The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t the first team to eat some humble pie on a west coast road trip, nor will they be the last.
Even before the trip, the Maple Leafs were not playing great hockey; they are now 2-6 in their last eight games. On the season, they are 8-7-0 overall and 21st in points percentage. They are giving up the 12th most shots against per game and the fifth most goals per game. The team still maintains a +2 goal differential by virtue of the fact they are the second-highest scoring team in the league on a per-game basis.
There is no question the road trip was a reality check. The only team they managed to beat was an Anaheim team missing their first-line center, their second-line center, and one of their top pairing defensemen.
While Toronto has an offense you can never sleep on, teams have figured them out. It’s now up to Babcock and his staff to adjust. A few weeks after the team lost to New Jersey and Ottawa, I noted that the blueprint was there for teams to beat Toronto. The simple version: A neutral zone trap, get the puck in deep and grind their defense, and leave a high guy for support.
The loss to St. Louis served as a strong example of both, where the Blues aggressively forechecked them, cycled them consistently, and clogged up the neutral zone on their way to a big lead. In the third, when St. Louis took their foot off the peddle and got loose with their structure, the Leafs suddenly buried a few chances.
One adjustment teams have made is that they are generally only pressuring the Leafs defense with one forechecker in the neutral zone. Watch this Matthews scoring chance early in the season against Chicago below. With two forecheckers, a chip off the wall creates a 3-on-3 in the neutral zone. But the Leafs forwards – especially Matthews – are good enough to create a scoring chance out of that.
A key component of the Leafs‘ system is that they flip a lot of pucks into the neutral zone. Instead of forcing the issue now, their opposition is just hanging back and waiting for it to backfire. Even on the play where Gardiner blew a tire, the Kings only sent one man in and simply waited for the mistake:
A few days later against St. Louis, the Blues scored a goal that started with only one man in the neutral zone standing up the rush, causing a turnover, and then going down the ice and scoring:
The reality is that teams are standing them up at the blue line, or at least trying their best to. Before the Anaheim game, Randy Carlyle noted, “They’re similar to what Pittsburgh’s done … in stretching out the neutral zone with one pass.”
The Leafs will have to adjust with tighter breakouts, chipping pucks in and going and getting them more than they probably want to. They will also have to activate their defense more – the blue line group is not great defensively, but there is some skill there and they can competently skate the puck up the ice.
The Leafs certainly weren’t just going to plough through teams offensively all season. Opponents make adjustments. Coming back from a long road trip, they have a few games here to regroup before they start a run of playing 16 of 22 games on the road beginning next weekend. There is no reason to panic, but there should be a sense of urgency here to get better in a hurry.
– Two straight games for Kasperi Kapanen, both with him getting consistent penalty killing time – that is the big difference, it seems, between him playing as Babcock alluded to earlier. In his last three games, his ice time has gone from 7:31, to 11:35, to 13:40. He had five shots on net in the game against LA. One thing he has added to his game so far this season is streaking down the wing, backing the defender off with his speed, and curling up and making a play. His speed is a serious threat and he can create a ton of space with that little curl up move. Earlier in his career, he would skate himself into corners frequently. That’s a nice adjustment for Kapanen.
– Without Kapanen (or Leivo) in the line-up, Zach Hyman played 4:23 shorthanded against the Sharks, which led to his 22:08 for the night (no other Leafs forward had even 20 minutes). Hyman has eight points already this season after only 28 all of last season – he had a bad miss on a 2v1 vs. the Blues in the third, but generally speaking, he looks much more skilled this season. His goal against the Rangers earlier this season is the biggest example, particularly what he did to create the scoring chance before he scored.
– Interestingly, Josh Leivo was on the shutdown line with Kadri and was also out in the final few minutes of the game to protect the lead.
– According to Corsica, the Leafs have a -8 penalty differential on the season, which is fifth worst in the league. Their penalty killing is also down to the middle of the pack this year at 80.8%, which is tied for 16th (that percentage would have finished 16th last season). Of concern there is Ron Hainsey leading the league playing 4:56 per night shorthanded – he is going to get worn down with those minutes and it will get worse, not better. Against LA, he struggled on the penalty kill, leading to Tyler Toffoli’s goal.
– Auston Matthews is fifth in the league in points so far this season. Of the top 50 scorers in the league at the moment, only eight average less ice time than him per game – Josh Bailey, Phil Kessel, Anders Lee, JT Miller, Evgeny Malkin, Sean Monahan, Anthony Mantha, and Brock Boeser. He has been in on just under 32% of teams goals this year. His ice time was kept in check as a rookie, but he has come back even better this season, so we’ll see how Babcock manages that, particularly with Bozak struggling.
