Updated: Jan 10, 2019
It's all I've heard since the Leafs signed John Tavares. "Sure they can score but they don't have that shut down defenceman that you need." If that's the sentiment you're going with, then you obviously haven't been paying attention to the NHL the last few years. You don't have to look any further than the Stanley Cup champions of the last three years to see exactly what I'm talking about.
The Capitals and the Penguins twice, all fantastic teams, all built around a high speed, deep offence. But man, their defences were thin. The same thing goes for last year's surprise success, the Vegas Golden Knights. Combined the four teams had only one former all star on their back end in Kris Letang.
When you dive into it, you see a lot of similarities between those teams, and the defence of the 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs. I pulled the regular season numbers of the defencemen from the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2016-17 Penguins, 2017-18 Washington Capitals, and the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights. I isolated the games played, goals, assists, points, defensive point shares (points created by the players defence) and blocked shots. This is what I found:
What a terrible group of defencemen. The already weak squad was missing leading scorer Kris Letang for the entire playoff run. Not only could they not play defence, but outside of Letang, there was zero offensive threat, with failed Edmonton Oilers project Justin Schultz quarterbacking the first powerplay unit.
The 2016-17 Penguins were almost no different than their unit in the previous year. The biggest difference? The man they considered to be their biggest defensive addition... RON HAINSEY! The current Leaf was considered an integral part of a Stanley Cup winning defence just two seasons ago.
The Washington Capitals were a little different than the Penguins in the sense that they were a bigger and meaner team. They were also a whole lot slower, and it showed in the foot speed of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. The ridiculous offence consisting of Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, T.J Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and many others, managed to carry the load of the entire team, scoring their way to a title.
2017-18 Golden Knights
The Golden Knights sported one of the wilder teams in NHL history. This group of defencemen consisted of a bunch of misfits who's best asset came in the form of young Anaheim Ducks castoff Shea Theodore. The Knights speed from top to bottom allowed them to have incredible team defence, a luxury that the Leafs should be sporting.
2017-18 Maple Leafs
This shortened list only shows the defenceman that are still currently in the lineup for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Obviously the games played don't match up, but surprisingly, the rest of the stats aren't as far away as you'd think. With 74 games played seperating the Leafs defence of last season, and the next closest team, you would expect their goals, assists, and point totals to be astronomically different; when in fact, they only trail the 15-16 penguins by nine (123 games separated), the 17-18 Capitals by six (74 games seperated), and the 17-18 Golden Knights by 27 (157 games separated). They even lead the the 16-17 Penguins by 16 (74 games seperated.)
I get it, all this does is add more offence to an already offensive team. The thing i found to be the most compelling is the defensive point shares and the blocked shots. The DPS's are dispersed in nearly the same fashion for each team. The first pairing has one crazy high number, the second pairing has one high number, and the rest of the defence looks nearly identical. Essentially what this is saying is that the defensive play from all teams looks eerily similar.
The blocked shots are also not that far apart. When looking at shots blocked per games played, the list looks as follwed, 15-16 Penguins: 1.30 BLK/Gm, 16-17 Penguins 1.66 BLK/Gm, 17-18 Capitals 1.53 BLK/Gm, 17-18 Golden Knights 1.49 BLK/Gm, and the 17-18 Maple Leafs at 1.57 BLK/Gm. The Leafs sit second overall on this list, meaning their d-core blocked more shots than two of the previous three Stanley Cup winners.
The difference between all of these defences, is that the Toronto defence is doing a better job of picking up that blocked shot and creating points off the rush. So while their defences are really similar in their end, the Leafs back can do so much more to help the offence than any of the previously mentioned teams. Add in the fact that young Travis Dermott is a year more experienced, as well as the addition of defensive defenceman Igor Ozhiganov, and you get a Leafs defence that has tremendous offensive upside.
The thing with the Toronto Maple leafs is that they don't need a world beating defence. When your team consists of two potential 50 goal scorers in Auston Mathews and John Tavares, two potential 30 goal scorers in Mitch Marner and Nazem Kadri, along with at least three other skaters that have had 25 goal seasons or have the potential to do so, then you are almost guaranteed to score four goals every time you touch the ice.
So sure, if you're the Leafs, you can trade William Nylander for a big defenceman under team control. But why? Why not add another potential 30 goal scorer to the mix? Guarantee yourself five goals every game just for fun. Even the worst of defences can keep that many pucks out of the net (demonstrated pretty well over the last two games.)
If you want to pinpoint one common denominator between every winning team, just take a look a the performance of their goaltender.
Matt Murray had a coming out party in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. The rookie was a brick wall throughout the Penguins entire playoff run, single-handedly willing the Penguins to their first of back to back cups.
The narrative was a little bit different in 2017. Matt Murray entered the playoffs on the IR, leaving him out of the first two rounds. Marc-Andre Fleury stepped in admirably, winning two playoff rounds before losing his job in the Washington Capitals series. Murray took over, and he put up numbers that were even better than the previous season. The Penguins managed to walk all over the Nashville predators with ease.
Braden Holtby lost his job in the regular season to back up Philipp Grubauer. That continued into the playoffs when the Caps used him for games one and two. Grubauer was terrible, and the outcomes showed, with the Caps going down 2-0 to Columbus. Holtby replaced him, put up fantastic numbers, and the rest is history.
2017-18 Golden Knights
Marc-Andre Fleury put up such an incredible run in the playoffs that I was nearly forced into tattooing his name on my chest. The former penguin resurrected his career with the Knights, carrying his incredible season into the playoffs. His numbers would have been even more impressive had they not slipped in the finals loss to the Capitals.
Now flip the script and dive into Freddy Andersen's numbers.
Frederik Andersen faced more shots than any other goaltender in the NHL. In the regular season, he was spectacular; making big saves look routine, looking unphased the entire season. The thing that seemed to lead to the downfall of Andersen was his heavy workload throughout the year. The netminder was forced into 66 games, mostly due to the fact that their backup, Curtis McElhinney, had only played in more than 20 games three times in his 14 year career.
The heavy workload showed prominently in the playoffs, with a tired Andersen putting up a save percentage 22 points lower than that of his regular season, along with allowing nearly a goal more per game.
I think Leafs fans and analysts alike need to stop worrying about what is missing from this team, and focus more on how Mike Babcock can use the roster he currently has more effectively, in order to help the team compete come playoff time.
By simply limiting the workload of Frederik Andersen, and preaching team defence to their incredibly dynamic forward unit, they will not only allow less goals, but in turn, they will control the puck more. By giving this offence the puck more... well, you know what's gonna happen
*all stats courtesy of https://www.hockey-reference.com/analytics/