Re-Imagining the Leafs Defensive Struggles

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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

Perhaps immediately after a 5-1 loss that included an embarrassing third period isn’t the most opportune time to tell you that I’m not overly concerned about the Leafs’ defensive core yet. Perhaps having one of the best offensive teams in the league to start the year lose seven of their first nine games isn’t the proper backing evidence.

Perhaps there’s a better time or place for this. Or, perhaps, this is the right time to suggest that a deep breath might be worth partaking in. While Toronto, like every team, can and should keep working towards preventing fewer goals, I’d like to talk about some misconceptions about just how bad Toronto’s defensive play is.

Keep in mind, that this isn’t an absolution of the mistakes that Toronto’s rotating squad has made. Morgan Rielly still gets caught on bad pinches all the time. Jake Gardiner and Martin Marincin both are frequently due for puck misplays that will make you want to scream. Nikita Zaitsev occasionally waits too long to let his opponents shoot. Connor Carrick will often get too heated and take a penalty at the wrong time. Roman Polak often seems to only operate in two modes: late to the play and boarding minor, and Matt Hunwick, well, he tries hard. Frank Corrado has been invisible all season.

We all see this stuff because we watch the Leafs intently. We watch what the forwards do when they try to score, we watch what the defensemen do when they try to cut off the counter-attack, we watch the goalie try to make saves and we watch Mike Babcock scowl from the bench regardless of what happens. 

With all of that said, there are three central misconceptions that come out discussion regarding this team, and they’re misconceptions not unlike the ones that happen across the league:

  • The Leafs are the only team that break down defensively like this
  • The Leafs give up higher quality scoring opportunities than the rest of the league

Let’s address both of these.

Everybody’s defensive core is bad

To start this talk off, let’s look at the big picture. Specifically, let’s look at all the data we have since data was consistent; the start of the 2007/08 season. You know the year; that’s when the Leafs decided to solve the issues that Andrew Raycroft caused them by acquiring Vesa Toskala.

After all, people can agree that the Leafs have had defensive holes since at least then, right? Toronto, for some reason, couldn’t figure it out, unlike all those other NHL teams that could. While others were playing steady, 200-foot games of hockey, the Leafs have been a decade-long black hole.

I’m not here to say the Leafs were great defensively in that stretch. They’re about 10% worse than average at even strength. 10% more attempts gainst, shots against, chances, against, goals against… you get the idea. Interestingly, though, this all amounts to about an extra 0.3 goals against per 60 minutes, or a goal every three and a half games.

Just as interestingly, the way that their shots against breaks down isn’t that dramatically different from the NHL over that stretch. 52% of shots against the Leafs hit the net or go in; 54% do the same for the other teams. 48% of shots the Leafs face miss the net or get blocked; 46% for the rest of the league. 14.4% of attempts against Toronto turn into scoring chances. 14.7% for the rest of the league. 2.6% turn into rebounds compared to 3.2%. 5.6% come off the rush compared to 4.7%.

This probably doesn’t line up at all with what your eyes have told you, has it? You don’t see these mistakes from other teams; they’re distinctly Toronto, after all.

But think about it this way; the Toronto Maple Leafs are probably the only team in the league who you truly focus on when they play defence. When the Leafs are in the offensive zone, you’re there to see them try to score a goal. Save for the odd superstar, you’re not watching to see what Andrei Markov or Mark Pysyk or Jared Spurgeon is doing. When the puck goes the other way, you’re not getting hyped up to see Jason Chimera rush it in; you’re looking to see what Martin Marincin is doing to cover him. These are your Leafs, after all; as long as they play responsibly, they’ve got this under control.

That’s why when Alex Galchenyuk scores a wide-open wrist shot from the hash marks, the Leafs defencemen were out of position, and when William Nylander scores a wide-open wrist shot from the hash marks, he created open space. Your explanation comes at the hands of what you notice, and you’ll always notice your team. For most people, this spills over to neutral games as well; when neither team is yours, you default to caring about goals on either side, if you’re even paying much attention to begin with.

