5 reasons the Maple Leafs are losing despite obvious improvements

Photo Credit: Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not a good NHL-level hockey team, but they’ve looked like it for long stretches this season.

Yes the record is ugly, but if you’re tuning in regularly you can see the team carry the play at five-a-side much more often than they have in the recent past. You can see the defensive improvement. You can see young players like Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly stepping up and playing the best two-way hockey of their young careers.

And yet the losing continues. Here are five reasons why the Maple Leafs have struggled to generate wins, even as the their structure and the overall product they’re putting on the ice is much improved.

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1. Goaltending

(Courtesy: NHL.com)

Whenever you see a team crushing it at 5-on-5 and still losing a lot, you can be pretty confident that goaltending is a primary culprit. Indeed that’s been Toronto’s principal issue so far.

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Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer probably aren’t a high-end goaltending tandem, but they’re a decent bet to provide the club with average goaltending over the balance of the campaign. So far though they’ve been more full of holes than thou.

“Oh for sure there is,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock told reporters by way of TSN’s Jonas Siegel, about whether or not his goaltenders can be better. “There’s another level for us all to get to. But they can both be way better. We expect them to be better. We’ve got to get better in front of them so they have less [to handle]. But I also think in today’s NHL there’s always someone in front of you, you can always find a way for why it went in, but some guys just don’t let them in so that’s how we’ve got to be.

“We’ve got to be better in that area.”

In all situations Toronto’s netminders have played like they really want to be Auston Matthews’ teammate next season. The Maple Leafs’ team save percentage so far this season stands at .887, the sixth worst mark in the league.

It’s interesting to note that Toronto’s goaltenders have combined to post a completely respectable .923 save percentage at 5-on-5; Reimer has stopped .928 percent of even-strength shots, while Bernier has managed a .919 5-on-5 save percentage, which is in-line with average performance. It’s all the other situations that have plagued Toronto’s goaltenders and shorthanded situations especially.

Reimer has been particularly porous down a man, having allowed six power-play goals against on 22 shots. Bernier has been fine.

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As the year goes on Toronto’s goaltending performance will probably improve. Bernier’s true talent is likely a bit higher than the .919 5-on-5 save percentage he’s posted so far, and Reimer’s ghastly shorthanded save percentage is almost surely an extreme example of small-sample noise (although, we’ll get into this more a bit later).

“Definitely we’re not getting any breaks,” Bernier said of his and Reimer’s poor early season save percentages. “[But] you just stick with it. You just go shot by shot. It’s not like you’re thinking ‘Oh I’ve got to make this next save’, you’re always thinking that you’ve got to be the best player out there. You just go in there shot by shot and that’s what you tell yourself the whole game.”

2. The Penalty Kill

(Courtesy: NHL.com)

There’s no way around it, Toronto’s penalty kill has been atrocious. 

The Maple Leafs have had 32 opportunities to kill penalties this season, and have only been successful on 23 occasions. Their ghastly 71.9 percent kill clip is the fourth worst in the league so far.

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By the shot-based metrics the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill has been about average, but goals are going in at a massive rate. Part of that is the goaltending issues we’ve previously discussed. There’s more going on here though, I suspect.

In terms of permitting scoring chances against, the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill has been high-event. Only four penalty killing units have fared worst than Toronto’s in the early going, and the Maple Leafs are also the 11th worst club when it comes to surrendering high-danger scoring chances against. 

There should be no doubt that Toronto’s penalty kill is better than they’ve shown so far, and their goaltending in shorthanded situations won’t be this hopeless over the balance of the season. There are some significant problems here though – Morgan Rielly’s shorthanded play among those major issues – and they’ve sabotaged the Maple Leafs in the first month of the campaign.

3. A good-old-fashioned lack of offensive talent

Photo Credit: Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

The Maple Leafs are loaded with capable-enough middle-six forwards. They are short, however, on game breakers.

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You could make the argument that Toronto’s lack of game-breaking talent is a self-imposed issue. With Mitchell Marner off to a slow start at Budweiser Gardens in London, On. and William Nylander lighting up Ricoh, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Toronto’s two most dynamic pure offensive talents are spending the year outside the NHL.

