A few weeks ago, I wrote what I thought was a fairly measured article arguing that while the Leafs occasionally would piss us off, the team was one of the better ones we’ve had and we should appreciate that.
They’ve made the playoffs three years running and the last two years they did so fairly comfortably. They have genuinely great offence. Expected goals are borked right now, so I’ll just note their shot differentials are excellent so far. Their goaltending has been brutal to start the year, but I’d be willing to trust Frederik Andersen to figure things out. I might be in the minority here, and I would still agree he’s coaching for his job, but I don’t think we’re doomed by having Mike Babcock behind the bench.
Look at this optimistic goon! You fool, Fulemin! When will you learn? Always trust your irrational fears.
A number of things have caused me to Grow Somewhat Concerned. Let us discuss them.
Mitch Marner’s Foot Is Facing Backwards
I have complained about Mitch Marner’s contract because it pays him the GDP of a medium-sized country and he seems likely to spend all of that money on Smarties. But he is a very good player. Even during a slightly down start to the year he was point-per-game. Unfortunately, he stepped on a banana peel and knocked over a hat stand (I may be confusing our Saturday game with a Charlie Chaplin bit.)
Anyway, Mitch has a high ankle sprain and will be out for at least 12 games and maybe more. This is bad and it makes our team worse, and there isn’t much more to say about it.
John Tavares Doesn’t Look Like Himself
John Tavares has a new baby at home and a new letter on his jersey and his finger also got busted up. These things in concert may help explain why he hasn’t quite been as dazzling as usual in the early going. The Auston Matthews line is actually going off like a rocket pretty much any way we can measure; it’s the Tavares line that seems to be less offensively effective at 5v5 than we’d be used to.
The good news is we have a whole decade of evidence that Tavares is a great offensive player and he’s getting Zach Hyman back. He’s going to miss Mitch Marner terribly, so say we all, but I’d bet on him rounding into form (and even imperfect Tavares has 11 points in 12 GP, which is hardly awful.) If he doesn’t, though, we’re kind of screwed, so let’s hope that works out.
We Are No Longer An Offensive Juggernaut
You will notice that in that little blurb up there I mentioned the Leafs having had a great offence for years now, and that expected goals were currently too ruined to measure it for this season. Well, expected goals are apparently fixed now and they have shown that the Leafs have gone from blowing the doors off the league offensively to, uh, the opposite of that. The Leafs are 23rd in expected goals for now. Their defence has improved a bit, but not enough to make up for the offensive drop.
I will admit: this worries me the most, because I really didn’t see it coming. The Leafs were always a great team at generating high-quality chances and they had been for years. It was their calling card. There was no real reason to think it would change. But it did!
Auston Matthews isn’t generating chances quite like he used to, but he’s still very solid by this number. John Tavares and friends are really struggling, though. Getting Zach Hyman back should help (no, really—he’s always dominated by these numbers because he basically lives at point blank range, where the highest quality shots are) but a team that always got to the net has more or less stopped.
The Leafs are still getting tons of shots. They’re fourth in the league in CF/60 and are solidly above water in CF%. So they’re winning the shots battle—it’s just the shots they’re taking are a lot worse.
There’s a level at which this tradeoff is okay, and the Leafs are getting better defensively and riding the fact that they have elite shooters and a good starting goalie. I do not think we are reaching that level. If this is just a matter of learning a new system and the results will improve, fine. If the Leafs have learned how to beat the system somehow, fine. But I worry we are starting down a path that does not play to our strengths. For the first time in Mike Babcock’s Leafs tenure, you can argue the team may really be sacrificing offence for defence.
The Powerplay Doesn’t Look Great
On a related note, the power play that was once so deadly has looked less than that all year. The second unit is a mess and the top unit has ebbed and flowed at best. I have a strong suspicion the Leafs may have fixed something that wasn’t really broken: after years of success under Jim Hiller followed by a slight lull last season, they’ve made major changes that...look brutal so far. I’d rather just go back to the old plan—something that seems to have occurred to the Leafs, too.
What Are We Doing With Frederik Gauthier?
This year, of all the skaters that have played at least 100 minutes at 5v5, all of them have started at least 14% of their shifts coming off a whistle in the offensive zone. Except three. Those three are Nick Shore (4.10%), Dmytro Timashov (4.90%), and Frederik Gauthier (8.13%). They get used almost exclusively in the defensive zone, to an extent that is almost unprecedented. Exactly one guy since the 2012 lockout has been used this starkly and it’s Paul Gaustad, a faceoff specialist for Nashville a few years back.
Zone starts get overrated. Almost all players, including Gauthier’s line, start more of their shifts on the fly than anywhere else, and the conventional wisdom on zone starts is that they don’t make that significant a difference over a season. But we are giving the fourth line an almost unprecedented diet of defensive zone faceoffs. We’re allowing their numbers to take a hit for the benefit of Matthews and Tavares. It’s working as far as Matthews goes. Is it sustainable? I don’t know. We’re in strange territory here, y’all.
We’re Playing Cody Ceci In Our Top Four
We’re playing Cody Ceci in our top four.
Our Backup Goaltending Has Been Assbutt
Michael Hutchinson did not have an easy job. He got the second games of back-to-backs, or SEGABABAs as beautiful people call them, where he was left playing behind a tired and sometimes defensively indifferent team. It would have been tough for a goalie to get too many wins out of those matchups.
The problem is Hutchinson wasn’t getting any wins because nobody told him he was allowed to close his glove hand. We have, for now at least, replaced him with Kasimir Kaskisuo, who appears to have gotten really good at goaltending in the AHL at a very convenient time last spring, or who has mostly been on a heater. I leave it to the reader to choose between these possibilities.
Because the Leafs have about three cents of cap room, we can’t even afford to get a slightly more expensive backup goaltender without either shipping money out or running a 20-man roster. The former is hard to do without either a) making the team worse or b) getting Peter Chiarelli back into a GM job somewhere else so we can give Ceci to him. The latter leaves us with no injury spares for road trips. Not ideal!
Goaltending is so random that it’s far from impossible Kaskisuo goes on a heater and loosens the noose a bit, but to be a passable NHL team you have to get some points from games your backup goalie plays, and right now we are getting almost literally zero. That will sewer many good teams, and it makes it hard to give Frederik Andersen rest we want him to have come springtime.
If We Somehow Miss The Playoffs It’s Gonna Be Fuckin’ Unbearable
Not because missing the playoffs is like that in and of itself. It would suck, but the Leafs missed the playoffs rather consistently for a while there, you may have heard. No, the thing is we’re going to have six months of everybody and their dog arguing that we needed Matt Martin. I think I might just choose death at that point.
The best facts about the Leafs are that even while scuffling we’ve gotten a survivable number of points and our top line is firing in a way that is mostly backed up by the numbers. It is very possible for the Leafs to turn this around pretty quickly. But I’ll acknowledge: optimism feels off right now. Things need to improve soon.