The Leafs did not play well in their opening game. I think this is a very uncontroversial statement, one that the Leafs players and coaches echoed in the wake of their victory. Of course, it’s just one game, and things happen in one game. From what I’ve seen most fans are (understandably) happy to take the two points and feel confident that Game 1 was a blip, not the start of a trend. Others are concerned, pointing out that the way the Leafs got outplayed was nothing new. Do they have a point?
The Case For Being Concerned
I think the first key here is to define ‘concerned’. Even the most pessimistic of fans would agree that the Leafs are a good team, and will likely make the playoffs barring a very unlikely confluence of injuries and poor goaltending. The concern is regarding their upside when they get there. The Leafs will have to beat three or four excellent teams to win the Cup in all likelihood, a consequence of being in a top-heavy division with three true contenders. Toronto can get through the regular season while being a mediocre shot share team because of their immense forward talent and above average goaltending. However, as we saw last spring in the playoffs, they struggled to carry play against the Bruins, and were clearly second best in that series. That they still had a realistic shot at winning it with 20 minutes remaining in Game 7 is a testament to that finishing skill, their special teams, as well as the mediocre play of Tuukka Rask.
The goal for the Leafs isn’t to take part in the playoffs, it’s to succeed there. They give themselves a better shot at doing so if they can control the shot clock.
Against Montreal, they failed to do that, against a team that most expect to be in the lottery this season. Now, we should give some credit to Montreal. Even last season, they were above water in shot share. Claude Julien teams usually are; Montreal just lacks the high end talent to get to the best areas of the ice and to convert from there.
But on the Leafs end, what we saw in Game 1 was the worst of what we saw from them all of last season. Wingers were flying the zone incredibly early. Passes from defensemen seemed more hopeful than planned. The Leafs very rarely had control of the puck as it left their zone. Perhaps relatedly, they rarely carried the puck in, preferring to dump it or tip it deep and forecheck. They looked no better at stopping Canadiens’ cycles. That’s how you end up with a shot map like this:
In short, this game was worrying because it showed the Leafs failing in the same predictable way they failed last year. The hope this offseason was that the Leafs high-priced coaching staff would make some adjustments and incorporate them over the course of the preseason to address the issues the Leafs faced last year. If changes have been made to their breakouts, tactics, or general strategy, they were not apparent in Game 1.
In short, the identifiable flaws the Leafs had as of April last season are still there. And while it’s easy to get seduced by the impressive centre group on this roster, there are still some very real holes, particularly on defence. Ron Hainsey looks more washed than he did five months ago, which I wasn’t sure was possible. Nikita Zaitsev was generally solid, but he’s not going to blossom into a puck moving dynamo. The Leafs are still trying to make a 1D out of a (very good) defenseman with significant defensive flaws in Morgan Rielly. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner still aren’t good defensively, which cuts into the enormous value they provide on offense. The Leafs amazing winger depth gets downgraded to merely okay when their best or second best winger is out of the lineup due to a contract dispute.
The worst-case realistic scenario for the Leafs heading into the season was that they would be an above average team that struggled to control even strength play, but rode a strong power play, goaltending, and forward talent to regular season success before coming up short against a strong team in the playoffs - basically, last season repeated. The first game of the season did not do anything to remove that fear.
The Case Against Being Concerned
Breathe. It’s one game. Good teams have bad games. Not all the time, but they happen. Moreover, we saw last year that the lineup in Game 1 doesn’t always correspond to the lineup in Game 1 of the playoffs. If Hainsey continues his descent, he’ll be replaced by Travis Dermott, who looked excellent. The Leafs are missing their best transition player, and when they eventually sign Nylander, their ability to control play will improve.
Further, a game like that may be what the Leafs needed. After an offseason of getting anointed by the media, a scrappy, persistent, and well-coached team like Montreal taking it to them should be a wakeup call that they’re not invincible. Babcock said as much in his post-game press conference.
A slow start was also to be expected. The Leafs have a fair bit of turnover among their forward groups, and it will take time to build chemistry between them. With the division being as weak as it is, they have time to experiment and ramp up slowly. And in case you forgot, they WON this game! They have the luxury of game breaking talent that is elite even compared to the best teams in the league. It’s not something you always want to rely on, but the Leafs have it, and it will win them games against good teams and bad teams alike. We knew heading into the season that the Leafs had flaws, and only a fool would expect them to have been immediately resolved. This isn’t a video game where you can change your tactics and see them reflected immediately. It takes time to break bad habits, build new ones, and get everyone to competently execute a system. Hockey is hard! If it was easy, every team would play like Team Canada.
The season is long, the team knows what their issues are, and they’ll get better as they get more chances to implement the changes that both Babcock and his players have talked about.
More generally, shot share isn’t the be-all, end-all. The Capitals were 23rd in the league in score adjusted CF% and they won the Cup! The Golden Knights were only 11th. It’s a good thing to be higher up, but a team that can exert reasonable control over their shooting and save percentages can still buck the trend. The Leafs are a good bet to be able to do both, which gives them more margin for error, along with their disgustingly talented power play.
And because it bears repeating... it was one game. If they play like this for a month, get back to me.