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The Maple Leafs need to get better

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They aren’t great. Not quite.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs are good at Corsi %. They aren’t great, and they never have been great, but they are top 10 in the NHL, and sit just behind the great teams. (Corsi % is a team’s share of all shots including blocks, misses and goals.) They have grown over the last three years by this measure.

Three Years of Growth

In 2019-2020, they had 52.3% Corsi at five-on-five and were seventh in the league. That’s some shreds of one percentage point better than the year before. Shreds so small, I call it the same. In 2017-2018, they had 50.6% and were 14th. This is a definite sign of growth from two years ago to this season.

The Maple Leafs don’t generally lead the league in shot blocking, and they have played a style of hockey in the past that puts a lot of shots in the crowded slot and a lot of them get blocked. The Maple Leafs are usually worse at Fenwick % (unblocked shots).

In 2019-2020, they had 51.5% Fenwick at five-on-five, were ninth in the league, and were a full percentage point better than the year before. In 2017-2018, they were at 49%. This is an even more definite sign of growth.

In 2019-2020, the Leafs had 51.6% Expected Goals (unblocked shots weighted for type and location), were 11th in the league, and were a shred of a percentage point worse than last season. In 2017-2018, they had 51%. This is a sign that while the shotshare, and the volume of shots being taken at each end of the ice has changed, improved in some cases, the end result is a totally static number that puts the Leafs outside the top 10 in the league most years.

Out of the 93 seasons played by all teams in these three years, the Leafs 2019-2020 season ranks 32nd by Expected Goals %. The leader is Vegas this year, and the teams in between their great season and the Leafs very good season are familiar and expected — the Hurricanes, the Bruins, the Lightning, the Wild have all three of their season in that group.

But Under Keefe, Though...

I’m not going to chop this season into pieces. Yes Keefe changed things that sure seemed to work a lot of the time, but if you start chopping, you need to be sure that when you do, it’s an ‘all else being equal, this one thing was different’ situation, and we can’t know that all else is equal. There are too many other factors that could drive differences over a month or so, mostly centred around the players on both teams on the ice. The coach isn’t the biggest one most of the time, and a plausible explanation is that the defending faced by the Leafs most of the time forced them to use a lot of point shots. That first six weeks wasn’t the only time that happened. It also happened in the playoffs.

If you really like the offence under Keefe, and I sure want to believe in it myself, you should know that the Expected Goals For per 60 minutes in his portion of the season was identical to the 2018-2019 season, so why are we chopping out the games coached by the guy we’ve only now decided destroyed the offence personally, when it’s exactly what the team produced in a full season under him? The Expected Goals Against per 60 are identical in both segments of the season, which is an interesting thing to ponder for later.

Not Quite Good Enough

The conclusion is clear: The Maple Leafs are not quite good enough yet at even strength. Forget the new kinds of measurements, and just look at the old kind for a second — all-situations Goals For%. Out of the 93 seasons, the Leafs were 13th in 2017-2018, 18th in 2018-2019 and 36th this season. That fits fairly closely to their all-situations Expected Goals%, which were, respectively, 33rd, 11th, 30th. Those are good to very good rankings, but they aren’t excellent. And they clearly show that the Leafs got a little worse this year at five-on-five, well before the goalies were considered.

I think we all have varying opinions of why the power play wasn’t great, and we know the goalie troubles, so nothing is gained from rehashing those, but why were the Leafs a little bit less good at five-on-five? Shouldn’t we have expected them to get better?

Their Expected Goals For per 60 this season was the lowest of the three years. Which isn’t the same as saying it’s bad. The Leafs are elite at this one area of play, and their 2018-2019 season is the fourth highest of the 93 seasons, and the two teams ahead of them (the Hurricanes once and Vegas twice) are monster Corsi producers with percentages around 55 in those years. The Maple Leafs are so good at offence, they do it while never touching that level of shotshare. This season, they tumbled down to 17th out of the 93 or fourth in the league this year. This is not ‘the’ problem, even if the reason their rate of Expected Goals declined (mostly a decline in shot quality, not volume) is another interesting thing to ponder later.

The Leafs Expected Goals Against per 60 this season was the best of the three years. Which isn’t the same as saying it’s good. The Leafs were 56th this year out of the 93 seasons, and 77th last, with 2017-2018 in the middle at 68th. They improved this year by this very small amount entirely on volume of shots allowed. In terms of Corsi Allowed per 60, they are average at 14th this season (teams in general did better at shots against this year, and most of the best rankings in this measure over three years are this season). The trouble is, the Leafs allowed a higher quality of shots, and that clawed back those lovely average shots against a little.

They took a slightly different path through this season compared to their prior years and ended up a little bit worse overall.

Future Growth

If that’s where you are, how do you fix it? This team isn’t bad. They have some elite aspects, and remember those shots taken with good Expected Goals weightings are largely taken by excellent to elite shooters. This can’t be overstated: the Maple Leafs offence cooks.* But the overall results have plateaued.

There’s six aspects to how you end up with a given Expected Goals %, which is the thing that correlates most with future success. You don’t aim for that as a coach or a GM — you aim for systems and choices on the ice that your players can execute well enough to win most of the time — but when you measure what they did, you want to see that Expected Goals number not in the middle of the league. Not outside the top 10.

