It was far from pretty. The Toronto Maple Leafs were outplayed and outworked by the Florida Panthers, en route to a 7-2 rout in the first night of its southern swing.
Coming into Florida, the Leafs have carried a deceiving 3-2-2 record in their last eight games. Toronto was exposed on its California swing, looking sluggish against top Western Conference opponents, and just barely hanging on for wins against terrible teams in Detroit (especially) and Philadelphia. It’s not good enough.
After the Leafs’ loss, and wins from the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto is once again on the outside looking in on that ever-changing final wild card spot in the East.
But what has been so different for Toronto during its recent woes?
Toronto Maple Leafs Defensive Breakdowns Are Costing Them
While it seems as though Toronto is going through a bit of an offensive lapse — headlined by Auston Matthews‘ now six-game goalless drought — it is quite the contrary. Since February 23rd, the Leafs are at the top of the Atlantic Division in CF60 (Corsi for per 60 minutes), SCF60 (scoring chances for per 60 minutes), and third in GF60 (goals for per 60 minutes).
It’s the Leafs’ back-end and defensive play in its own zone that has temporarily tarnished the young team’s image moving into the pivotal months of March and April. In the same eight-game span, Toronto has allowed the most SCA60 (scoring chances against per 60) in the division, posting 8.83 in that category, as well as GA60 (goals against per 60 minutes) signaling that there is a problem.
That problem isn’t Alexey Marchenko or Martin Marincin, who have filled in for an injured Connor Carrick as of late, either. The problem is guys are getting too comfortable in their positions on this team and are unknowingly starting to take their foot off the gas — in addition to a mediocre at best defensive core.
Bring on the blender
Let’s see head coach Mike Babcock make some line changes.
Leaf fans have seen the same units game in and game out the entire year, including apparent conjoined twins, in Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman who have not played a single game without one another this season.The only line that has looked consistently decent is the revamped fourth line, after acquiring Brian Boyle to center Nikita Soshnikov and Matt Martin.
Here’s an idea for the line-up:
Nylander – Matthews – Soshnikov
Marner – Kadri – Hyman
JVR – Bozak – Komarov
Martin – Boyle – Brown
Reward Soshnikov for his willingness to battle as of late. Give Hyman a different look without taking him away from skilled forwards. Make the Bozak line slightly more defensively responsible with an addition like Leo Komarov. Repay the fourth line’s consistent efforts with some speed and skill from Connor Brown.
The reason for the blender’s needed emergence is due to the fact that Babcock has flexibility with his forwards. Unfortunately for him and his coaching staff, there is not much to work with at the blue line.
Visually, defensemen like Nikita Zaitsev, Hunlak (the always disappointing Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak pairing) and the Marchenko/Marincin experiments have been flat. Even supposed defensive rocks, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, look sub-par relative to play early on in the season.
Mix the forwards up. If it works, it works. And if not they can always gel back together combinations that have brought Toronto to where it is today.
Now the question remains, can the Leafs successfully maintain a potential playoff push despite it’s recent tribulations? The answer is a less than resounding maybe. With a handful of teams pushing for that same wild card spot and a virtual lock of Boston, Montreal, and Ottawa in the Atlantic it will be difficult to say the least.
If Toronto plays with some fire under its belly tomorrow night in Tampa Bay after an embarrassing display in Sunrise, Florida, it might look more promising. However, the Leafs’ schedule is no stroll through the park either; meetings with Boston, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Washington to name a few will make things interesting down the stretch.
At the end of the day Frederik Andersen, and even Curtis McElhinney, cannot be hung out to dry the way they were against the Panthers. A tighter, more regular, all-around defensive effort is needed from Toronto if it wants to stay in the playoff hunt.