Defense Biggest Need for Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Push

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 06: Morgan Rielly #44 and Connor Brown #12 of the Toronto Maple Leafs defend against Taylor Hall #9 of the New Jersey Devils during the third period at the Prudential Center on January 6, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. The Maple Leafs defeated the Devils 4-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Maple Leafs organization and fans find themselves in an unfamiliar position of late. In and out of third place in the Atlantic, and in possession of a playoff position.  A position which is not taken lightly, since Toronto has made the playoffs only once since 2005.

But playoff talk in ‘the 6ix’ has led the organization and fans alike to ask a similar question: where do the Leafs need to improve to make a legitimate playoff push?

The Offense

Toronto is tied for fifth in the league with 185 goals scored.  In their last five contests, the Leafs have scored 21 goals.

Toronto continues to get production out of its young players.  Led by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the rookies for Toronto have 225 points this season.

That’s pretty impressive.

How does this compare to last season?  Toronto only had two scorers break the 40 points mark in the 2015-2016 season.  The Maple Leafs have five scorers with 40+ this season, and will likely finish with 6 as Tyler Bozak has 38 points on the year.

Bottom line? Toronto’s offense can score with the best of them.  Even in playoff competition.

The Special Teams

With all the young talent, it is no surprise that the Maple Leafs have the top ranked power play in the league, converting on 23.5% of their opportunities.  Nazem Kadri is leading the way with 10 power play goals on the year.  While William Nylander, Matthews and Marner have combined for 50 points with the extra man.

The penalty kill is also ranked among the top ten in the league.  An area head coach Mike Babcock would like to improve upon, but by no means a big problem moving forward.

Which brings us to the defense.

The Defense

The Maple Leafs have benefited from good production from the second pairing of Jake Gardiner and Connor Carrick, who are a combined +28 this season.  In contrast, their top pairing continues to struggle. Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev are -24 on the season.  That isn’t the production a playoff team needs out of their top pairing.

Despite this, it is not all on the defensemen.  Toronto surrenders the third most shots per game in the league.  Only Buffalo and Arizona are worse, making Curtis McElhinney and Frederik Anderson’s play all the more impressive.

Further, the Maple Leafs are one of two teams in playoff contention which allows an average of 2.9 goals per game. The other is the New York Islanders, who currently occupy the second wild card spot in the East.  That is not a coincidence.  The Maple Leafs need to cut back on their goals against if they want to say in the race.

Toronto has made one move to help sure up the defense.  Alexey Marchenko makes his debut with the team Thursday after coming over from Detroit. Marchenko is a product from the old Babcock regime with the Red Wings.  He may not be the big name free agent signing that Maple leafs fans were waiting for.  But Marchenko is especially relevant as a 6′ 3” 210 lb body, who can add some size to the back end for Toronto.

And lest Leaf fans forget there is still time before the trade deadline.

The goaltending  

The addition of McElhinney to plug the hole as the backup has also worked better than planned. McElhinney has a .938 save percentage since joining the leafs in January.  Welcome to Toronto, Curt.

As for Frederik Anderson? Anderson has performed admirably in the Toronto net, with 24 wins on the year.  This without much help in front of him, or from the backup role prior to McElhinney’s signing.

I’m just going to leave this here…

What does it mean for Toronto?

The Maple Leafs are very close to being right in the playoff mix in the Eastern conference come season end.  Despite their lack of production in the defensive end, Toronto’s ability to score can cover up some discrepancies in their play.  With strong play on the power play and penalty kill, alongside the goaltending of McElhinney and Anderson, Toronto has the ability to stay in the playoff race right until the end.





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