The Leafs’ six aspects are:

Offensive shot volume: Elite
Offensive shot quality: Very Good
Shooter skill: Good to Elite

Defensive shot volume: Okay
Defensive shot quality: Okay
Defender skill: Jake Muzzin

When you look at it like that, there is really not much you accomplish by tinkering with the offence, and if Sheldon Keefe’s cycle system shaved off some quality of shooting and gave some shots to lesser shooters (defencemen), to some extent that’s fine. Particularly if that is necessary to get the lower shots against. The evidence for an offensive possession behaviour causing a defensive shot volume or quality result is very thin, however, and the defending numbers are flat through the entire season no matter who was coaching. It shouldn’t be necessary to sacrifice anything in the offensive zone because the way to lower the shots against is to be good at gaining possession and exiting the defensive zone. We all know the Leafs aren’t good at that, though.

There is a theoretical maximum rate a team can shoot at, and the Leafs are closer to it than almost every other team. It starts costing you more in inputs to get more output when you’re that close to the limits. So they can’t get meaningfully more return on an investment in more offence. That makes the acquisition of Tyson Barrie seem even more like the wrong thing to do, not just because his results were poor, but because he was the wrong type of defender to add to this mix.

But, given the Leafs cap situation — they have to remove a roster forward to add a defender of value unless they’re going to trade Morgan Rielly — how much actual improvement can one defensive defenceman make? Jake Muzzin is absolutely necessary to the team, that’s obvious, and some kind of Muzzin-lite would be my ideal choice for an acquisition, only because they can’t fit a Muzzin-strong under the cap. But imaginary Muzzin-lite is one guy. He would play 20 minutes at even strength. And one guy is not going to tune those okay ratings up to elite by himself. Which is why new defenders isn’t the whole answer.

The seventh thing that goes into an Expected Goals % is the overall shotshare it’s based on -the Corsi %. And that’s never been elite for the Leafs, and that’s where I think they need to improve. If you can’t shoot much more, and I don’t think they really can, they need to allow less, and have you heard the one about how the Leafs can’t exit the zone cleanly with possession? This is why their Expected Goals results don’t show real improvement this year. This is why they don’t really show any growth over three years beyond elite forwards getting better in the years where their ageing curve is a steep incline. This is why the team seems stuck in good, but not good enough territory.

They need clean zone exits with possession. They need to move through the neutral zone with speed, and they need to stop being the team that even the bad Columbus offence can pin down and cycle against. That’s not something one defenceman can fix , though if he’s able to make a clean first pass out of the zone, he’s one up on a few already on the team. This is about forward positioning and passing skill, as much as it is defender skill, and it’s also coached. I’ll spot Sheldon Keefe the difficulty of dealing with a weak defensive team overall this year, but I’ll say this: I was sick to the teeth of listening to him bemoan the Marlies getting outshot, and then never doing anything successfully to change it. I’m not going to be happy if this coming Leafs season involves as much creative description of the Leafs defending as he employed this year.

The entire set of skills around puck retrieval and zone exits has to improve for the team to improve.

Back to Offence

Now about that offence that cooks...

We all saw this process this season: The Leafs offence is completely destroyed by a team that defends decently well, and they look like a joke while they get beat. Sometimes that lasts a whole game, sometime one period is enough. And then suddenly they play two or three games where the offence fires, and it’s all fun again.

This isn’t us fans carping on the team, because Kyle Dubas said this when discussing this season:

I think the biggest disappointment of the year, if I had to pinpoint, would have to be that we showed, at multiple times throughout the year and in single games and even in stretches of weeks or months, what we are really capable of. We just were not able to string that together consistently over a prolonged stretch of the season, and certainly not in the playoffs.

From my perspective, you are most disappointed in the fact that we did not capitalize and play to our potential as often as we could have. You want to do it for 82 games a year and you want to do it for 16 wins in the Spring and win a Stanley Cup. It’s not realistic to think it is going to be that way every single night, but I think what we need to get to is that it’s as often as humanly possible to rise to the level we want.

It’s not a dream in terms of how we can play because we showed it multiple times throughout the season this year. It’s just the fact that we could not do it as often as required to reach our potential. That would be the most disappointing factor for my end.

In 2019-2020, the formula to beat the Maple Leafs was to disrupt their offensive cycle and then pin them in their own zone. And Columbus didn’t prove teams have to defend at their elite level; rather, they showed that that offence as bad as theirs gets the job done if you defend really well.

This is where the new offensive style and the erosion of shot quality by having centres back at the blueline and defenders at the net might be coming into play. By shifting the offence farther away from the net, the Leafs magnified the Columbus ‘box you out’ defensive style to the point they had the worst shot quality on team-typical rates of shooting that it’s possible to have in that series.

Even if the Keefe offence is sustainable over a full season, and the Leafs improve defensively in execution with better personnel, and improve to good in the quantity and quality of the shots they allow, they will still be beatable by a team that can disrupt their offence. Those teams will just need to be better offensively than Columbus, which is a low bar.

You can’t be elite, a contender, if your one elite skill is that easy to disrupt and stifle. And that means the execution of the forwards must improve as well. If it can’t, then they aren’t the right forwards after all, which is not something I’m prepared to say. Not yet.

Conclusion

The Maple Leafs are not a bad team. They aren’t great either, and they need to maintain their offensive level more consistently and improve their shotshare and their defending. Kyle Dubas just has to accomplish that in the single most difficult year to do it in when roster changes will be minimal.

Good luck to him. Because I really want to see the Leafs fulfill the level of hard work and commitment they showed in the pre-playoffs training camp. No one can doubt their work ethic, unless they’re paid to by a radio station. But it’s a fair call to doubt their ability to grow into a mature team by next season. It’s also reasonable to hope for it. Which is exactly how the Leafs keep you hooked.