When It Mattered Most, the Leafs Defence Wasn't the Problem
You’ve heard it from your relatives, you’ve heard it from some hard headed old school idiots on Twitter, hell you’ve even heard it from a handful of analysts between Sportsnet and TSN… “this team’s defence doesn’t have what it takes.”
The war between two sides of Leafs’ fans realistically boils down to two sides; the analytics and stats community, and the “eye test” people. Realistically, no matter whether or not either side wants to admit it, you need a bit of both in order to create a successful hockey team. When it comes down to it this season however, it doesn’t take advanced analytics to see that defence had nothing to do with why the Toronto Maple Leafs are no longer apart of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A lot of things went wrong for the Leafs throughout the qualifying round, but throughout it all, they could not score to save their life. You could blame it on a lot of things. You could say that our rookie head coach got outcoached by a much more experienced coach in John Tortorella and I wouldn’t disagree with you. You could say Columbus limited the big names in the series and you’d also be right. The one thing you can’t say, is that this depleted defence got their doors kicked in on their way to the loss.
Over the five game series, the Leafs gave up just 11 non empty net goals; They also managed not to give up a powerplay goal the entire series. The biggest knock against this team all year was that they spend all of their money up front, and there’s a glaring hole on the back end. If you average out the goals against scored on an actual goalie however, you’re looking at an average of a hair over two per game.
For an offence that finished the season third in the entire NHL in goals scored, asking them to score two goals a game should be easy money. When it came down to it though, $57.6 million offence couldn’t rise to a very low level. It’s easy to try and blame the big four for the lack of scoring given their hefty price tags (over $40 million between the group), but the biggest guns for the Leafs were never really the issue.
In the Leafs wins, when it mattered most, guys like Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander rose to the occasion and managed to lead the team to victory. Outside of those two wins, when the main guns for the Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t scoring, there was absolutely zero depth to back them up. Names like Pierre Engvall and training camp MVP Ilya Mikheyev were basically non-existent in the offensive end.
Mikheyev, who was pegged to be a “Zach Hyman replacement” had 18 shot attempts in the series, but managed to only hit the net eight times, all of which seemingly hit the crest on either goalie’s chest. Engvall, on the other hand, was given a much smaller role than Mikheyev (12:33 avg TOI as opposed to Mikheyev’s 16:43), but he was also irrelevant on the scoresheet after attempting nine shots and hitting the net on six. You could stomach these numbers if they were doing the dirty work that everyone says they do, but the two combined for just five hits, one takeaway, and two blocks over the entire series.
While it’s easy to pick on these two given the expectations they set for themselves, they were by no means the only problem. Kasperi Kapanen looked like he entirely forgot how to play the game of hockey, Zach Hyman had just three points in the series and didn’t look like his usual bulldog puck retrieving self, and Mitch Marner looked like he was donning a Blue Jackets Jersey for four out of five games. Outside of the big four, there were only four goals and eight assists scored. If any team in the playoffs has that kind of drop off then they have zero chance of winning a series.
It wasn’t like the team was without chances though. They peppered the Blue Jackets all series long, but only managed to find the back of the net 1.97 per cent of the time. If you run that series back with the exact same shot counts, Toronto likely wins the series eight or nine times out of ten. Unfortunately for this year’s team, there were two all star goalies and zero puck luck on the opposite end of the ice and they are packing up to go home.
Obviously there were some blatant gaps in the defence that could’ve been fixed. Tyson Barrie picking up the wrong man on the game three OT winner, Travis Dermott’s bad pinch leading to a goal in game three, and Martin Marincin stepping on the ice all stand out as key moments. As a whole though, the defence looked serviceable in their own end, despite losing one of the games best defensive defencemen in just game two of the series. If you’re going to point fingers somewhere, your first point needs to be somewhere other than the back end for once.