Heading into the 2020/21 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs were expected to be a dominant force in the North Division as many pegged them to be the winners of this group.
Even though they have a 4-2-0 record, we’re seeing two different teams. At times we’re seeing the offensive flare and puck possession that made them so hard to contain, but at times we’re seeing them make poor decisions with the puck leading to offensive zone time and opportunities that don’t amount to anything.
It’s still early and they have time to rediscover their offensive capabilities, but should there be cause for concern after what we’ve seen through six games?
Playing Too Cautious
In every game, I’ve noticed something on how the Maple Leafs have been playing. They look to be playing with a really cautious approach so far and not with enough intensity from the start of the game. They would only put their foot on the gas and play with a purpose when things seemed to be really close or when they were down to mount a comeback. While they may not have been badly outplayed, the Maple Leafs don’t seem to be doing enough to get things going.
When they played the Winnipeg Jets it was a really strong effort throughout the game where they were no doubt the better team as this heat map from Natural Stat Trick shows.
Compared to the heat map in their first game against the Edmonton Oilers, it paints a different picture. While they had the advantage in terms of puck possession, 56.25 corsi for percentage, the Maple Leafs didn’t seem as dangerous as they were against the Jets. The main reason for this, despite still getting some scoring chances at times, they’re being too patient with the puck and not getting shots off quick enough.
When they’re trying to create a play, they always pass to get the right play set and then the opportunity is squandered, either by a blocked shot, a picked off pass or the puck going to an open area where no one is there to retrieve it. Their puck management isn’t anywhere near what it should be given the skillset that they have. They’re always going to the outside and have been tested to get to the high danger area.
They’re cycling and moving around, but they fail to get the puck off in time to make a play and any offensive pressure that they have is over. Despite wanting to shoot the puck more and leading the team in points, Mitch Marner has been guilty of being too cautious with his decision-making. Something is missing from his game as we’ve seen him be quick and able to connect with his passing as well as take over a play. That consistency hasn’t been there.
This guarded approach isn’t helping them and it’s showing, as they seem lifeless and playing it way too safe at times. Even head coach Sheldon Keefe is starting to take notice. His post-game comments against their 3-1 loss to the Oilers made it clear that when they had the puck they really didn’t generate a whole lot. The Maple Leafs have to be smart with their management and decision making with the puck in order to make the best of their time when on offense. The quick puck movement, along with their speed, is going to be critical if they want to change things.
Even early on in their second game against the Oilers, they showed some sloppy play as they allowed a few odd man rushes in Auston Matthews’ absence. Though they seemed to have gotten better as the game progressed, getting good chances and shooting when they were supposed to.
Struggling to Convert on Chances
As Keefe mentioned, they had their chances but not a whole lot is going their way in terms of converting on their opportunities. The best example of this is Jason Spezza missing a wide open-net that would’ve tied the game up against the Oilers.
At five-on-five, the Maple Leafs currently have the third best CF% at 56.29 and the fourth best expected goals for with 9.09 while sporting the 21st best shooting percentage in the league at 6.35%. Even with the team sporting a 3.17 goals per game rate, it doesn’t seem enough as they’re outside of the top-10. As we witnessed in the qualifying round for the playoffs, a team with this kind of offensive power shouldn’t be struggling to convert on their chances like they currently are. The bounces clearly aren’t going their way.
You could call it a case of bad puck luck early on, but something has to give as things could quickly turn around for them. Matthews has 27 shots on goal, but only two goals to show for it. It’s not a result of him not getting his looks at the net, it’s just nothing seems to be going his way. We’ve seen how well Matthews can shoot as he scored 47 times last season.
But the Maple Leafs as a whole in the offensive zone have been somewhat of a disappointment as they’re prioritizing defense instead of offense. It’s good to see that, but they should be able to find that balance on both sides of the puck without jeopardizing the other.
With new lines this season, the forwards are still finding chemistry and Keefe is still looking to find balance on his lines. As the team is dealing with two injuries to Nick Robertson and Joe Thornton, the chance to the find that balance becomes difficult. With Thornton out and Zach Hyman finding his way back onto the top line, his ability to grind it out and dig for pucks could be a simple change to help get the offense going and return to some of the balance they had. Though, their depth is going to continue to be tested and looking at the production of the forwards it might be a challenge as they’re starting to lack it early on.
The players that are supposed to produce are, but players, like Ilya Mikheyev and Jimmy Vesey have yet to show any consistency. Given how things have gone, they need to find the perfect balance with their forwards quick, as they can’t afford to continue to play the way that they are.
This Season is Unlike Any Other
Heading into the season, we knew it was going to be unlike any other given the ongoing pandemic. The Maple Leafs lack of consistent puck control could be a result of not having that extended camp and pre-season as they had very little time to gel together.
No game is going to be easy this year and we’re seeing it early on not just in the Canadian Division, but also across the NHL. The Maple Leafs need to be ready to play and give it their all no matter what as other teams up their intensity. Granted it’s going to be a tough grind in a condensed schedule, but they have to play with determination.
You could even say the same thing in a full 82-game season with fans in the arena. No game is going to be easy and they’re going to have to go above and beyond each game to get a win. The Maple Leafs have previously stated that they wanted to get tougher to play against. While they mentioned that in the offseason, we really haven’t seen that grit and edge. They’re going to have to find that spark and compete level they’ve wanted as that can prove to be a major factor in the way that they play.
While the Maple Leafs have been dealing with some discrepancies with their puck management and distribution, there is time for the team to find their consistency, while hoping to capitalize on their opportunities. It’s going to take some time for the team to reach that chemistry. Once that happens, then this team could be what many had expected it to be.
Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and NHL. Images from Natural Stat Trick and Dobber Frozen Tools.