– Matt Martin’s three-point night doubled his totals on the season, now giving him six in 14 games. Last season, he had nine points all year. He obviously won’t keep this pace up, but he has developed his skills since coming to Toronto (which is a comment I made toward the end of last season, too), and that pass to Bozak at the backdoor off the rush was legitimately nice.
– If you believe in strength of schedule this early, it’s worth noting that the Leafs are tied with the Blues for the second hardest schedule to date.
“I’ll speak for myself — you want to be able to enter the zone with possession. Teams now, they’re clogging the neutral zone, stacking five at their blue line. And it’s becoming harder and harder to enter with possession. So we’ve just got to wrap our head around getting the puck in deep and getting more chances off the cycle.”
– Nazem Kadri
They know what they need to do.
“The coaching staff, they’re like lawyers. They’re always trying to help you understand and believe their argument. So they’re going to show video. ‘You guys like offence? Here’s us making a risky play at the opposing blue line. There’s a turnover. Freeze the frame. Where are you guys?’ We’re backchecking. ‘Are you playing offence while you’re backchecking?’ No. ‘Does anybody like backchecking?’ Probably not. Versus that same scenario, but you chip it past the opposing D-man with speed. ‘Freeze the frame. Where are we?’ In the offensive zone. ‘What are we doing?’ We’re cycling. ‘Who prefers backchecking to cycling?’ Nobody. When it stares you in the face, it’s hard to deny.”
– Connor Carrick
Think we’ll see quite a few changes coming from the Leafs systematically over the next few weeks.
“I thought he was our best D. He’s a competitive guy. I thought he had a good trip. He’s getting better all the time.”
– Mike Babcock on Andreas Borgman
Thought it was interesting to point out Borgman like this. He also played the second least of any defenseman on the team that game.
“It’s not so much their speed as their style of play. I mean, it’s their puck speed that probably wears you more than anything else. Not so much their skating speed, because they play fast. If you look at the underlying analytics, they’re number one or two in almost every offensive category you can find, and they’re a reason for it. They do a lot of really good structural things offensively, and they’ve got a really high skill level that goes along with it, so we’re going to have to check really well against this team to counteract that.”
– John Stevens on the Leafs
For all their warts defensively, this team really is a powerhouse offensively and it definitely scares opponents on a nightly basis.
Video Tidbit of the Week
We have talked about how teams are counterattacking the Leafs, but this is a great example of how dangerous the Leafs can be as well. In particular, it’s great to see Morgan Rielly join the rush and get involved. Good defense will generate the Leafs’ offense because they are so skilled. Connor Brown created the play with his effort on defense and it’s one of the reasons he has moved up the roster so quickly – in the right position, wins the battle, makes the right play.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. If the Leafs are going to experiment at center, I think I’d rather see William Nylander there than Patrick Marleau. He did get a few shifts there against the Blues. He also played it with the Marlies and with the Leafs before they drafted Matthews, and always looked good there. It’s also no secret that Tyler Bozak is a pending UFA. While I think the Matthews-Nylander combo is as good as it gets in the NHL, it would be great to get an extended look at Nylander at center to get a feel for what he can do there. Plus, it will balance the line-up a bit better right now. Marleau has been fine at center, but I think he’s better on the wing.
2. With the back-to-back coming up against Boston this upcoming weekend, I think it will be a really important start for Curtis McElhinney. He made a few saves in the third to try to salvage his game, but he let in some goals that were not NHL-calibre against LA. It’s a really tough gig, what Babcock is asking him to do – only playing the second half of back-to-backs – and it burned Jhonas Enroth last season, too. However, he’s always been a below-average goalie and every shot is an adventure at this point.
3. If the Leafs do decide to bring up one of Garret Sparks or Calvin Pickard, I think it’s actually a really interesting conversation as to which one should get the call. Pickard has 86 NHL games to his name and had an impressive showing on Team Canada this spring, but he’s not exactly been lights out with the Marlies (.892 save percentage). Sparks is a year younger than Pickard with 17 NHL games to his name but has been lighting up the AHL this season with a .943 save percentage. I would assume they’d go with the guy with more experience in Pickard, but Sparks is making it a real conversation with his play.
4. I think the Martin – Bozak – Marner line actually looks good and I’d keep them together for now. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Marner is still getting top PP time and playing between 14 and 16 minutes per night over the last five games, which is right around where he should be. The line won’t last all season, but let them keep going while they are producing.
5. I still think the defense needs to consider a real shakeup in the top four – particularly splitting up Gardiner – Zaitsev. The Rielly – Hainsey pairing has been solid, but the top pairing has struggled in their shutdown role. I liked the idea of putting Gardiner back with Carrick from last season, and Borgman with Zaitsev. I’d like to see that a few more times to see how it goes.