clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How did the Leafs go from a three-headed monster to a one-line team in the playoffs?

New, comments

It’s time to look back at what went wrong, as we get ready to fix it in the offseason.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Time heals all wounds, but perhaps for some Maple Leafs fans it’s too soon to really look at the playoffs and what worked and what didn’t. If you’re still in a place where you want to fire someone over ice time or you want to trade every player, maybe you want to just stay there for a while longer. But for Kyle Dubas and the rest of the management team, they don’t have that luxury, and if we want to talk about what the team needs to do to improve as the draft and free agency approach, we have to know what actually worked and what didn’t.

Sportsnet told me in a very firm tone in short, declarative sentences, that the Leafs lost the special teams battle. In the first place, there’s no such thing, but in the second place, they measure by success percentage, and any team in any set of seven games at any time can have excellent or terrible success percentages and it means nothing. I know, I know, at some point it’s about results. Which results, though? Or shall we just count lucky as good because it’s the playoffs?

In the playoffs, the Leafs limited shots on the penalty kill about as well as they ever do, but Boston’s power play is extremely above average in quality of shooters and good enough in shot rate that the expected goals against were a little worse than usual and delivered by experts. The Leafs did not perform horribly, but they weren’t outstanding either.

On the power play, the Leafs dropped their shot rate from excellent in the regular season to merely very good, and their quality of shots dropped a little too. It also wasn’t horrible. I don’t believe special teams are “the problem”. Sure, stopping the Boston power play from scoring would have helped, but I’d love to hear how that should have been done other than by luckier goaltending. If the drop in Leafs shot on their own power play was them and not the Boston penalty kill, there’s a new coach now to tinker with that.

A theme develops when looking at the Leafs regular season stats vs the playoffs. The regular season is played against a decently representative sample of the NHL from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay. The playoffs aren’t. You should expect the season averages to degrade. The trick is, though, to not degrade too much. Or in the wrong places.

Boston and the Leafs had essentially equivalent goaltending, and no one was luckier than anyone else at shooting, so this seven-game series was decided by the skaters. I’l focus on five-on-five, score and venue adjusted (Natural Stat Trick) and begin with the big picture.

Maple Leafs 2018-2019

Measure Regular Season Playoffs
Measure Regular Season Playoffs
CF/60 65 58
FF/60 47 44
xGF/60 2.55 2.31
GF/60 3.03 2.03
CA/60 60 61
FA/60 46 48
xGA/60 2.45 2.28
GA/60 2.49 1.89

From the top: The pace of shots for (Corsi) fell a lot, but when you look at unblocked shots (Fenwick, which is the base stat for Expected Goals) the difference is not as bad. Expected goals dropped, and actual goals dropped by a lot more. Goal-scoring rates tell you how it felt to watch the games, not who was good, however.

The pace of shots against went up by a totally insignificant number. Even the slightly higher rise in unblocked is functionally identical. Add it to the difference in Fenwick For and you’ve got a difference of about four unblocked shots between a playoff game and the Leafs regular season average.

Expected Goals Against dropped, as in: it got better. The Leafs were better defensively when adjusting for quality in the playoffs than their regular-season average. Their goals against dropped a lot, and thank you to Frederik Andersen for that. The flipside of that coin is that Tuukka Rask was hard to score on. Just ask John Tavares.

The question we should be asking is why did the Leafs show the biggest drop in effectiveness in their best event — offence — while carrying on being mediocre to good at defence?

I’m going to look at forwards only because, when looking at offensive pace, the defenders drive play up-ice, but the pace of shots and the quality of shooting is controlled more by forwards. I’m also ignoring anyone who played less than 11 minutes per game, since their contributions in easy usage aren’t very informative.