Pick a random highlight package from any game this season. Every team gives up 2-on-1s. Every team has a defender who gets caught flat footed, or pinches too deep, or coughs up the puck or has their stick break at the wrong time. You will just only see the team you are more invested into over the course of a game because they’re the reason you’re tuned in. The opponent is the accessory to the process and as a result, you won’t internalize their efforts the same way. It’s a psychological bias that is hard to beat, and for most fans, it probably doesn’t have to be. They’re just there for the Leafs, after all.

Toronto isn’t particularly worse


Last night wasn’t very helpful to the argument that the Leafs are a good defensive team. Which is interesting, seeing as that was one of the more excusable defensive efforts from Toronto’s actual point-men this year, with a lot of the blame going to some odd rebounds and bounces and a lack of support from their forwards on the goals against, particularly the third line. 

But they bled so deeply, particularly closer to the net, that it cratered their stats. A team that spent most of the season in the top-half of score-adjusted Fenwick, Expected Goals, Scoring Chances, and Shots is now below water in one fell swoop, as the Islanders made the most of their unique home ice were relentless from minute 0 to minute 60. It doesn’t help that eight decent games prior from a shot perspective can be swayed so heavily by one bad one due to a small sample either. With that said, their direct effectiveness isn’t the topic of today, and probably won’t be until we have 20-25 games to work with.

Instead, let’s talk about shot quality. This is a point that was already referenced in the prior section, but I want to directly to apply it to this year. Even with last night’s game in mind, Toronto hasn’t been too bad at keeping the puck out of danger this year, save for it actually going into the net.

% of Attempts Against.. Toronto Ranking NHL Avg
Left unblocked 74.2 15th 74.4
Landed on goal 51.8 8th 53.6
Taken from scoring chance area 15.3 15th 15.4
Turned into a goal 5.8 28th 4.1
Taken off a rebound 2.4 6th 3.3
Taken off the rush 6.8 25th 5.3

From the looks of it, Toronto’s defence has done a decent job at keeping players away from the front of the net to start the year, especially after an initial shot. They’ve done a great job at making sure that initial shots either go wide or into one of their own bodies.

The rush appears to be the biggest concern, but even then, the fact that a below-the-curve amount of shots are landing on the net and the fact that shots against the Leafs rank fourth-furthest away from the net based on average distance this year implies that “rush shots” tend to come from the opposition getting partial breaks and getting closed off before they can get far in, leading to lower danger shots, not necessarily higher ones. Ideally, you still want to stop these opportunities from happening entirely, though.

Bringing it all together

I’m not going to tell you that the Leafs are this brilliant assembly of team defence that is a few games of cobweb shaking away from initiating a six-way battle for the Norris Trophy. The peak expectation for this group, this year, was always going to be “good enough” with the hope that they’d get some solid goaltending behind them and that the forwards would support them with a combination of dominant offence and the occasional strong backcheck in the event that they screwed up at any point.

As agonizing as the final results on the scoreboard have been so far, and as much as I’m still personally pining to see my ideal three pairings hit the ice (or even for Frank Corrado, who was arguably Toronto’s best shot suppressor last year, to be dressed), the net result has been, well, good enough, save for a couple of hiccup moments like the end of last night. 

Obviously, the situation feels worse, but that’s the nature of visualizing defensive play. We only know the good and the bad of those we follow, because we don’t care enough to see the actions of those we don’t. We treat all goals against as catastrophic errors but every other type of shot against as part of the process while seeing it the opposite way when it’s the home team’s turn with the puck.

It’s much like how we lose our minds over giveaways when we know that the players who lose the puck are the ones who have it a lot. Or like how we want physical players, despite physicality being a byproduct of chasing. Or why we value “staying at home”, when that usually means giving up the first shot rather than trying to cut it off before it happens. Or why the idea that good offensive players give defensive benefit by keeping the puck away from their own net, while sensible, still seems backward to our eyes. Or how the most impactful looking defensive plays that we see are the ones made in desperation because of a chain of mistakes that led to that last-gasp moment.

Simply put, the defensive side of the game is the most difficult to watch with a clear, unbiased mindset. For a someone just interested in watching their team, it’s next to impossible. Which leads to situations like this, where the team is losing, the pucks are crossing the goal line, and the frustrations spill over and the fingers get pointed where they shouldn’t be.

The coaching staff, obviously, will not stay content. The goal, after all, is to be better than good enough. The goal is to get better and better until you’re the best, and then you want to be better than that. There’s no such thing as an acceptable goal against, chance against, or shot against.

