Maple Leafs Defense Stepping Up During Tough Times

There is much to be said in regards to the Toronto Maple Leafs defense. Most of the team, especially the blueline, remained intact heading into the start of the season with some depth signings in Victor Mete and Jordie Benn. 

Based on how things played out last season and the way the team played at the start of this season, it looked like the position should’ve been addressed as there were some concerns. There were some tense moments when it came to the defenders handling the puck, their decision making and the mounting injuries to the blue line. But what if I were to tell you that the Maple Leafs defense situation isn’t as bad as it seems. 

Weird right? But overall, the Maple Leafs have held their own. Despite playing well for most of the games, it’s always one critical error that cost them the game which can be concerning. There should be criticism as a result, but the Maple Leafs defense has not been the biggest issue as some are making it out to be this season and here is why. 

Numbers Tell a Different Story

In the past, the Maple Leafs defensive play has been a cause for concern as they don’t have the depth to push for a Stanley Cup. It has been an issue for them and in key moments they have been the cause of their own demise in games with poor puck management and not getting the offense going from the backend.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While they lack that premier number one defenseman to lead and be a strong presence on the blueline, they manage to remain steadfast when facing an uphill battle. That can be said once again this season. It’s tough to be optimistic after witnessing the mistakes they have made, as they’ve caught the ire of the media and fans. Though the numbers tell a different story overall with their play.

At five-on-five, the Maple Leafs remain one of the top teams in allowing the fewest shots, scoring chances and goals against. This season alone, they have allowed 34 goals against and while that may seem a little high, it’s the sixth fewest in the league. In regards to goals scored off of scoring chances, they rank eighth with 33. Their high danger goals against are very respectful as they’re tied for eighth with 19 and to top it all off, their 2.45 expected goals against per 60 has them eighth overall.

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When looking at a per game basis, the Maple Leafs have allowed 2.57 goals against (tied for fourth overall) and are one of seven teams to allow 30 or fewer shots per game (28.3). As a comparison to last season, they had a 3.07 GA/GP and a 30.6 SA/GP. They have had a lot of close games as they’re able to shut things down as they’re tied with for first with seven wins in one-goal games.

Considering the number of mistakes that have led to goals against, they have done a fantastic job to keep the number of shots and goals down to a minimum. Having steady goaltending from both Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov is also a big bonus. The way they manage the puck is still a work in progress, but overall positioning and ability to cut down the opponents’ chances is a big positive. All while dealing with a major test to their depth.

Injuries and Tested Depth

At the start of preseason, the Maple Leafs have been dealing with constant injuries to their blueline. It started off with Timothy Liljegren’s hernia and then the concerns of Jake Muzzin’s health soon followed as he’ll be out long term with a cervical spine injury. 

Since then, the Maple Leafs have lost Benn, T.J. Brodie and more importantly, Morgan Rielly after he sustained a knee injury against the New York Islanders. That’s a long list of injuries as they’re missing their top three defenders. Even with Benn on the sidelines, he was starting to emerge as an important piece moving up and down the lineup.

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

While the depth is being tested, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has noticed a trend with his blue line’s play when things aren’t going their way.

“It’s not the first time our team has dealt with injuries to key players and each time we’ve responded well,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said according to TSN’s Mark Masters. “Won games. Played even better defensively than we were when we had these guys in the lineup. We will just continue to play a good, sound team game and find ways to win.”

The Maple Leafs blue line is strong and resilient through it all. To have this kind of depth being tested, with the numbers above, it is impressive how they manage to come out on top. While they don’t have marquee names, they have players willing to do whatever it takes to win. That alone is what makes teams even better in the long run. This shows the Maple Leafs can handle the pressure and still play a strong shut down game when they need to.

Everyone is Stepping Up

The Maple Leafs have already seen 11 different defenders suit up at some point this season, the most recent being Mac Hollowell. Every single time a player is listed to play, they make their performance count.

Mark Giordano Toronto Maple Leafs
Mark Giordano, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

No one has stepped up more than veteran Mark Giordano as he’s once again the go-to guy on the backend like he was with the Calgary Flames. Since their Nov.12 game against the Vancouver Canucks, Giordano has hit the 20-minute mark every time and has logged over 22 minutes three times. It’s safe to say he has been relied on heavily and is rising to the occasion. He is the savvy veteran presence that is leading this team through a tough time.

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As much as Justin Holl has been the subject of poor giveaways or clearing attempts, he also has played the best hockey of the season in the last five games. He has hit the 23-minute mark in four of his last five contests and has been making better decisions as of late along with key blocked shots.

Liljegren continues to impress as he’s been very consistent with whoever he’s paired with. It also helps that he leads the Maple Leafs’ defenders in goals all while missing the start of the season. Even Rasmus Sandin is starting to regain more confidence in his play. They both logged the most minutes of any pairing in their 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. A possible sign that Keefe is showing more faith in his young and promising defenders?

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Then there’s also the newly acquired Connor Timmins as he’ll look to get back on track as he’s dealt with injuries throughout his career. A smart and mobile two-way defenseman, he’s looking to come in and provide more stability with his upside and potentially help out the team immediately. 

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Many wondered how well the Maple Leafs depth on defense will fare throughout the season. No matter what has come their way, they have continued to overcome every obstacle and still perform to a high standard needed to win and be competitive. Despite the list of injuries, they have done a great job at playing consistently, limiting chances and goals against when facing adversity.

This could definitely a big-time motivational boost for a team that has been playing some great hockey as of late.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.