Forward Performance

Player - xG% Regular Season Playoffs
Player - xG% Regular Season Playoffs
John Tavares 53.5 50.86
Auston Matthews 51.71 47.86
Mitchell Marner 52.99 53.67
Zach Hyman 54.38 53.25
Patrick Marleau 48.12 52.82
Kasperi Kapanen 51.72 47.41
William Nylander 54.01 49.6
Nazem Kadri 50.21 50.05
Andreas Johnsson 50.23 42.3
Connor Brown 46.08 52.3
Player - xGF/60 Regular Season Playoffs
John Tavares 2.98 2.53
Auston Matthews 2.89 2.3
Mitchell Marner 2.85 2.65
Zach Hyman 3.04 2.65
Patrick Marleau 2.54 2.54
Kasperi Kapanen 2.71 2.3
William Nylander 2.86 2.36
Nazem Kadri 2.46 3.13
Andreas Johnsson 2.51 1.91
Connor Brown 2 1.75
Player - ixGF/60 Regular Season Playoffs
John Tavares 1.06 0.85
Auston Matthews 1.06 0.74
Mitchell Marner 0.62 0.76
Zach Hyman 0.86 0.69
Patrick Marleau 0.62 0.53
Kasperi Kapanen 0.81 0.63
William Nylander 0.85 0.49
Nazem Kadri 0.73 1.69
Andreas Johnsson 0.65 0.76
Connor Brown 0.49 0.59

The order of players is regular season time on ice per game played. In the playoffs it’s close to the same, but, of course, Auston Matthews played the most in the post season.

In overall Expected Goals percentage, the top two lines fell, while most of the third line stayed about the same. William Nylander, who moved to centre, seems to have been much less effective than he was in the regular season on the wing. Andreas Johnsson performed extremely poorly overall — so much so, it’s a surprise he didn’t fall off the top line.

Note that Connor Brown and Patrick Marleau are much better than Nylander in percentage. A deeper dive reveals that Nylander’s results were partly torpedoed by playing some shifts on the Matthews line and also by 11 minutes of time away from both Matthews and Marleau that involved an epic amount of shots against. In seven games, you get weird results, but Nylander as a centre had a net positive impact on Expected Goals percentage.

The top two lines saw their overall performance degrade the most, and that’s to be expected. They had the hardest job, and the Boston Bruins are a hard team to play against.

Moving to Expected Goals For per 60 Minutes to see the on-ice offensive pace, Matthews fell off in effectiveness as much as Tavares did. Matthews’ on-ice results aren’t helped by Kasperi Kapanen falling off by about the same and Andreas Johnsson dropping down into “why are you here” levels of offensive activity.

I leave you all to note Patrick Marleau’s unchanged results. I have theories, but it’s not worth the video review needed to assess them.

In terms of individual offence (Individual Expected Goals per 60 Minutes), we see who was shooting a lot and from good locations. I covered the differences between Tavares and Matthews in terms of shooting and scoring already, but the gist of it is that Tavares did a lot better at maintaining his offensive quality than Matthews did:

Mitch Marner got better, and it wasn’t from shot rate, it was from shooting location.

The troubles Matthews had were compounded by Kapanen’s lack of shooting quality, and while Johnsson rose a little from his regular season numbers, that’s not a great result, and it mostly came from him shooting more from bad locations, It would have been better if Matthews had been shooting the puck instead.

If anything illustrates the incredible damage done to the team by the suspension to Nazem Kadri, this final set of numbers does. He was supposed to be reaping the rewards of playing against the Boston depth, and it worked. It worked really well, with he and Nylander putting up impressive results in the first two games. Nylander couldn’t match the pace or individual shooting quality when he moved to centre, even if his overall percentage was positive.

While you expect Matthews to be the best player on his line, you can’t play him with wingers who fade away against tough competition as dramatically as we see in these numbers. Kasperi Kapanen had the second highest personal shot rate of this set of forwards in the playoffs. That means, to get that terrible Expected Goals result, he had to be shooting from truly horrible locations. The only player shooting from farther out was Andreas Johnsson.

Forget the wingers, though. If Auston Matthews is less likely to score you a goal than Mitch Marner, that is a big, big problem. And while I’m here, I’ll just mention that Matthews’ worst results were in Game Seven where he had an xGF% of 24%, and he shot the puck three times in 15:18 minutes, resulting in one shot on goal. He was outplayed by Tyler Ennis in that game.

With the Tavares line playing at peak performance against Boston and totally owning the Bergeron-line matchup, the Leafs became a one-line team, and Tuukka Rask was excellent against that one line. The Leafs have to be structured so that can’t happen. And that’s what offseason is for, to make sure that can’t happen again.

The focus will be, as it always is, on the weak links on defence, and that’s fair. With a defence corps more capable of gaining and keeping possession of the puck while exiting the defensive zone, you can keep Matthews from being hemmed in so much. That’s good. Nylander on his wing will give him someone who can get into scoring position against tough competition, which is also good. But when Zach Hyman is your best left winger even when he can’t walk, maybe there is a roster problem at forward that won’t be solved just by moving Nylander up where he belongs.