Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have been pleasantly surprised this year, the biggest reason being the way they’ve fared against the Washington Capitals in their first two games of the first round of the playoffs.
After ending the 2016-17 regular season with 95 points and 40 games won, the Toronto Maple Leafs had the unfortunate luck of landing the league’s top contender as their first round opponent. The Capitals, who ended the season with 118 points and 55 games won, looked far better on paper this season than the young Leafs of Toronto.
Yet the Capitals won game one by a thread, scoring the game-winning goal in the second overtime period. Then they lost game two a couple of days later.
No one saw this coming, although Mike Babcock, the Leafs’ head coach, may insist he did. After all, he is the team’s chief architect and he’s watched them grow from the beginning and he’s seeing things most of us don’t even know to notice, let alone look for.
So after taking a closer look at the Leafs’ regular season games this year, some patterns have emerged that may shed light on their arguably unexpected playoff performance thus far.
Leafs’ Defence Is Their Offence
It’s always been clear that the Leafs took a top-to-bottom approach in rebuilding their team, as their last three draft classes have boasted high-end forwards. With William Nylander (No. 8, 2014 Draft), Mitch Marner (No. 4, 2015 Draft) and Auston Matthews (No. 1, 2016 Draft) in the mix, they’ve created both short-term and long-term offensive depth and fans are seeing the dividends pay off tenfold.
This approach is just one of several ways to tackle a rebuild but it also means forfeiting the option of drafting top-tier defensemen. As a result, the Leafs’ defense has been weak to put it politely. Ranking third in the league for most shots against per game played (SA/GP), only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes have greater difficulty in limiting their opponent’s opportunities to shoot on net.
That right there, says it all.
When it comes to the Washington Capitals though, they have the fewest GA/GP in the league, averaging 2.16 goals scored against per game. That being said, the adage that the best defense is a good offense may be true for the Leafs. In fact, it may be the biggest contributing factor to their impressive handling of the Capitals than most realize.
Style-Of-Play Unique to Divisions
The Leafs’ 82 regular season games this year have been distributed among teams within the following divisions as follows:
The more often the Leafs play against teams of a particular division, the better they become at beating them over time and that makes sense. They’re developing winning strategies unique to teams by division and they’re having success in applying them to their game.
Where things become interesting for the Leafs is with their defensive system and how it impacts their own ability to score goals. They rank fifth in the league in goals for per game played (GF/GP) and the Capitals rank third. And when it comes to the Leafs’ defensemen, at least one has scored a goal in a total of 24 different regular season games this year. Of these 24 games, Toronto won 16 of them (or 67 percent) and of the eight games lost, three went to overtime.
Morgan Rielly scores against the Boston Bruins on Mar. 20, 2017:
.@mriles4 is going to get that goal. #TMLtalk pic.twitter.com/KLPKBG5fLB
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 21, 2017
When a Leafs’ defenseman scores, their odds of winning statistically improve. However, of the top 10-ranking teams (for GF/GP), the Leafs and Capitals have the lowest percentage of goals scored by defensemen. Of Washington’s 261 goals during the 2016-17 regular season, 11.1 percent were scored by defensemen and of Toronto’s 250 goals, 11.2 percent were scored by defensemen. The other eight top teams in this ranking have a range between 11.9 and 16.6 percent of their total goals scored by defensemen, with the median being 14.3 percent. This means that of the league’s top-scoring teams, Toronto and Washington both have the smallest scoring contribution from their backend.
Leafs’ Defence & Metropolitan Teams
Where the Leafs have managed to find their break is in their defense’s consistency against Metropolitan teams specifically. Their defensemen were able to score in 20 percent of games played against Atlantic Division teams, 38 percent of games played against Metropolitan Division teams, 46 percent of games played against Central Division teams and 20 percent of games played against Pacific Division teams.
At first glance, the Leafs’ defensemen seem to have an easier time scoring in games played against Central Division teams. However, they only won 31 percent of those games. That’s their worst winning percentage for games with scoring from a defenseman by division. In games played against Metropolitan teams though, when a defenseman scored, 77.8 percent of these games were won.
Morgan Rielly scores the game-winning goal in overtime against the Carolina Hurricanes on Mar. 11, 2017:
Relive the moment: Rielly makes some space for himself and buries the overtime winner.#TMLtalk pic.twitter.com/QiMfpJ6yoT
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 12, 2017
This speaks to the Leafs’ style-of-play and how it bodes against styles prominent to each division. When their defensemen are able to score goals but the team is unable to win games, it indicates an imbalance of player responsibility. Perhaps one line is struggling against the size and physicality characterized by teams within a specific division (a characteristic still prevalent in western conference teams). So the defensemen on ice are pulled away from what they’re supposed to do, in order to maintain a physically dominant presence. This leads to increased puck possession on the Leafs’ backend, which then leads to increased shots on goal from the blue line, which then leads to increased goals scored by defensemen. As a result, the offensive prowess usually elicited by their forwards quickly diminishes while simultaneously diminishing their defense, since their offense is their most prolific form of defense.
When the Leafs’ defensemen are able to score goals and win games, it indicates a greater balance of responsibility. When their forwards are maintaining puck possession, their defensemen can focus on playing two-way hockey, which is a rising trend used in this league filled with parity. Although they’ve only played the Capitals in three regular season games this year, none of which saw their defensemen score, the playoffs have given rise to their blue-liner’s scoring abilities none the less.
In game one, Jake Gardiner’s scored in the first period:
What did Leafs Nation think of @Jgardiner272's goal?
(They loved it). #TMLTalk #StandWitness pic.twitter.com/ECGUPu1afn
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 13, 2017
In game two, Morgan Rielly scored in the second period:
Seeing eye shot from @mriles4 to take the lead. #TMLtalk #StandWitness pic.twitter.com/vjD8CXiRPK
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 16, 2017
The Capitals are excellent at limiting their opposition’s opportunities to shoot on goal but they need to limit their physicality against Toronto’s forwards, and thereby force the Leafs’ blue-liners to defend. Instead of giving them opportunities to battle for pucks, the Capitals need to prevent them because that’s how the Leafs are getting their scoring chances now.