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Hockey Analytics

Toronto Maple Leafs' Reliance On Goaltending

by Gus Katsaros
Updated On: March 5, 2020, 1:38 am ET

The Toronto Maple Leafs probably eyed six points on the California road trip, but instead began the California road swing by imploding in a loss against the San Jose Sharks. They started well, only to implode second period, Jack Campbell put on a clinic allowing the Leafs the chance to run away with the win in the third period.

Then this happened.

Yeah .. bad/lucky bounce, but you cant let opposition forwards get to the net like that unattended. https://t.co/kUxVnbgwep

— Gus Katsaros🏒 (@KatsHockey) March 4, 2020

Details matter and while goaltending is a problem recently, there are other problems that exacerbate the trouble in the crease.

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Some recent examples of the argument for bad goaltending in Toronto comes in the form of this chart.

TOR's goaltending this year. pic.twitter.com/CO2PHMXRpT

— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) March 2, 2020

 

Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) produced this chart with the rolling average of all Leafs goaltenders this season, and while this tweet is a little blurry (for access to a functional chart, consider contributing to Sean’s Patreon), the point remains, the Leafs goaltending slide has been as detrimental to their playoff hopes as their shoddy defensive play.

Another example that spans even longer.

In this span the Leafs are 7th in the NHL in adjusted xGF%, 4th in adjusted scoring chances, and 22nd in SV%. The problem is (mostly) goaltending! pic.twitter.com/vA8jGeqmeM

— draglikepull (@draglikepull) February 25, 2020

 

It’s easy to showcase goaltending issues pinning their early season issues with the backup position, but is it really goaltending alone? Clearly, there’s a problem with the Leafs defensive game, something we will elaborate on shortly – because there’s a distinct connection between goaltending and the Leafs defense that has lasting effects. Managing the netminder’s workload, Leafs coach, Sheldon Keefe, commented about limiting Frederick Anderson's workload in order to be able to capitalize on a more successful playoff run. This is the detail surrounding using Jack Campbell against the Sharks.

Leafs giving Andersen a breather in California

Keefe: "We want to not just make the playoffs, but want to be in a position that we can thrive in the playoffs so we've got to manage both of those things"

Freddie started last 7 games, up to 50 on seasonhttps://t.co/aQZvDRpdAl

— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 4, 2020

 

Entering this road trip with the Leafs could have opened up some separation from the Florida Panthers for third overall in the Atlantic division. Travelling through California is a most fortuitous scheduling quirk. As the loss indicates, it's never an easy game and the Leafs in comparison to San Jose over the last 10 games (data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick) Toronto shot attempts have been fairly consistently mediocre, while the Sharks have played much better of late.

Leafs Versus Sharks 10 games Moving Average Shot Attempts

 

It’s not just goaltending, but it has an influence nonetheless. Toronto demands elite goaltending to be effectively competitive. That collection of skilled forwards constitutes their best weapon. A high potent offense requires pucks to do their job, forcing that demand into changing the way we consider conventional defense and how that applies to what the Leafs are doing now with their blueline.

Conventional bluelines have integrated more offensively oriented skillsets. Mobility, puck skills and smarts have replaced size, toughness and belligerence. Evolving with skilled players marks strategy as the next frontier. Instead of focusing on the physicality and shot ‘suppression’, defense at the team level should be about retrieving pucks with minimal shots allowed, and at the player level, to do more to get pucks back than resorting to physicality and a mean temperament in their own zone.

Isolate the puck carrier, engage with numbers, retrieve the puck and transition to offense.

That is modern age defense. That is the type of blueline the Leafs are trying to build. In theory, with elevated skillsets, a team can compete with six competent second pairing defenseman, perhaps missing some of the first pairing skills, but elevating that third pairing. Players would be able to slip into the lineup seamlessly because they possess the skills required, regardless of where they are slotted on any pairing.

Instead of the bashing, smashing, and crashing, Toronto is trying to adopt the fully transitionary defense, relying on mobility and offensively oriented blue line.

Switching philosophy has growing pains, disappointments and floating milestones. A glaring disappointment is directly related to goaltending.

To play that new age defensive style, and get pucks back in a timely fashion they will endure more risk, confusion in the defensive zone and giving up space in the middle for teams that can cycle well. The chart below shows how Toronto has been trending down in giving up lower danger scoring chances, but the medium and high danger chances have been increasing – until fairly recently. Trend lines are depicted by the dotted lines. Giving away that medium scoring chance ground is directly related to giving up the blue line in zone entries and giving up space in the defensive zone through the cycle. The black line in the charts indicates where the coaching change took place in mid-November.

Leafs 10 games Moving Average Scoring Chances Against By Zone

 

Medium chances become extended sequences in high danger areas.

Leafs 10 games Moving Average Goals Against

 

High pressured attempts to keep pucks in at the opposition blueline lead to odd man rushes and scrambles resulting the other way. Toronto’s reliance on stellar goaltending keeps them in games due to these increased risks. Anything less than excellence forces the team to score their way out of trouble.

There’s disconnect between the blue line and the forward group, but the same defensive issues appear frequently that have been in effect for most of the Mike Babcock era. Two failed first round playoff ousters based on the expectations of style from Leafs brass, forced Babcock's insistence on playing a low event, safe, and defensively oriented game and misusing their greatest assets. Teaching young stars to be successful shouldn’t be to the detriment of the best assets. With the coaching change Toronto eschewed any semblance of low event hockey, to provide an entertaining, albeit less rounded product under Keefe.

Taken for granted has been the stellar goaltending by Frederick Andersen. His heroics have allowed the Leafs to capitalize on their highly-skilled offense. But when he isn’t on, it gets ugly. The rolling 10-game moving average shown below highlights overall save percentage and how the as the medium danger save percentage dipped it was replaced with an increased percentage in high danger areas and the inverse occurs with medium danger save percentage improving and high danger dipping. The axis is a bit exaggerated to illustrate the drastic dips in percentages.

Leafs 10 games Moving Average Save Percentage by Zone

 

With the increase in high danger save percentage in the chart above, the overall expected goals peaked only to correct itself before leveling out just a little under the two goals against line.

Leafs 10 games Moving Average Expected Goals Against

 

The Leafs have been generally able to mask their defensive issues and shoddy goaltending by outscoring their opposition. Coach Keefe uses his stars after a successful penalty killed in a semblance to generate more scoring chances, the Leafs are dangerous and entertaining while providing cringe-worthy defensive coverage and structure. Injuries to Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin have increased the responsibility heaped onto Tyson Barrie despite his struggles this season.

It’s clear how important goaltending is to their overall success.

Gus Katsaros
Gus Katsaros is the Pro Scouting Coordinator with McKeen’s Hockey, publishers of industry leading scouting and fantasy guide, the McKeen’s Annual Hockey Pool Yearbook. He also contributes to popular blog MapleLeafsHotStove.com ... he can be followed on Twitter @KatsHockey