Maple Leafs’ Glaring Defensive Issues

The Toronto Maple Leafs continue to struggle defensively, despite some early improvement since Sheldon Keefe took over coaching duties. The Maple Leafs got off to a strong start under Keefe, winning their first three games and only allowing a combined four goals against. Things have regressed negatively once again, as Toronto has coughed up 13 goals in their last three games.

While there is no need to press the panic button yet, the underlying stats do not look good for the Maple Leafs’ defensive group. The team has allowed the fourth-most goals this season with 96, they are tied for 24th with 3.31 goals allowed per game, and have given up the most high-danger goals against in the league. Sean Tierney (@chartinghockey) depicts the Leafs’ inability to prevent offense and keep the puck out of their net.

Ranking bottom-10 in expected goals against per 60 minutes despite some stellar goaltending from Frederik Andersen is a cause of concern. The quality of the opponents’ scoring chances is also in the upper tier, as teams are finding a way to penetrate the Maple Leafs’ defence and generate chances in the “high danger” areas of the ice. The Leafs have given up 44 high-danger goals against, two more than the last place Detroit Red Wings who are off to a 7-20-3 start.

Rielly Regressing After Career Year

There was much skepticism going into the year over how Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci would work out as a defensive pairing. After only a few games, it was evident that things were not going in a good direction. The duo has not passed the eye-test and the underlying stats do not support a turnaround. As of Dec. 4, the tandem ranks second-worst in the league among all defensive pairings in expected goals against during five-on-five play. Only Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear of the Edmonton Oilers rank worse in this category.

Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

Rielly had a career high 20 goals and 52 assists in 82 games last season. He was in the conversation for the Norris Trophy and achieved this by playing the majority of his time with 39-year-old defensive partner Ron Hainsey. This year, he has three goals and 17 assists in 29 games and has picked up just three points in his last 10 games.

While Rielly had a ridiculously high shooting percentage of nine percent last season that was due to regress, his struggles have Leaf fans looking for answers. It was often suggested by Maple Leafs’ reporters that he simply did not “look right” and was missing practices at an abnormal rate. Perhaps a nagging injury has hampered his play this season, but we cannot overlook Ceci’s poor underlying contributions.

Ceci Under Scrutiny

Ceci had very poor defensive metrics with the Ottawa Senators a season ago and things haven’t turned around for him in the blue and white this year. He leads the Maple Leafs in scoring chances against (239), expected goals against (21.42), high-danger chances against (99), and ranks last among defensemen in expected goals for percentage (48.38%). On Dec. 3 vs. the Philadelphia Flyers, his stats hit an all-time low.

These are alarming stats from Ceci, who logs heavy minutes on the number one defensive unit with Rielly. Coach Sheldon Keefe may have seen enough thankfully, as on Dec. 4 vs. the Avalanche, he bumped up Barrie to the number one pairing and knocked down Ceci to Dermott’s unit. It is welcoming news to Maple Leafs’ fans and should pay immediate dividends for Rielly’s offensive game. Keefe is said to be known as a modern-day coach, someone who will use analytics to his advantage, and not be scared to shake things up.

Keefe’s New Defensive Schemes

It’s certainly evident that things must change defensively if the Maple Leafs want to not just let alone make the playoffs, but become a Stanley Cup contender. Despite a potent offense with plenty of firepower, they cannot keep giving up these grade-A chances and ranking in the bottom-10 in important defensive metrics.

Members of the current Leafs’ blue line, Travis Dermott and Justin Holl, discussed how things will tighten up defensively based on their experience under Keefe with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. (from ‘The remaking of the Maple Leafs defence will start with the system, and perhaps a little passion,’ Toronto Star, 12/03/2019). His new defensive system is said to be focused on cracking down on the “home plate” area of the ice (between faceoff dots and below). This will hopefully reduce the amount of high-danger scoring chances the Leafs have been giving up over the first two months of the season.

Toronto Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

This new systematic change that Keefe hopes his players buy into will hope to encourage more shots from the perimeter and make life easier for Maple Leaf netminders. The prior defensive systems in place under Babcock clearly were not working, and the Maple Leafs will hope to make strides in their game to gain ground in a very competitive Eastern Conference. Every player will have to buy in a put in their best effort each and every game.

Maple Leafs Must Play with Heart

There have already been a couple of instances this season where the passion and heart of the Maple Leafs has been questioned. After their sixth straight loss in mid-November, Jake Muzzin was quoted saying “It’s not X’s and O’s it’s playing with passion and playing with heart. That’s what we need to do”. Muzzin is a former Stanley Cup champion and as one of the Leafs most experienced blueliners, he stepped up and had some choice words for the team.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Muzzin
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

While the Leafs seemed to play with more emotion and energy following Mike Babcock’s firing, they have still had their defensive lapses. On Dec. 3, Auston Matthews was the next player to question his teams’ character, stating that the team simply “folded, and quit” after the Flyers went up 4-1 with an empty-netter. It remains to be seen if the Maple Leafs can put together a nice stretch, but if they do, they are going to need to show plenty of heart.