Every time the Leafs have been tripped up in the first-round the past half-dozen years, just one thing has needed to change.
The problem is, what that one thing is varies depending on who you ask.
It could be that they’ve needed the better goaltender in a series, just one time. Maybe that would have been enough.
It could be that they needed a roster more suited to playoff-style hockey, where it’s down to the better-defending 16 teams playing at peak intensity, and when it takes real grit to get through.
For others – particularly the more numbers-savvy folks – it’s been Toronto’s offence, which has scored zero power play goals over the eight playoff games where a win would’ve put them through, and has generally fallen a goal or two short as the temperature of each series has risen.
No team is perfect in the salary cap era (though Boston is making a case for that), and so when the Leafs made their moves at the deadline, they revealed what they believed was most important of the above: it was the grit, the intangibles, the pursuit of people who rise in the big moments rather than shrink. They added those character people in spades, which leaves them with just the other two questions.
There’s the goaltending. They appear to view Matt Murray as a “deadline add” of sorts, and are sticking to the tandem with which they went into the season. That bet has been placed, and simply is what it is now.
Which leaves today’s topic: the Leafs’ offence, and the question it feels like we haven’t had to ask much over the Matthews/Marner era. If everything else goes well, can they score enough to beat a great team?
By the numbers the Leafs offence has been good, though not as dominant as in past seasons. They’re eighth in real goals and seventh in expected goals, so when you whittle that down to the 16 playoff teams they’ll be considered roughly average offensively. That’s pretty darn good considering the down season Auston Matthews is having, and knowing he can still get to another gear.
But those numbers are averaged out over the course of the season, and things seem to be going the wrong way for Toronto, particularly in the chance creation department. This has been particularly rough since they brought in a bunch of new faces, even if you include their four-goal output against the Devils.
The Leafs acquired the following names, none of which are currently offensive dynamos: Ryan O’Reilly (who has it in him, but isn’t an elite creator this season), Noel Acciari, Sam Lafferty, Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn, and Erik Gustafsson (who’s almost certainly not in Game 1 of the playoffs). Watching them since they’ve been added has looked like a bit of a chemistry experiment gone wrong.
We’ll get to some of the causes, but over the Leafs’ most recent five-game road trip they saw the following declines in offence:
Shot attempts: down 8 per cent
Inner slot shots: down 16 per cent
Slot passes: down 18 per cent
O-zone possession time: down 12 per cent
Rebound chances are down a ton by percentage (41 per cent), but given there’s only a few of those per game, it’s barely noteworthy.
At 5-on-5 the Leafs tend to create somewhere around 12-15 high danger chances per game, with clumps of games where you’ll see groupings like “18, 18, 21.” Over their past six games those totals of chances are: 5, 10, 1, 7, 6, 4.
Now for some of the justifiable cause of this sputtering offence.
They were on a 10-day road trip that spanned the continent, so it’s hardly fair to expect a team to be at its best in those circumstances. But most obvious is the infusion of new blood. The team was trying out new lines and new pairs and went 11 forwards and 7 defencemen on two separate nights. They hadn’t tried that look all season.
It was an abject hodgepodge of groupings at times, as the team basically threw the roster in a blender and said “let’s see if anything sticks together.” Losing O’Reilly and Tavares for a game also didn’t help, but isn’t the cause of these declining numbers.
One thought I’ve wondered in watching the Leafs struggle to create is if they may now be less suited to creating chances in the more open-ice run-and-gun regular season, but believe that they’re better suited to maintain the type of chances this group will create in the post-season.
It’s not that they haven’t gotten chances in past playoffs. It’s that they’ve produced a ton in the regular season before, so much that it’s been a big advantage of theirs, but they haven’t been able to maintain the level of creation that separates them from most teams in the regular season.
Three years ago, the Leafs were an OK eighth in high danger attempts at 5-on-5 (per 60) in the regular season, but finished 12th there among playoffs teams. They couldn’t quite generate the same looks in the playoffs.
Two years ago they were second in that category in the regular season, but finished seventh in the playoffs. That’s a drop from elite back to just OK.
Last year they were third, but finished ninth among playoff teams. You may be detecting a pattern.
When the Leafs were left facing a good team, the way that they typically generated chances didn’t work as well. With their now peak-age core being stronger and wiser, and their supporting cast consisting of less-Pierre Engvall (who had zero goals in 17 playoff games) and more grit, can they avoid the drop-off in output that has come in years past? Is their offence less regular-season potent, but at least sustainable?
I think that’s the bet they’re making here. If they’re going to be a very good team while finishing seventh in the league in chance creation (as they are now), can they continue to be seventh or better in that category rather than tailing off when the game gets fast?
Toronto’s defensive metrics are good. They’ve been getting good goaltending. They’ve traded for muscle. All eyes now turn to their offence. As they and the lines settle in, what kind of offensive force will the Leafs bring into the post-season?