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What’s wrong with the Leafs?

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How did we get here, and what’s the pathway out?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

To figure out what’s gone wrong lately, first it’s necessary to actually define the play of the Maple Leafs in terms of something less random than goals.

It goes very much against my nature to look at a chunk of game results in isolation from the whole season. There is a natural tendency to think that the direction the line graph of your life is going will continue. The future will be just like now only more so. But in hockey, like life, ups and downs are natural and just happen, and there is no explanation for why that is that is fit for airing other than on a Sportsnet panel.

But this situation the Leafs are in right now might warrant a serious look at how the last x number of games differs from the season average. Solving for x is the first job. I could just pick the number that makes the team now look the worst, but I’m not composing a tweet that can end in the word “Yikes”. So I’ll have to try something else.

To avoid that bit of algebra, I’ll start instead with the season averages as a team.

Note: all numbers in this post are from Offside Review, five-on-five and score adjusted unless otherwise stated.

Full Season Results

To date, the Leafs are:

  • 5th in raw Expected Goals For, 6th in xGF per 60
  • 1st in raw Corsi For, third in CF per 60
  • 26th in raw Expected Goals Against, 23rd in xGA per 60
  • 29th in raw Corsi Against, 27th in CA per 60

From that, we can see things we should already know, but I’ll repeat them:

  • The Leafs play more five-on-five minutes than most of the NHL
  • They are an extremely high-event team
  • Their quality of shots for, as revealed by xG over Corsi is below average
  • Their quality of shots against, as revealed by xG over Corsi is above average (quality for shots against is reversed from that for shots for, so good quality means you forced the other team to make bad shots)
  • The percentages show xGF% at 50 and CF% at 52

While we should know all that, I’m not sure that’s the narrative that is attached to the “bad defensive team”. I would state it as a team that executes acceptably defensively, but fails to drive play effectively. So the Corsi percentage is okay, not great, but the massive pace of shots against is more than offset by the pace of shots for and the offensive and defensive execution.

The slightly poor overall offensive quality should not matter given good enough shot share (CF%). It’s worth it looking at who has low xGF60 to see who on the team is driving that below average offence.

The worst offensive players by this measure are everyone who has ever played fourth line, including that guy you like and all the newbies like Trevor Moore. Connor Brown is in this group, so when he plays more minutes, he negatively affects the quality of shots for.

Next worst are all the defencemen who are not Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, which is normal.

Mixed in with the defencemen is Nazem Kadri, Andreas Johnsson, and Patrick Marleau.

At the top are:

  1. Zach Hyman
  2. John Tavares
  3. Mitch Marner
  4. Morgan Rielly
  5. Auston Matthews
  6. Kasperi Kapanen
  7. William Nylander
  8. Jake Gardiner
  9. Ron Hainsey
  10. All the rest of the team as noted above

The Recent Past

It took me so long to get here, I’m just going to pick the last 15 games as a number out of the air and note the differences, and that sets the start date for the recent past at February 15.

  • xGF% is 48 and CF% is 50
  • xGA60 is 26th, while CA60 is 31st
  • xGF60 is 12th, while CF60 is third

I’m surprised at the total lack of slippage on xGA, given the worsening shot share, but the Leafs have managed to deal with that decline in shot share by improving the quality of their shots against just enough to stay where they’ve been all year by this measure.

What is happening to the offence is that the reduced time spent in the offensive zone is showing up in fewer overall chances to score. The main difference in this 15 games compared to the whole season is the lower Corsi For percentage which magnifies all the weaknesses and dilutes the effectiveness of the offence.

Over these 15 games, the actual Fenwick Save Percentage is just a hair below expected, while on the season it is several hairs above. Overall the goaltending has been above average, but it has been just barely below for the last 15 games.

The players with notable drops in on-ice xGF60 are Nazem Kadri (he’s only played seven games in this set) and Kasperi Kapanen. Andreas Johnsson has gone up as he’s played exclusively with better linemates.

The top two lines are performing at their season average in offensive quality. It’s everyone else who is just a little bit crappy right now, with the bulk of the “blame” going to the Kadri line.

Sorry, that took so long, but without all that preliminary understanding, we might as well just talk about who smiles too much.

Why has this happened?

Jake Gardiner

Gardiner only played five games in that set of 15 I considered above. But prior to that he played the most five-on-five minutes of any player on the team. I’ve covered this extensively in the past, but Gardiner played all the important high-leverage situations — a meaningful measure of tough minutes. His Corsi For percentage is 52, his Expected Goals percentage is 54 which leads the team.

You cannot take a big-minute, highly successful player out of the lineup and shrug it off. His absence is most of the reason for the shot share slippage from the twin effect of removing his ability and tasking other, lesser defenders with more, and tougher minutes.

Travis Dermott

The loss of Dermott is a subset of the Gardiner problem, just less serious, simply because he played the exact opposite types of minutes to Gardiner. But his results were excellent, and replacing him with Martin Marincin is a step down. In addition, not having him available to play some of Gardiner’s time, which he is clearly capable of doing, just magnified the loss of Gardiner.

Nazem Kadri

On the season, Kadri is one of the highest Corsi For percentage forwards on the team. He wins the line matchups he’s given most of the time and delivers a lot of positive zone time. In the seven games he played in the set of 15 above, he’s been an appalling 43 per cent, with only the dreadful Frederik Gauthier worse than that amongst forwards.

