The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2019-20 season as the betting favourite to win the Stanley Cup, according to OddsShark. Now, the odds are stacked against them to simply qualify for the post-season.
The Maple Leafs have lost 5 games in a row and sit 24th in the NHL in points percentage with a 9-9-4 record. They haven’t had a fully healthy roster all season, special teams are a mess and the backup goaltending position hasn’t been adequately addressed. While all of these things have contributed to the Maple Leafs underperforming expectations – none are the root of the problem.
The biggest issue this team faces right now comes from, what appears to be, an overvaluing of certain elements of the game that, on their own, aren’t particularly meaningful.
The latest example, offensive zone time. There’s no question spending more time in your opponents end is preferable to being stuck in your own zone however, Mike Babcock seems to believe that zone time alone is a win, which it is not. Toronto’s 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders last week perfectly encapsulates this.
Following the loss, Babcock praised his team for how much they played in the offensive zone, saying,
“I REALLY LIKED THE START OF OUR GAME, I LIKED OUR ENERGY, I LIKED OUR EXECUTION, I LIKED HOW MUCH TIME WE PLAYED IN THE O-ZONE.”
The Maple Leafs did spend a lot of time in the attacking end in the 1st period. In fact, they had more than a two-minute advantage in terms of offensive zone time after 20 minutes. However, they were also outshot, out-chanced and outscored. Even in the first 14 minutes of the period, before the Islanders scored, the Maple Leafs were out-chanced from the meaningful scoring areas on the ice.
“I THOUGHT TAVARES’ LINE PLAYED IN THE O-ZONE MORE THAN THEY’VE PLAYED ALL YEAR, THAT WAS GOOD FOR US.”
The Tavares line did spend a good chunk of time in the Islanders end, in its 12 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time. The line had a 17-11 advantage in shot attempts while they were on the ice and yet it was all empty calories. The Tavares line did not have a single shot on goal from the most dangerous scoring area on the ice, the inner slot, and were outshot from this location 3-0. That was the game in a nutshell.
Toronto fell victim to a style of play that helped earn Barry Trotz coach-of-the-year honours last season, a season in which he turned the Islanders from worst defensive team in the NHL to the best.
A few hours before puck drop, on NHL Network, I laid out how I thought this game would play out. A game between the Leafs and an Islanders team with the lowest goals against average in the NHL. A team that understands creating and limiting meaningful scoring opportunities far outweighs time spent in the offensive zone. It played out as I expected and how Trotz likely anticipated. More zone time and shot attempts for the Maple Leafs, better scoring opportunities for the Islanders and a win as a result.
The next day, NHL Network host Jackie Redmond asked Trotz how much offensive zone time really matters in the grand scheme of things. Trotz said,
“I DON’T MIND US HAVING TIME IN OUR ZONE. IF WE’RE POSITIONALLY SOUND, YOU CAN SPEND ALL DAY THERE. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO GET ANYTHING.”
This is what the Islanders do so well. It’s exactly what they did to the Maple Leafs and it’s why, despite ranking dead last in the NHL in time spent defending in their own end, the Islanders rank top-5 in goals against average at 5-on-5.
While Trotz wasn’t referring specifically to the Maple Leafs, he did sum them up perfectly as he continued,
“THERE’S LOT OF TEAMS THAT HAVE PRETTY HIGH GOALS AGAINST AVERAGE THAT DON’T SPEND A LOT OF TIME IN THEIR OWN END, BUT THEY CANT KEEP THE PUCK OUT.”
Toronto only spends an average of 3:52 per-game at 5-on-5, defending in its own zone, the 4th lowest total in the league and yet it ranks 26th in goals against average. Below average goaltending has been partially responsible but a lack of execution defensively is as much to blame.
Trotz finished his answer by saying,
“WE DON’T MIND SPENDING SOME TIME IN THE OFFENSIVE ZONE BUT AT THE SAME TIME, QUALITY OVER QUANTITY IS SORT OF OUR MOTTO.”
The Islanders are 14-3-1 and have the best points percentage in the NHL.
Barry Trotz spelled it all out – it’s not a secret what the Islanders are doing and how they are doing it. This isn’t to say the Leafs should turn into a dump-and-chase, shot blocking team. However, it is alarming to hear Babcock speak about perceived, good stretches in the game based on zone time alone.
Prior to the start of the season, I spoke about why I believed Toronto would be less equipped to win in the playoffs than they were last season. The main reason – the team had not done anything to address its most glaring deficiency – defending in its own end. In fact, the Maple Leafs seemed to double down on their puck possession theory that if they have it enough, and spend enough time in the offensive zone, they can be successful even though they might struggle in the limited time they do spend in their own end. The reality is, no matter how much a team has the puck, it will have to defend and as Barry Trotz pointed out, there are plenty of teams that don’t spend a lot of time in their own end but can’t keep the puck out of their net. There may be no better example of this than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I don’t believe the Maple Leafs have the personnel to defend adequately in their own end and I believe that problem is compounded by the high-pressure system they are being asked to play.
It may be time for Babcock and the Maple Leafs to reconsider how they attack in the offensive zone and how they defend in their own end before they dig a hole too steep to climb out of. That might sound a little extreme given that it’s still November but consider this – for the Maple Leafs to hit 98 points, the cutoff to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference last season, they will have to pick up 76 points in their remaining 60 games. That’s a .633 points percentage and a record that would look something like 34-18-8. They are playing at a .500 points percentage this season and a .523 points percentage in 2019, dating back to January 1st.
Continuing as is likely won’t get the Maple Leafs near the point total they will likely need to avoid missing the playoffs.
(Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)