The Toronto Maple Leafs are about to finish off the month of March on one of their worst skids of the season. I’d bet they’d have balked at the notion if brought up earlier in the season. But, here we are.
The reliance on stellar goaltending is a tool, balancing the high risk defensive components within the Leafs structure. They think and execute to score goals … lots of goals.
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Last week we mapped out the Carolina Hurricanes season showing how rebounds were created as part of their high-octane shooting proclivity.
Building off last week’s look into the rebound metric available at MoneyPuck.com, with the Leafs leaky defensive game in vogue, I thought this could be a good example to look at rebounds against.
Toronto is … it’s difficult to find a word to properly finish that sentence that accurately describes their defensive game. They can appear lost in the chaos in the defensive zone, forced into making unrecoverable errors.
Since mid-March, as we shall see, the Leafs defense and stretch of shaky goaltending has led to a terrible stretch. Boston has opened up a five point lead, an insurmountable gap this late in the season. The race for home ice is set for the inevitable first round clash.
Brief Side Note
Before getting into the Leafs, a quick look at the team level; what is happening in Columbus? Entering Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders, they’ve allowed 19 rebound goals, considerably below the expected rebound goals against (reboundxGA) of 31.74. That’s the greatest range among the top ten ranking teams in expected goals against. They also have allowed the lowest high danger goals against (21). Sergei Bobrovsky has been relied upon to come up with the big saves to be competitive and cover up some of the Blue Jackets scoring woes.
The Leafs rank fifth overall, allowing 30 goals, one less than the 31 expected. Resorting this table to expected goals against, Toronto is listed third overall. They rank middle of the pack in goals allowed overall in the NHL.
This is the illustration of the reliance they’ve built on goaltending, specifically, Frederik Andersen. Up until recently, where the Leafs goaltending blew up, that reliance was playing out well coupled with firepower to run up scores.
Since March 11, upon returning from a successful Canadian west coast road trip, Andersen has let in 23 goals in six games, with a record of 2-2-1. His save percentage in all situations has dipped to .917 – the second lowest of his career – yet right along recent career norms. Prior to March 11, he had been riding a career high .924. He’s three wins away from tying his career best 38 wins.
As a team, the Leafs 10-game rolling average of 5v5 expected goals and goals is charted below. The low point is the end of the western road swing and the sharp spike in goals against followed up in the ensuing games. It should be noted that the Leafs expected goals against had been on the rise even as they completed their road trip, and allowing less 5v5 goals against. From the peak on March 11, their expected goals against has been decreasing, while goals allowed spiked.
The improvement over the last few games was marred by the five goals allowed in a 7-5 win over the Florida Panthers, Monday night.
A review the Leafs defense and goaltending over the last two weeks, exposes extensive systematic and player breakdowns leading to excessive amounts of scoring chances against. Holes in defensive structure has been exploited by teams as the season progressed. Video is prevalent, targeting Leafs weak points. Too often during this span in particular they’ve been burnt time and again by using their tendencies to jump the zone, or ease off the back check for example. And it’s not a recent phenomenon. These issues have been prevalent in their game all season long, masked by lots of goals and entertaining memories.
Toronto loses puck battles too often, in the defensive zone and out. They offer space to opposition when they clearly have numbers in the defensive zone. They gave up deflating goal after goal. Most goals seemed to be from clean shots, fired after a defensive zone breakdown. Some badly tipped shots have caught goaltending off guard. But some were rebounds and MoneyPuck.com contains the data to examine the Leafs past few games.
Leafs and Rebounds
The chart below exemplifies the 10-game moving average of the Leafs rebounds allowed and expected rebounds allowed across the top, with expected rebound goals against and actual rebound goals against along the bottom. The dotted line represents the March 11 date and the first game back after the Western Canadian road trip.
Note that expected rebounds were rising leading up to the dotted line, while rebounds dropped from their peak. After the western road trip, the expected rebounds dipped, but their rebounds increased. Even the expected goals against from rebounds was decreasing, Toronto was letting in more rebound goals. While the focus was on the defensive efforts starting from the disastrous Tampa Bay game, the Leafs were showing signs of defensive breakdowns well before that time.
When isolating the zones by danger, the low and high danger zone shots against were dipping, post March 11, while medium range shots climbed to a season high before correcting as the Leafs tried to right the ship and stop the defensive bleeding. An interesting factor as the medium range once again has an effect on rebounds, this time from the opposite perspective. It’s a subject worth exploring more in detail.
Using data from MoneyPuck.com I wanted to show the line by line breakdown. The Zach Hyman, John Tavares and Mitch Marner trio has played the most minutes – at 5v5, with many goals were being scored from low danger areas while the trio was on the ice. Raw totals aside, there were three lines that were allowing more low danger goals against per 60 minutes, which would have normalized the LD/60 shot rate downwards with more playing time.
The biggest issue facing the Leafs against the Bruins in the 2018 playoffs was the inability to reel in loose pucks, or get back possession to exploit their skilled components up front. Having Nazem Kadri available for the entire postseason, and the addition of John Tavares has made them deep up front. Unfortunately, the areas that required improvement, haven’t been addressed.
With a handful of games left in the regular season, the normal clichés regarding tightening up defensively and being prepared for the postseason proliferate from this confident group. Can they avoid the shoddy defensive play and take advantage of the Bruins in the spring rematch?