The picture isn’t all bad after two games. There’s blame to go around, sure, but there’s also some aspects of the Leafs play that have worked.
The Bozak Line
To make the balanced lineup system work, given the Leafs current roster, one of the results has to be that one of the top three lines gets some very favourable offensive opportunities. Tyler Bozak has managed this. It’s always tough to gauge effectiveness over a couple of games, because you want to see immediate results. Even if we understand it doesn’t work like that, “Did you score?” is where assessment starts.
Bozak has one goal himself at five-on-five, and he hasn’t been victimized with a goal against. This isn’t a fluke, either. He’s got the third highest Corsi For rate on the team, behind linemate Connor Brown and team leader William Nylander. He’s got the third best Corsi Against rate.
This isn’t perimeter shooting he’s out there for either, his rate of high-danger chances only lags Nylander and Matthews for forwards. James van Riemsdyk’s results aren’t quite as good, but that’s driven by play on other lines once the blender was out.
Getting the Bozak line a favourable matchup is a valuable use of linematching, and it’s working.
Gardiner has played the most ice time at five-on-five on the team, more than a full minute per game over Travis Dermott, who is second, two minutes more than Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev, and four minutes more than Roman Polak.
In that time he has the top Corsi For rate for defenders by a long margin, and his Corsi Against rate is not very good, but is at least not appalling like Rielly and Hainsey. He has the highest rate of high-danger chances on the team.
In short, offence happened when Jake Gardiner was on the ice.
Travis Dermott and Roman Polak
As a third pair, they’re doing fine. Dermott, who had a really rough outing in his first regular-season game back from injury, has settled right down and has already been given the ice time increase that fans are clamouring for. He’s playing some slightly tougher minutes than Polak, but the two of them have an oustanding Corsi percentage. Polak’s leads the team. They’re getting those percentages with a good, though not elite, Corsi For pace.
They aren’t just keeping down shots against, which they are best on the team at, they are participating in some good offence. Polak’s percentage of high-danger changes is highest on the team and he hasn’t been on the ice for a goal against. This is what playing at your correct level looks like.
As an aside, Nikita Zaitsev has some similar looking defensive numbers to Polak, but he’s been on the ice for very dull offensive efforts and some goals against. That might well be what playing over your head looks like, or it could be an issue stemming from the Marleau line, or a little of both.
When it all went to hell, Mike Babcock quickly rethought that Patrick Marleau as a centre idea and put Nylander in at C. He was excellent offensively. He’s blowing the team away in offensive pace. And, yes, he’s been horrible defensively. He’s a mixed result for sure, but for a young guy in a tough situation, he’s exceeding expectations on the strong side of his skillset.
Marner’s a mixed bag of results too, as you’d expect. He’s got really low high-danger chances against, dramatically better than Patrick Marleau, who picked up some very bad results in chances and goals against while on the ice with other players.
Marner’s offensive pace is lagging what it should be, however, but he’s also playing against the Krejci line a lot.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Game one was not his best game, I think we all know that, but game two saw him play the same minutes against Bergeron to dramatically better shot results. He (and of course, Nylander and Hyman) are getting some decent chances against the top Bruins players.
The Power Play
The power play is cooking exactly as it should be. This is where both Morgan Rielly and Gardiner are on fire, and so is the rest of the crew. It really is a matter of time before it produces more goals. It ain’t broke.
The Penalty Kill
The Leafs PK was never that great. They allow a medium to high rate of shots and ride the goaltending for success. In the playoffs, Hainsey has been a titch over his average in CA/60, not by a significant amount, and it’s more than offset by Polak’s overachieving with a very low rate. Hyman and Zaitsev have been exactly as usual, and Kapanen has been good, but not quite as dramatically good as his regular season small sample of games, and that’s neatly offset by Brown’s great results. The only player who was much worse was Komarov.
If the PK looks bad, it’s variance in goaltending from the regular season, or individual “big mistakes”. But overall, it’s as good as we had any right to expect.
You don’t reveal the true nature of any player in two games. So we aren’t discovering who is bad or good, merely who performed well in various areas of the games. We should not fall into the trap of expecting future games to look exactly like these, or to imagine there’s some progression going on. All hockey players’ result vary over time.
There’s a really old cliché that I think is valuable, as these things can be, don’t look to fix blame, look to fix the problem. Until you know what the problem is, you can’t start fixing.
Ron Hainsey thinks the Leafs need to improve in all areas per his post-game scrums, and I agree with that. But it’s not true that everything is bad.
As for a fix, to my mind, the two biggest problems are Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen. Next in line is Ron Hainsey. I’m not claiming I know why Rielly in particular has fared so poorly — and his results are really very bad — but the drag on offence is happening when he’s on the ice. Only Nazem Kadri, Andreas Johnsson and Tomas Plekanec are worse. Part of this is the same malaise affecting the Marleau line, but who is the driver of that and who the passenger? I don’t know, but I’ve never seen Rielly play like this.
On to Game Three today! If the Leafs can push harder on the offensive side and bring Marleau’s (or Nylander’s) line up to the level of the other two, we might just have a game.
I am weirdly excited about the team after looking at all of this. I can see the holes; they aren’t new, and I don’t believe for one second they are news to anyone in management for the Leafs. The fixes don’t grow on trees, but they aren’t as rare as gold nuggets in a gravelly stream either.
First the stress-test of the playoffs, then the off-season, and by next October, one way and another, this is a new team.