But for now, relatively speaking, it’s likely not as presently bad as what your eyes have told you. There are struggles, but they’re not significantly better or worse than the struggles everybody else has.

  • The Brett Lebda Pylon Academy

    Thank you for this.
    Your excellent explanation of NHL ‘relativity’ where Leafs fans are concerned is similar to a line of thought I’ve had for some time: emotionally-freighted assessments of any team or player you are invested in are almost always flawed.
    It could be seen as a corollary of the old axiom, Familiarity Breeds Contempt.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Stan Smith

    Don’t forget that the “average” numbers that you are comparable to are average numbers from the complete league. If the Leafs improved to “average” that would put them in 15th – 16th place. Is that all they are striving for? I don’t think so. Even looking at it old school the difference between the Leafs goals against and the league average is about 1/3 of a goal per game. The difference between them and the best team is about 2/3 of a goal per game. Not much of a difference when looking at it like that either.

    The fact is, the Leaf defensively are not very good right now, and I’m not talking about just the dmen but the forwards and goaltenders as well. As Babcock stated last night, he isn’t worried about them scoring. He is more worried about them keeping the puck out of their net.

    Having said that, there is no reason to panic. They obviously have a much more talented team this season, compared to last, and that is only going to get better. They will improve both offensively and defensively.

    • HockeyKeeperKit

      With all the rookies and a last place finish last year, yes, average is something to strive for in their first year of the rebuild. Remember, unless you get screwed by the division and conference structures, 15th and 16th is still playoff worthy and I think that would be a “win” in year 1 of the rebuild.

      • Stan Smith

        That isn’t the “goal” though. If they make the playoffs this season it will be a bonus but not a goal. In the end we won’t care how the defence compares to teams battling out for that last playoff spot, but to how they compare to the contenders for the cup.

        • HockeyKeeperKit

          Respectfully, you honestly think the defense should be as good as cup contenders THIS year? We don’t have a Letang, Keith, or Doughty on this team. Nor do we have a Bergeron, Kopitar, or Toews. Neither were they their true namesakes in their first year. There are very good teams that don’t make the playoffs each year. There is almost always a 7th or 8th seed team that surprises. The goal is to be better than last year. Next year, the goal will be to be better than this year. You don’t go from a failing grade to valedictorian in one year, let alone, 10 games at the start of a season.

          • Stan Smith

            Did I once say “this year”? No. The “Shanaplan” is to make this team a Stanley Cup contender. The need on defense is his to get from here to there. “Average” is a bathroom stop along the way, not a goal, not a target.

          • Ron K

            You’re wasting your time Stan. Kitty doesn’t comprehend what anyone says and relies solely on stats to provide reason for her comments. Lights are on but nobody’s home there Stan…….

          • HockeyKeeperKit

            I think I explained myself pretty well. Not my fault it looks Einstein-ian to you. As a wise man once said, I neither have the patience or crayons to explain it more simply to you.

          • Ron K

            That’s a typical answer coming from you where you’re unable to expand on your comments to justify what you said in the first place. But, when you say there are very good teams that don’t make the playoffs every year, I can understand why you avoided an explanation.
            Those teams are NOT very good teams Kitty. They’re not even average teams. They’re also rans who weren’t as good than more than half the teams in the league. Your stupidity is wearing my patience very thin Kitty. It’s time to quit pretending that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to the game of hockey as it’s very obvious that you don’t. Dumb as a brick you are………

          • HockeyKeeperKit

            Exactly my point. Thanks Marcel. Stan, we are talking on different scales then. You have an ultimate goal in mind but we must first achieve milestones on the path to that ultimate goal.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Only a genuine, complete, and utter moron would use statistics to show the Leafs are basically playing good defensive hockey. The amount of defensive mistakes by these Leafs are the worst I have ever seen in over 50 years. And then to put the blame on Polak who is the only defenceman we have who tries to play a sound defensive game is ludicrous. As if the solution is to get rid of Polak and are troubles are over.

    Just my opinion. Others like Jeff may not be “overly concerned about the Leafs’ defensive core yet.” Two on ones, three on ones, breakaways, Inability to clear rebounds unable to stop the cycle……..

