Maple Leafs Need to Address & Improve in 3 Key Areas

When you look at the standings, there really should be no cause for concern for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After a rough start to the season, they’re sitting comfortably third overall in the league in points as well as being a top-10 offensive and defensive team in regards to goals for and against per game.

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The stars are producing as they’re being led by Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Auston Matthews and John Tavares respectively. They’re getting some steady play within their own end despite dealing with a number of injuries to the blue line all season. Especially with their two young defenders in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.

While everything looks great on the surface, their recent play since the calendar flipped to 2023 has created some apprehension, as there are glimpses from the previous season in regards to their play and goaltending. The Maple Leafs are just above a .500 winning percentage in January and their inconsistencies with their play are becoming magnified. This team has battled their way out of tough stretches before and they’re going to have to do so now to avoid the bad habits setting in. 

Puck Management

If there’s one thing that was the major downfall for the Maple Leafs to start the season, was their inability to handle the puck well, leading to costly turnovers and goals against despite being a strong defensive team. Once again, that is a big sticking point for them now as their puck management appears to be back at square one. 

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As of late, poor clearing attempts, poorly timed passes and extended defensive zone time have once again proven to be costly for the Maple Leafs. And we have seen those quite a bit in the last week. In the first game against the Detroit Red Wings, the Maple Leafs couldn’t handle or execute plays with the puck. While they were on a back-to-back, you can tell that they weren’t at their best as they were turning pucks over and weren’t generating anything on the rush.

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Two better examples of poor puck management came against the Boston Bruins as there were glaring mistakes. On the first goal (2:30), Morgan Rielly fans on the pass, where Brad Marchand easily picks up the pick and finds Patrice Bergeron for the tap-in goal. In the second period (3:50), Connor Timmins attempted to make a long, no look pass to Rielly and it was once again picked off by David Pastrnak. The end result was a goal. 

The Bruins players were already anticipating for those plays to unfold and capitalized on the poor decisions made by the Maple Leafs. They were in the right position at the right time to pick off those plays. When you make those plays where you’re not aware of your surroundings and even rush the play, it’s not going to end well. Especially against a team like the Bruins.

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Their costly and careless play put them in bad spots during the game. Minimizing those simple mistakes will go a long way, as they won’t be in a panic and get caught out of position. If they’re able to execute with better decisions with the puck, like they did in the last two months, then things will be easier on themselves.

Power Play Efficiency

You would think that a team with a 25% success rate with the man advantage at the start of 2023, there would be no worries. However, the power play has been a mixed bag for other reasons. 

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For one, the Maple Leafs have gone back to being predictable with their execution. While they get the zone time and are moving the puck well, it’s their entries that remain questionable as they once again rely on a drop pass and tend to over think things on the entry. They need to start attacking with speed and force to catch defenders off guard. 

When teams clog up the middle of the ice, that’s when the Maple Leafs power play begins to panic and lose its focus. Even their breakout passing and lack of positioning and awareness hasn’t been on point like it was previously in the season. When they’re quick, executing passes and moving their feet, they’re easily one of the most dangerous units in the game.

Another sticking point has been the use of the five forward top power play. At times it worked as you get to see the top players work their magic and be offensive forces. Others, it has been questionable at best as there have been rush chances against and even shorthanded goals. They get too creative with their play and try to do too much on the man advantage. 

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even though he’s still finding his game, Rielly has taken some criticism for his play since returning from a leg injury. Though in all situations, he has a 55.10 Corsi for percentage and a 55.86 scoring chances for percentage. While he’s great with his passing, he passes up on prime shooting opportunities much to the dismay of the fan base. He needs to utilize that more to get pucks on net quicker and with more strength. When you don’t have a viable shooting option from the point, that’s going to put a damper on things. 

Rielly has shown to use his shot to his advantage in the past as he reached 10 goals in the 2021-22 regular season and added three more in the playoffs. If he can regain that confidence, he can be just as dangerous as anyone else on the top power play unit.

Goaltending Dilemma

Once again, everything comes down to the goaltending and play of Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray. Both have save percentages above .910, but their play has seen it’s ups and downs as of late. 

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Samsonov has allowed 13 goals in his last five games, but was solid in relief for Murray against the Panthers. He was a big reason why they won that game. Murray has allowed four goals or more in three of his last five games, while also having a stellar game against the Nashville Predators. While both goaltenders have continued to battle for the starting role, both goaltenders haven’t really run away with it as they’ve both had their moments as of late. Good and bad. 

But should there be more concern for one goalie over the other?

Matt Murray Toronto Maple Leafs
Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Elliotte Friedman discussed Murray’s mechanics in regards to his glove hand and how it drops. As a result, teams may have figured him out, exploiting that as a weakness. There have been more goals on his glove hand as of late. There was the game winner from Matt Grzelcyk in their game against the Bruins and it was clearly evident that the Panthers picked up on it as well. Yet, his glove hand was strong against the Nashville Predators.

If there’s one thing that he needs to do, it’s to make sure that his glove is more in the middle, has quicker reaction time to make a save and not give that opportunity to shooters. There are games where it’s his strength and others where it’s a detriment like it was in his last two outings.

No matter what, the goaltenders have previously shown to put in the work and turn things around. They have had a tough stretch of games as of late, but they have managed to give their team a fighting chance no matter what the circumstances are. That says a lot compared to where the goaltending was last season. 

Despite being a top team in the league, the Maple Leafs are facing a tough stretch where some aspects of their game need to be addressed and worked on. Teams go through these lulls where things aren’t clicking at 100 per cent and that is happening with them now. There are always things that need to be improved on and the Maple Leafs just need to keep working at it while maintaining their position at the top of the standings.

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