Long-term that might be good news, but in the meantime, the Maple Leafs are surely short on dynamic offensive talent. It shows in the lack of quality obvious in the the club’s finishing game. Toronto is generating shots at an excellent rate, only three teams in hockey are taking more shots on goal per contest, but they’re struggling to convert – especially on the power play.

Among  the NHL’s 30 member teams, only the Carolina Hurricanes and the ridiculously snake bit Anaheim Ducks are converting on a lower percentage of their shots on the power play. In all situations the Maple Leafs’ 7.2 shooting percentage is in the bottom-10 leaguewide, but it’s not so bad that they’ve been a serious outlier.

You have to be pretty careful when using shooting percentage as if it’s indicative of a team’s true talent level. The NHL is so competitive, and the talent level is so high that percentages are relatively fixed. The best shooters and the most creative offensive players in the game do legitimately drive shooting percentage over the course of a large sample, but those players are extremely rare. And while some of the Maple Leafs’ poor shooting in the early going may be partly luck, we can pretty confidently assert that the Maple Leafs don’t employ many of those players anymore.

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They probably have a couple in Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri, but that’s probably where the list ends. Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk have carried high on-ice shooting percentages over the past few years, but I suspect that was largely driven by Phil Kessel. Meanwhile a variety of players whom the Maple Leafs are playing regularly – Daniel Winnik, Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling – are players who have generally carried a very low on-ice shooting percentage at 5-on-5…

With Kessel on Toronto’s roster over the past several years, the Maple Leafs were an above average shooting club. I’m very skeptical that’s the case anymore. 

Babcock’s Maple Leafs may be structurally sound, but they’re under talented. And it shows.

4. Injuries 

We’re conditioned as hockey fans to avoid using injuries as an excuse for team performance, but the Maple Leafs have been bit pretty hard by the injury bug in the early going. It’s not an excuse for their frittering away points at the rate they’ve done so this month, but it’s definitely part of the story.

For about 10 days now the Maple Leafs have been without the services of their best puck-possession defender (Jake Gardiner) and their top puck-possession forward (Tyler Bozak). Of late they’ve also been without Nick Spaling. And Leo Komarov has been given a regular maintenance day, though he’s remained in the lineup.

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Add it all up and the Maple Leafs have lost the fourth-most man games to injury in the early going, and the players they’ve lost have been key guys:

5. Penalty Differential

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Peter Llewellyn/USA TODAY Sports

The Maple Leafs have been taking too many penalties and haven’t been drawing nearly enough. It’s a bad combination, one that has served to exacerbate the Maple Leafs’ significant special teams issues.

Though the Maple Leafs are doing extremely well to control play, they’ve struggled to translate their puck control into penalty calls in their favour. There’s only one team in hockey drawing fewer power-play opportunities per game, and that’s the Anaheim Ducks.

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In the meantime the Maple Leafs are taking too many penalties. They’re not the Winnipeg Jets or the Los Angeles Kings – physical teams we might legitimately describe as ‘undisciplined’ – but they’ve put themselves short-handed on 32 occasions. Only nine NHL teams have been shorthanded so often this season.

Combine Toronto’s inability to draw penalties with their their being whistled for infractions at an above average rate and you have a recipe for a league worst -9 penalty differential, according to data recorded at war-on-ice.com. This may only be an issue at the margins, but when you’re as good as the Maple Leafs have been at 5-on-5 without being rewarded, it’s the stuff at the margins that are costing your club points in the standings.

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  • Gary Empey

    Playing to intentionally lose is not only illegal, it is ethically, and morally wrong. The damage to the integrity of the NHL would be astronomical. I am sure the NHL is already aware of the rumors some teams have been doing it. If caught one could expect a fine of a least 500 million and the forfeiture of five years of first round picks. Already the NHL has changed the entry level draft twice to address the perception. The next step would be to make an example out of one team.

  • dougie88

    @Gary Empey Do the Leafs look like they are intentionally trying to lose to you? Porous goaltending aside, they’ve outplayed teams most nights, and are being torpedoed by poor special teams. Teams who are trying to lose (i.e. Buffalo last season) don’t outshoot teams on a nightly basis.