The Toronto Maple Leafs problems have solutions. Some of them are easier to solve than others. Toronto pushed the Boston Bruins to seven games in their first-round playoff series, but they didn’t play nearly as well as the Bruins. Boston controlled the play for much of the series and if Tuukka Rask had been his usual self, that series probably would have been over in five games.
But the Maple Leafs were a 105 point team this year. They have a ton of talent. It’s understandable to lose to Boston, who had 112 points in the regular season, but the Maple Leafs could have been better than they were. They should have been better. They just need to address some of the problems that were clearly on display this post-season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Problems Have Answers
Auston Matthews is not the problem. Yes, he only had two points in seven games against Boston. However, he was facing one of the league’s best forward lines for half the series and Zdeno Chara for the other half. He could have been better. He will be better. Matthews will excel in the playoffs for years to come, he just didn’t this year.
His lack of production, whether caused by bad luck, stellar defence, or just inexperience, was part of the reason the Maple Leafs lost this series – but it’s not the only reason. And it’s not a reason the team needs to dwell on and make decisions around. There are other things to worry about that they can and should change.
Jake Gardiner did not look very good in Game 7 against Boston. Ron Hainsey has looked tired since the All-Star break. Nikita Zaitsev hasn’t looked good for most of the season after a great rookie campaign last year. The Maple Leafs defence needs improvement. To be specific, they need better players. Not everyone needs replacing of course, but as a group, they need to be better.
One option is to go find a number one defenseman. There are few available though. Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson are pending UFAs in 2019 and both will command top salaries. The Maple Leafs will be hard-pressed to pay $10 million or more for one of these two and still keep their wealth of forwards in Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. The Maple Leafs are probably going to have to find other ways to improve the defence.
Rather than look for one player that will take on ~30 minutes and play Superman for the Maple Leafs, a better option may be to look to acquire regular humans that as part of a group can provide a solid defence. Hainsey was an attempt at that, but at 37 years of age, he looks to have just run out of gas. There are a few players potentially available that fit this philosophy. That doesn’t mean the Maple Leafs won’t have to give up something for them, whether it’s current players or additional salary cap. But it would be easier to focus on players like Chris Tanev and John Carlson over this summer than wait on Doughty and Karlsson for next summer.
The Maple Leafs allowed the fourth most shots against with 2776 in the regular season. That’s almost 34 shots a game. That rose to 35 shots a game in the playoffs. They can ‘score their way out of trouble’ was a common term heard in Leafland this year. It often came with an afterthought that they wouldn’t be able to score their way out of trouble in the playoffs. That prediction came true. Frederik Andersen was not great in the series against Boston, but any team that needs to rely on excellent goaltending to win a series before it starts is taking a big risk no matter who the goaltender is.
The Maple Leafs were able to keep sustained pressure in the offensive zone for long stretches this season. They also allowed other teams to keep them hemmed in their own zone a lot this season. The reason for that may just boil down to the confidence of a young team. When the players were confident, they played in the other team’s zone. When something happened that shook that confidence, it took a while to recover from it. That seemed to happen often last year considering the number of blown third-period leads. They had a much better time holding leads this year excluding Game 7 against the Bruins. They clearly have room to improve.
It’s easy to point at poor defensive stats and blame the defensemen, but defence is a team effort. The Maple Leafs didn’t allow 2776 shots against because they are a couple defensemen away from greatness. The forwards are a huge part of team defence. They need to fight for pucks in their own zone, tie up the other team’s players that don’t have the puck, create space and passing options for defensemen to get out of their own zone, and the more the forwards can keep the puck in the offensive zone, the fewer opportunities the other team is going to have.
The Maple Leafs forwards, in general, didn’t win enough puck battles in their own defensive zone. Other teams were able to outman them. Players were frequently forced to dump the puck out of their own zone under pressure. That often led to either an icing or their opponents quickly recovering and getting the puck back into the Maple Leafs zone. When they had time, the team was excellent at controlled breakouts. As soon as the other team applied significant pressure, which the Bruins are great at, the Leafs seemed to panic.
Players, especially offensively gifted players which the Leafs are heavy with, focus on their offence as they play through the junior ranks. It’s more fun. Talented players also have the puck on their stick a lot, especially when facing inferior competition. Obviously junior competition, AHL competition, and European competition is not as good as the NHL. Often times talented forwards are just not challenged defensively, the way they will be in the big leagues.
Once they reach the NHL, there is often a learning curve on how to be productive while not allowing just as many goals against as for. Marner had nine points in seven games against Boston, but he had a Corsi For of 46.7 percent. To put that in perspective on how bad the team was in Corsi For, his relative Corsi For was only -0.5 percent. Only six players that played all seven games had a Corsi For above 50 percent.
How To Improve
This team is going to improve next year, even if they do nothing. At least the players that remain will improve individually. The Maple Leafs may need to find a way to replace James van Riemsdyk‘s 36 goals if Kasperi Kapanen and/or Andreas Johnsson can’t find a scoring touch. And they will likely need to find a couple of centres to replace Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec and Dominic Moore.
The core players for the Maple Leafs are young. They offensively focused players for the most part. Other than Matthews who is well on his way to being a top defensive forward in the league. Marner, Nylander, Morgan Rielly, among others, will all continue to improve at the playing an all-around game. There should be a natural improvement, an improved maturity, for this team that won’t see it’s peak for another couple of years at least. That improvement will manifest as patience handling the puck, more corner battles won, and fewer players being left wide open in front of Andersen.
There is knee-jerk thought that the Maple Leafs need to make some kind of drastic change. Trade Gardiner, sign Rick Nash, make an offer for Karlsson. There’s no need for panic in Leafs Nation. Losing to the Bruins wasn’t pretty, but it was predictable. That doesn’t mean the team can’t continue to add to what they have. The core team will improve on its own, but there’s room for outside help too, and not just on defence. The Maple Leafs have a whole summer to work on those additions.
This team is learning as they go, both on the ice and off the ice. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with them. They just need more practice at being good.
TORONTON, ON – JANUARY 6: Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Vancouver Canucks during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on January 6, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canucks 3-2 in an overtime shoot-out. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)