    ” Don’t worry…. Be happy “

    • HockeyKeeperKit

      Oh, come now. Enough with the moron stuff. How about we meet halfway. How about we agree that the Leafs aren’t great when they are actually playing defense but, overall, they are playing less of it according to the numbers. Preventing defensive minutes is still defense. All I can remember from last year is minutes on end spent in the defensive zone with failed clearance after failed clearance. I’m not seeing as much of that this year. It’s still there, but not as pronounced. Four of the six current D-men are offensive minded. I’d rather teach an offensive D-man to play defense than a defensive D-man to play offense. I can’t see how it doesn’t get better with time. I also can’t see how the Leafs don’t make a trade with all the prospects in the system for veteran(ish) D-man.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        Perhaps moron is a bit too harsh.

        My beef would be using statistics to show the Leafs are really playing sound defensive hockey. Jeff has not allowed for a Poisson variation. That makes it completely unrepresentative. You must include Poisson Distribution if you are going to use probability theory and statistics to make any sort of conclusion.

        • Brandon

          While the poisson distribution may apply here, the suggestion that you have to include the Poisson Distribution if you’re going to use probability theory and statistics to make a conclusion is simply not true. There are many circumstances where using the poisson distribution as a reference distribution to estimate departure from chance (i.e., draw conclusions) would be completely inappropriate. But as I said, it may be appropriate here. Analytics isn’t at issue here. The disagreement here is whether the analytical tool being used captures the right thing. It seems likely to me that “scoring chances” vary in their likelihood of resulting in a goal, and lumping them together probably makes the Leafs defense look more average. A deeper dive would probably show that Toronto is giving up more “extremely high danger scoring chances” for example. Just a thought.

          • LukeDaDrifter

            You hit the nail on the head. You could also include ” who is on the ice when the turn over occurs”. If an elite player is on then the danger is much greater. Take tonight’s game. Let’s hope we don’t turn the puck over when McDavid is on the ice.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        How does preventing defensive minutes count for much when the Leafs already have allowed the second most goals against in the league? Only Philadelphia has allowed more. We have dominated the possession stats in most if not all, games this year. Last year we were also 13th overall in possession but ended up the worst team in the league.

        . Last year most of the shots were coming from the perimeter. This year most are coming from about 15 or less feet out.

        How can anyone use stats to conclude the Leafs are really ok defensively. Seriously have these people been actually watching the games.

        Last week the stats told us faceoffs are not really important.

        Same thing with possession stats. The Leafs are a great possession team. Unfortunately they can’t win hockey games.

        McDavid is coming to town. McDavid only needs to possess the puck 30% of the time to generate 5 points. I watched him do it to us last year.

        • HockeyKeeperKit

          Ok. Got you. But I see goals as an equation. Slow down. Slow down. Hear me out. So many factors lead to a goal. I think the confirmed issue with goals lately was sub par goaltending. Saves that should have been made. Was defense a factor? Yes. But the point is which of the two is a bigger factor? Which improvement would lead to less goals and more wins? I think if the goaltending simply approached the average, the end result would be far better than asking and average defense to approach elite.

          • Ron K

            That’s a typical amateur goalie assumption. Interesting to note that you have failed to mention the majority of skaters on the team, but then again, goalies like you only think forwards are out there to score goals and don’t play a part in stopping them. Maybe goalies should have more brawn Kitty……..

          • HockeyKeeperKit

            Because the article is specifically about the defense corps and defensive systems (forwards and defense), not specific forwards…

            R-E-A-D. L-E-A-R-N.

          • Ron K

            You are asking me to assume that you know what you’re talking about.
            Defence and defensive systems are 2 totally different topics Kitty……..
            Seems like you really lack in communication skills in both comprehension and accurate translation. How did you ever get your high school diploma? Wonders never cease……..

    • HockeyKeeperKit

      Also, regarding Polak, I think the fundamental complaint is that he is simply a step or two behind the play. Around the net, he may be a total beast but he just doesn’t have the speed anymore to shut down the cycle.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        Polak is not turning the puck over. Everyone else on the team is taking turns doing it. I am fine with waiving Polak, sending him to the Marlies, or simply firing his ass out of here.

