Five games into the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are 28th in goals against per game, 13th in shots against per game, 25th in save percentage, 18th in penalty killing, 27th in giveaways and 21st in blocked shots, and none of that matters when they are scoring a whopping 5.2 goals per game en route to winning four out of five games to start the season.
Leafs Just Need Average Goaltending
Among starting goaltenders last season, Frederik Andersen was 11th in the league with a .918 save percentage and 17th in the league with a 2.67 GAA. Given that Andersen is the 16th highest paid goalie (by cap hit), it appears that the Leafs got exactly what they paid for.
Reasonable expectations for Andersen should be the same this season; somewhere around league average goaltending (approximately .915-.918 save percentage and 2.50 GAA), but so far he has not delivered. His .880 save percentage and 3.76 GAA rank near the worst in the league.
Watching the games, it’s clear that Andersen’s numbers are not entirely a reflection of his personal performance. Many of the Leafs’ goals against are a result of poor defensive zone coverage, screened shots, and a few bad bounces. There have been some bright spots for Andersen as well. In the Leafs’ three closest games, he shut out the Rangers in the third period to win 8-5, shut out the Canadiens in the third period and OT to win 4-3 and allowed just one goal to the Blackhawks in the third period and OT to win 4-3. Still, improvement can be expected from Andersen moving forward.
To praise the Leafs forwards for their great offense and criticize the defencemen for the poor defence would be unfair. Defence is a team endeavor and the Leafs top four defencemen (Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey) have chipped in a combined 14 points offensively in five games, which is the highest in the league.
However, there’s no doubt that defence is this team’s weak spot. Everyone knows it. The Leafs finished 22nd in 2016-17 in goals against and none of their offseason moves would suggest they will be any better this season.
It’s not unheard of for a team to have success despite a below-average defence. The 2015-16 Dallas Stars finished first in the Western Conference despite being 19th in goals against. The issue is they were bounced in the second round of the playoffs by a St. Louis Blues team that was 4th in goals against.
There’s room for improvement here. The trade deadline isn’t until February 26th to obtain help from outside and all of the Leafs’ defenders not named Ron Hainsey were born in the 90’s, so internal development is possible. But, unless something significant improves on the back end, the Leafs are going to need to keep scoring in bunches to maintain their success.
Related: Maple Leafs 3 Stars of Week One
Despite all of the issues on defence, the Leafs are 4-1 to start the season thanks to their prolific offence. Auston Matthews leads the way with five goals and eight points, but it’s this team’s balanced scoring that makes it so scary. 13 players have chipped in at least one goal and 19 players have at least one point. The Leafs have five forwards with a legitimate shot at 30 goals this year (Matthews, William Nylander, James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau) and a handful of forwards with a shot at 20 goals (Mitch Marner, Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Leo Komarov) and Mike Babcock has spread them among the forward lines to great effect.
The 5.20 goals per game the Leafs have scored so far this season is ridiculous. It’s a full goal higher than the second best teams (Philidelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils at 4.20 goals per game each). It’s not remotely sustainable either. Only five teams in the past ten years have scored more than 3.33 goals per game in an entire season:
- 2009-10 Washington Capitals: 3.82 goals per game
- 2008-09 Detroit Red Wings: 3.52 goals per game
- 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins: 3.39 goals per game
- 2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguins: 3.38 goals per game
- 2011-12 Pittsburgh Penguins: 3.33 goals per game
Here’s a fun question. How many goals do you think the Leafs can score this year? In The Hockey Writers’ 2017-18 Leafs player point predictions, the goal total was 291, which would be good for 3.55 goals per game, just over that of the 2008-09 Detroit Red Wings, a team featuring Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, Nicklas Lidstrom and also coached by Mike Babcock. With goals like this one in Matthews’ arsenal, it’s certainly possible:
The Leafs will need to continue their league-leading offensive output to outscore all of their problems and challenge for the Atlantic Division title.