Maple Leafs Defense Will Be Their X-Factor

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ability to heal after a season plagued with injuries and their past experiences in the playoffs could help them this time around.

This year, the postseason is going to be a lot different. It will be longer and even more grueling than usual. The new play-in series could result in an early exit for many teams, including the Maple Leafs.

Related: The NHL’s Top 5 Defenses

Defense wins championships. It’s been a staple quote in the sports world for years. Looking at past Stanley Cup champions, every team had a strong and capable blue line to help them reach their title. While experience and health are key, defense is what makes a champion.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

For the Maple Leafs, defense has been a concern all season with a number of games that ended in disappointment. The lessons should have been learned from those losses if they want to get their act together for the playoffs. If they want to go far, defense will be their X- factor in every minute of every game in every series.  

Keefe Emphasizing Defense During Camp

On the second day of training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t mince words regarding the defense and making it a priority:

“I don’t think it’s any secret that we got to be a lot better defensively,” Keefe said after a practice reported by TSN’s Mark Masters. “There’s no area of our game defensively that we were satisfied with. We’re not kidding ourselves here. We know there’s a lot of areas we need to look at and frankly it’s every area. From all three zones, everything that we’re doing there, we’re either tweaking it and making changes structurally to how we were playing or we’re having more focused intensity and commitment to the habits and detail within it.”

What Keefe has witnessed since taking over as bench boss from Mike Babcock isn’t up to his standards. He already has an idea of how his defense should be playing.

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

“We fully expect our guys to be a lot better defensively when we come back here and, of course, we’re going to need to be given what’s at stake,” Keefe added. “That’s the greatest area of opportunity for us to grow as a team so that’s our focus here.”

The Maple Leafs are going up against the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the best defensive teams in the league, including one of the best pairings with Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. Looking at the advanced analytics, the Blue Jackets have been one of the better teams all season in mitigating scoring chances against.

Yes, the Maple Leafs have one of the best offenses in the league, but teams don’t win with offense alone. If their defense can limit the number of chances against and goals, winning games will be a lot easier. There has to be some sort of consistency from everyone in the defensive zone where they aren’t constantly relying on goaltender Frederik Andersen to shut it down and steal a game.

Attention to Detail Needs to Better

The Maple Leafs need to fix their defensive issues and pay attention to detail. Here is a chart that breaks down the Maple Leafs’ against categories as well as their league rank at five-on-five.

Shots Against1,77520th
Goals Against15728th
High Danger Corsi Against63726th
High Danger Goals Against9329th

Where the Maple Leafs rank overall is concerning as they head into the postseason. There’s nothing positive when you’re at the bottom of the league in most defensive categories. Looking at a heat map below of the Maple Leafs’ shots against at 5v5 helps paint the picture. This season, the team has allowed more shots than the league average (indicated in red) from in the middle of the ice as well as shots from the left side of the blue line.

Maple Leafs Defense Heat Map at 5v5. (Courtesy of

If the Maple Leafs are going to have any success in the postseason, they need to do a better job with their structure and not get caught out of position as they did during the regular season. Here is a clip from a scrimmage during training camp. It basically encompasses what the Maple Leafs have been doing all season.

Cody Ceci leaves the front of the net to apply pressure on Auston Matthews to try to break up the play. Morgan Rielly leaves his post to try and retrieve the loose puck leaving Zach Hyman wide open in front. Ceci is slow to get back and cover for Rielly, and Hyman ends up scoring.

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This was only a scrimmage, but knowing how little time the team has to prepare for the postseason, they can’t afford to make these mistakes. It’s the lack of attention to detail that hurt the Maple Leafs this season and could be an issue in the playoffs. The communication between the defense has to be better as well as the ability to provide support when the other defenseman isn’t there.

On the flip side, it’s the perfect time to learn from their mistakes. The Maple Leafs can approach this Return to Play with a clean slate with Keefe leading the charge to come up with a new strategy.

Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly Will Be Relied Upon

If there’s one thing that the Maple Leafs can rely on, it’s that they’re top two defensemen have had enough time to heal and be 100% healthy after an injury-plagued season.

Rielly is the team’s longest-serving defenseman, who has seen his fair share of disappointment, and Muzzin has experience playing in big moments, winning the Stanley Cup back in 2014 with the Los Angeles Kings. One can lead the charge offensively, while the other can shut it down defensively and get under the opponent’s skin.

Jake DeBrusk; Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly and Boston Bruins left wing Jake DeBrusk battle for the puck (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Their experience, whether positive or negative, means they’re going to be heavily relied on in their play-in series. Rielly will look to get back to what made him a Norris Trophy contender, while Muzzin will bring his physicality and his shot.

This season, Muzzin was not afraid to speak his mind when it came to his team’s performance, calling them out after embarrassing losses. He’s faced adversity before and come out on top, and this is no different. His leadership could be the extra boost the team needs to find postseason success.

Can Maple Leafs Out-defend Blue Jackets?

The Blue Jackets have the edge on defense, which is what made them successful against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs last season. Whether the Maple Leafs are able to out defend them depends on whether the improvements they made during training camp can pay off.

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The Maple Leafs defense could be key in helping out with a transitional style of play that can catch the Blue Jackets’ defensive style off guard. Then the offense can do their thing. Former Maple Leafs hockey ops and Toronto Marlies assistant coach Jack Han came up with an interesting way to break up the Blue Jackets’ defensive execution, using a 1-2-2 forecheck similar to that of an icebreaker ship.

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

There are three key points to negating the Blue Jackets’ defense: Roll off the bow, target the beam, and destroy the stern. The Maple Leafs have so many weapons upfront and on defense that they can implement this counter strategy easily. Their defense lacks the ability to shut it down, but they can utilize their strength and counter with the speed and puck-moving abilities that make them successful.

The Maple Leafs’ defense has been a talking point since they couldn’t break old habits and inconsistencies. Heading into the postseason, the defense is going to be at the forefront of their success after Keefe made it a priority for improvement during this mini training camp. No matter how you look at it, this will be their X- factor.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.