Conversely, while Kadri’s slow return from a concussion has hurt the shot share, a healthy Kadri doesn’t bring meaningful offence. Or more properly, his line doesn’t. He’s spent a lot of awful minutes playing with Connor Brown, who adds no offensive value, or Patrick Marleau, who is kind of meh in about the same way Kadri himself has been. He’s also played with Par Lindholm, who was worse than Brown on balance, and William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen, a pair of wingers who likely need a sniper to feed.

The ideal for the Leafs this season was to roll three scoring lines and have two out of the three dominate every game. The depth in forward talent just isn’t there at the moment to make that happen, not and cover for injuries as well. The result has been only partly successful, and Kadri has been relied on more to just keep the opposition’s second line in check, which he’s done very well. But that’s all he’s done, and he hasn’t been doing that since his return.

The Fourth Line

No one gets great stats in less than eight minutes a night, and no one gets any wiser analysing a fourth line that barely plays. The only issue here is that in order to mitigate how bad defensively Gauthier is, and how terrible he is at driving play, the line has to be shoved out on the fly heading to the offensive zone. They do a decent job of finishing in the offensive zone and allowing a change to the Matthews line, but they can’t create an offensive faceoff from a defensive faceoff start. Being able to give those nice shift starts to meaningful players would help.

The Defencemen not named Gardiner and Dermott

They are all really bad at driving play. The pace of shots against allowed when Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey and Morgan Rielly are on the ice in the most recent 15 games is astonishingly bad. Jake Muzzin is merely awful.

The third pairing guys look good because of usage similar to the fourth line’s like they have all year.

Now, consider which forwards are on the ice when the top four defenders are out there getting hemmed in and unable to transition the play, and you have a perfect storm of offensively-gifted forwards who execute poorly in the defensive zone and defencemen playing above their heads who don’t drive play. As soon as you stop driving play, that dilutes the offence, and it doesn’t matter how lucky you’re shooting if you’re not shooting enough.

Shooting Luck

The highest shooting percentage in the last 15 games belongs to Gauthier. Hainsey is second. Every top-six forward other than Marner is below 10 per cent. Matthews is at 7 per cent. Shooting percentages fluctuate over the course of the season, and the top six is not playing worse offensively, they just can’t buy a goal.

Goaltending

Sucks right now.

Power Play

The Leafs have the best power play in the NHL by Expected Goals per 60. Don’t tell me the success percentage, I don’t care. They are also tops in Corsi For per 60, so they’re getting more chances in those rare occasions when they have a power play.

By Expected Shooting Percentage, the Leafs drop to sixth in the NHL but the gap is less than one percentage point, so they’re in the elite group.

In the last 15 games, they’ve slid a very small amount in Expected Goals per 60, about what you’d expect with the Jake swap on the second unit and some time missed by Kadri. It’s not the problem, but it’s not helping either.

It’s all Babcock’s Fault/It’s all Dubas’s Fault

I’ve heard both of these blame narratives. Dubas only likes soft players, and Babcock only plays old guys. Personally, I think Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock are in it together.

I think Kyle Dubas set out to build a team on speed and skill, and he started with what he had to work with and added more of the same. Would he have liked a better defender in trade than Muzzin? Sure. Was there one for the price paid? Nope. And Muzzin is doing fine, by the way, he just ain’t Jake. Okay, he is Jake, but you know what I mean.

Babcock, way back in the World Cup, took a team of fast, skilled shooters and did not play the tight defensive style everyone was used to seeing from him; he let them fly. I have always believed he was getting ready to coach a team full of small, zippy, skilled shooters and a number one defender in Morgan Rielly who is really terrible at doing anything to prevent shots against. Mo ain’t changing now, so it’s not like the Leafs will magically morph into a team whose top D is Victor Hedman.

Team Canada wasn’t the speed kills lunacy of Team North America, but a more responsible and mature version. The Leafs right now are TNA only missing some key players and unlucky in shooting, and that’s really, really frustrating. When a tight defensive team comes along that is counting on one or two players for all the offence, leaving all the rest of them to be nothing but sticks in lanes and obstruction (legal and not), the revved engine of speed and skill can look horrible as parts start to fall of, and the tires blowout.

I’ll let you decide if I mean Team Europe there or the Boston Bruins.

Is this style built around the existing core of the team really dumb?

Ask the Tampa Bay Lightning. If you want a low-event, low-risk hockey that loses 2-1 instead of 6-2 when it all goes to hell, you’re in the wrong place, and Morgan Rielly is the wrong 1D.

In some ways, what the Leafs do is very high risk, but what Dubas is doing is extremely conservative. He’s building in a lot more redundancy to the forward corps and the defensive depth than most teams have while we all wait for those better defensive prospects to mature.

What Will Fix It?

Time, luck, and hard work. Because as much as I hate building eye test narratives, it’s really clear that some members of the team have been frustrated into inactivity defensively. I don’t for one second buy into the story that any member of this team isn’t trying.

Think of the thing you’re kind of bad at but really have to do sometimes. Now take away the man who helps you the most, take away his nearest equivalent, and then see how you get along. That’s Auston Matthews right now in the defensive zone. I console myself with the knowledge that he’s got the strongest will of any player on the team, so he’ll bullhead his way out of this.

Kadri will be more like himself, Kapanen will be back, and so will Travis Dermott.

Ten more games and then playoffs, and all anyone can do is what they can do the best they know how.

Go Leafs Go.