Reimagining how we approach the Leafs' defence

Jeff Veillette
January 10 2017 02:29AM

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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

The Toronto Maple Leafs need a shutdown defenceman. This much is clear; it is so abundantly clear that you, your grandmother, your yet-to-be-born first child, and your most beloved pet have been able to figure it out. The Leafs give up quite a few shots, they give up quite a few goals, and the best way to make a team that's bad defensively better is to make them better defensively. That way, they can give up fewer goals. You make them better defensively by making your next big, huge, humongous big move based around acquiring a minute eating defensive specialist or two, like your team definitely needs.

Common sense, right?

Well, here's the thing about the Toronto Maple Leafs. This team, that was dead last this last year and has recently been deploying a lineup where seven of twelve forwards of are rookies, is already one of the best offensive teams of the cap era. They skate faster than their opponents, they cycle more relentlessly than them, they move pucks to the front of the net and follow them as if their life depended on the next goal, and moreover, leave teams chasing again, and again, and again, and again. Opposing teams are dumbfounded by hard it is to keep up, which is unbelievable to say about a team that's still playing the proverbial tutorial.

The numbers back this up. Play-by-Play data became en vogue in 2007/08, which gives us ten seasons (including the one in progress) to look at how teams and players have done at controlling play. That's 270 full teams. At even strength, this year's Leafs rank 15th of those 270 teams in their rate of attempting shots. Removed blocked shots from the equation and focus on those that hit or missed the net, and Toronto jumps to 13th. Actual shots on goal, they're in 10th. Using Corsica.Hockey's Expected Goal and Scoring Chance models, which weights the historical value of shooting from certain positions, and they've got the 4th most dangerous offence of any team in the past ten years.

Fourth of the decade. From a bunch of children getting their feet wet. Auston Matthews, Zach Hyman, and Connor Brown, a trio of rookies combine to be the third best-expected goals for line to get a regular shift in the league. They're third best because Matthews, Hyman, and William Nylander are first. Even if it's systems based; Mike Babcock is here for another seven years and change, after all, there's a very real chance that we're looking at a generational offensive core; and this is before many of these guys have started to develop. 

Why would you want to mess with that? Knowing that your core can get better, knowing that your pipeline still has plenty of quality forwards coming up. You've got a team that's visually and statistically running play flow like few teams have in years, in the infancy of their process, and the first thought is that the team needs to find ways to slow down the opposition.

Again, it sounds tantalizing at first. But if you over focus too much on bringing in players to shut down the opposition, you're also taking away from your biggest strength. Toronto plays the highest octane game in the league because they have the players capable of rushing the puck, getting to the net, and taking the shots to make them more dangerous on one side of the seesaw than the opposition on their end. From a differential perspective, Toronto is in the upper half of the league in all the major metrics, and that's what matters more in the end here. 

After all, the goal of the game isn't to give up the fewest goals, it's to score more than the other team. An 8-4 win carries the same ratio as a 2-1 win, no matter how traditionally clinical the former is. Hell, an 8-7 win still gets you the two points, and if you think you can get that result more often than not, that might be the way to go.

With that in mind, Toronto's push shouldn't be to cut down shots. It should be to aim towards mobile, puck-comfortable defencemen who can drive differential with a leniency towards the offensive side of the game. The good news there is that at least three of Toronto's top four defencemen are geared to this; Morgan Rielly isn't great in his own zone, but once it's time to head the other way, his ability to lead a rush and generate an effort outweighs that deficiency. Connor Carrick has his off moments but has shown glimmers of being able to both contribute to offence and keep the puck away. Jake Gardiner is spectacular at both. If Nikita Zaitsev's previously-shown offensive side materializes at this level, he could be a fourth, but if not he's at least able to keep up, even if he doesn't push the boundaries.

In this mindset, this leaves the third pairing as the ugly ducking, but it also does so whether or not you side with the Jock Squad (Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak) or the Nerd Gang (Martin Marincin and Frank Corrado). The former pair doesn't seem to drive anything, surviving on the whim of results and success on the penalty kill. The latter couple have proven capable of driving differential, but have done so defensively, with decidedly average ability to contribute to creation, even when comparing to last season's roster and without factoring in for lenient zone starts or competition. You can make a fast and easy case for them to be the more common sense players to have in the lineup, but Hunwick and Polak have had benefited from a good run of raw results (and being solid on the Penalty Kill, particularly Hunwick), while Marincin remains on IR and Corrado tries to shake the dust off. No matter which side of the debate you're on, though, the optimal solution is likely to strive for better.

Better might not even necessarily have to be superstars either; just simply talent-driven defenders with a positive net impact and a slant towards offence. You don't need to get Erik Karlsson; even a couple of 4/5's that line up with the team playstyle would contribute a world of benefit. Given that the league appears to have put a huge sticker price on the "defensive specialist" in the past calendar year (bonjour, Adam Larsson), and the fact that non-star offensive defencemen tend to be the "tweeners" on neutral or low pace teams, going this route could also be cost beneficial.

Even if the team stands pat with this group of six to eight, though, the overarching thought is a valuable one to consider. This sport has beat into us a very specific idea of how a team should be structured and how they should play for decades upon decades now, and suddenly, a team with a brilliant tactics coach has armed themselves with players who are capable of dominating in an environment that nobody else is really used to. If the resources are there to turn this team into a lite-version of the 1980's Edmonton Oilers for a little while, it would be a spectacular shame if we wasted time by scrolling past the mini Gretzky's, Kurri's, Messier's, Coffey's and Anderson's and spent our nights dreaming of how great it would be if they all played a little more like Kevin Lowe.

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Managing Editor of Hockey Content at the Nation Network. Just here so I'll get the opposite of fined. If you'd like to collaborate or simply have a question, email me at jeff@veillette.me