilly. (Mitch Marner is first in points, Auston Matthews is fifth in goals.)
But that other stuff — the defending and the steady, reliable play — has been an issue, particularly from three of Toronto’s most steady, reliable guys. TJ Brodie hasn’t been the best version of himself — he’s been fine enough, just not as typically error-free — but Justin Holl and Mark Giordano are struggling. Bad.
For Holl — a guy who plays a style some fans, um, I’ll gently say ‘don’t enjoy’ — he’s forever had the backing of the numbers, and in my case, the video work. He’s never been a sexy player, but he’s always done the right things that push the puck the right way, and that’s been validated by the way the team uses him (a lot, and against good players). But now that the numbers have abandoned him too, I’m not sure there’s anything left to keep him in the lineup.
I also root for Giordano, who’s been an excellent Leaf over the past two seasons and a valuable, steadying force on the back-end. But he’s looked stuck in mud at times this post-season, and so together Holl and Gio have left the Leafs underwater.
You’ll recall that with the deadline acquisitions of Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson, the Leafs carry nine capable NHL defencemen (if you want to include Conor Timmins), and so it’s possible one (Timothy Liljegren) or both (Liljegren and Gustafsson) draw in for Game 6.
Let’s look at the Giordano-Holl pairing in this series to figure out what the Leafs should do. There’s been some correct-but-misleading stats floating around on the pair. Yes, Holl has been on for 14 of the 20 goals scored against the Leafs thus far, but five of those have been against Tampa’s elite power play where you’d fault him zero times and in fact give him credit for being a shot-blocking machine, entirely shutting down Steven Stamkos off the flank (don’t forget that important point if they decide to leave Holl in for Game 6).
At 5-on-5 Holl has been on for two goals for and nine goals against, which isn’t good even for a guy who has the most D-zone starts on the team (25 in five games, with a 10 per cent O-zone start rate). Giordano has been on for three goals for and eight against. As a pair, though, their numbers at even strength are two goals for and six against.
So, yes, they’ve had bad results, but below you can see the process is… also bad.
As of Friday, 44 defence pairs have logged 30 minutes or more in the post-season. Here’s how the Holl-Giordano pair has fared among those 44 at 5-on-5. Expected goals here stands out to me in a big way.
Those are the raw results, but the why to me isn’t at all ‘bad defending’ compared to other playoff D. It’s that these are the types of things where you’d expect a guy like Liljegren to have better success. Giordano and Holl aren’t moving their feet up the ice when they get the puck, and are instead remaining stationary and trying to pass the puck up the ice into traffic, where the Leafs are covered by Tampa Bay’s disciplined 1-1-3 neutral zone coverage.
You have to skate to draw a checker to you, otherwise ice won’t open up. Instead, they’ve been going backwards, slowing it down, and then throwing Hail Marys into coverage, leaving the play to come screaming back at them. Here’s Giordano getting a puck and going the wrong way with it, then putting Holl in a bad spot, before Holl puts it in a bad spot for Giordano around the net. The forwards have to bail them out:
Below, you’ll see Holl put his partner in the low corner, who then forces a pass into coverage and then they have to defend again:
(Their gaps haven’t been good in this series, but these things are related.)
Here’s another bump back where Giordano gets the puck with time and space to skate, but instead puts it into traffic and stops the play’s forward momentum. The forwards need to give him better options on this one, but he’s gotta get going up the ice as soon as he touches the puck, fast.
It’s OK to slow it down and build speed underneath on regroups, but again here Giordano has to take strides up the rink, otherwise he’s not drawing coverage and allowing the Lightning to play 5-on-4 in the neutral zone. He passes it stationary into heavy traffic.
I was pleased to see him get his feet moving in the next example below, but obviously it didn’t go great here either.
Defending isn’t the reason Giordano is last among Leafs D in expected goals against — it’s because he isn’t making plays when he has the puck (something NHL fans know he can do).
Off face-offs this whole ‘not skating’ thing has been a theme, too. Holl has pretty good speed, so there’s no reason why he couldn’t get the red here and put the puck in deep:
Giordano’s been far more likely to settle for a punt into the neutral zone, dumping the puck out at a higher rate (46.7 per cent of the time) than he did in the regular season (42.7 per cent), which was already the highest rate on the Leafs.
If it seems like the Lightning are controlling possession, these types of plays are why. Now that the ‘set the tone’ craziness of the early part of the first round is behind us, this pair is still playing like they’re going to get crushed every time they touch it. A little patience and poise would go a long way.
And that brings us to the choices the Leafs have to make with their personnel.
The Leafs will definitely play Michael Bunting in Game 6, likely at the cost of Sam Lafferty or Zach Aston-Reese. But on the back end, they’ve got two capable NHL defenders, both of whom played significant minutes this season and who would be fresh.
They’d also be facing the challenge of jumping into a playoff series with real pace and intensity where the goal has really been ‘don’t make the big mistake,’ which has played well in the Leafs’ favour so far. Hanging around games by not trying to do too much has worked, which makes you worry about Liljegren and Gustafsson who may be more prone to take a risk than the punty-style games played by Giordano and Holl right now. Both Holl and Giordano have also been big PK guys for the Leafs as noted earlier.
But there’s a reason they went eight (or nine) D deep at the deadline, and it’s time to use those fresh legs and that depth to their advantage. Tampa Bay has some nagging injuries and doesn’t have that same luxury. Their D are susceptible to making mistakes, too, if only you play in their end rather than giving them pucks back.
Liljegren should go in for Game 6, and you could easily talk me into Gustafsson too. If they only want to make one change, I think Giordano has been worse than Holl, but Giordano and Liljegren have played together and the handedness works better, so Holl would be the one to come out.
These aren’t panic moves. They’re an adjustment the Leafs are able to make based on the depth of their roster.
And the hope is whoever does come in can make that one extra breakout pass that leaves you in the O-zone one extra time, to get that one extra goal that goes your team’s way.