          • Ron K

            Good observation Kitty………..When defencemen are busy taking the body they don’t worry about the puck. When that happens he’s creating turnovers for his teammates Kitty. Keep reading my comments and you’ll eventually be up to speed with everyone else, maybe.

          • Stan Smith

            Wow. I can’t believe you said that. Outnumbering the puckhandler has always been a defensive strategy, and a good one. The mistake is thinking that every player you have on the ice is an island, and is there to do all the work themselves. That is what leads to defensive breakdowns, and goals against. This is a team game, not 6 individual games. Polak is their best dman in their own end specifically because he plays the man and not the puck. If Rielly and Gardiner ever learned that they might finally become the elite dmen they are striving to be.

          • Stan Smith

            I just knew you were going to say that. The man left open is useless if the person with the puck can’t play the puck. He is tied up by the dman along the boards. The centre then has free access to the puck. It’s when you have dmen poking at the puck with their stick, and ignoring the opposing forward, and their stick, that the puck usually ends up in the back of your net. If the dman is left to fight it out for possession there is a 50/50 chance he gets or doesn’t. Even if he does get it, it usually mean he has to pass it to someone. The person receiving the pass has to get open, and you know what that does? It leaves an opposition player open. The concept of the dman tying the forward up along the boards leaving the centre to play the puck is taught in peewee and bantam hockey.

          • Ron K

            You’re wasting your time with Kitty, Stan. She has absolutely zero idea about the game other than statistical information. She’s a goalie so what else can I say. She says she’s on here to learn but all she ever does is try to tell everyone how the game went wrong according to her statistics. She knows how to argue though. lol

          • Stan Smith

            Funny thing is I am working and have the Leaf/Sabres game on (which is over now. YAY) and in a little over a minute of play I saw exactly what I was talking about happen 4 times. Someone must think it’s a good idea.

          • Ron K

            You are absolutely correct about what you said about tying up the man. It’s called puck separation in today’s game and I was taught that in my first year of peewee. It has been and always will be a basic defensive play for all defencemen because it works. It’s hockey 101 for beginners.
            If someone doesn’t know that concept you know you might as well talk to a stump. lol

          • Ron K

            I’ll even take that one step further…….Puck separation is the cornerstone of a defencemen’s tactical arsenal. Number one, you’re nullifying the attack and number 2 you’re creating a turnover. It doesn’t get any better than that for a defenceman. If your defence can accomplish that all game it’s usually a very easy win unless you run into a hot goalie at the other end. That’s how effective and important it is.

  • jimithy

    Reilly and Gardiner are the worst defensemen on the ice on any given night. Making Reilly an assistant captain was a terrible idea that will come back to haunt the team for years to come. Also, one of those bigwigs upstairs should start explaining to Gardiner what it is he should be doing when it’s his turn to hit the ice. On a more positive note, I think getting rid of Bozak, JVR, Kadri and Polak would be a good idea. These so called veterans are just letting the youngsters down with their inconsistent ineffective play.

      • Stan Smith

        While I wouldn’t say they are the worst, they both do struggle defensively in their own zone and I think Babcock and crew recognized that fact.

        I disagree with your assessment of Bozak, Martin and Polak. I think Kadri has been a victim of struggling linemates, Polak can’t block shots on his own but seems to be the only dman that actually has the ability to break up cycles in his own zone. With the exception of the last game, Marner and Bozak have shown great chemistry together. The only thing Bozak has been lacking is the finishing touch around the net. The Leafs have two lines that are a threat anytime. If they can get the Kadri line going they will have a pretty potent offence.

  • Bob Canuck

    Jeff,

    Thanks for a fact-based perspective.

    Inspired by your article, I looked at data from Naturalstattrick.com and I found the Leafs numbers to be interesting. I limited the results to games played through October 31, 5-on-5, and for defensemen with at least 10 minutes TOI per game. Out of 211 defensemen, this is how the Leafs players rank.

    Scoring Chances Against Per 60

    Carrick – 90; Gardiner – 92; Hunwick – 157; Reilly – 165; Marincin – 188; Polak – 136; and Zaitsev – 183

    Scoring Chances For Percentage

    Carrick – 8; Gardiner – 18; Hunwick – 112; Reilly – 41; Marincin – 107; Polak – 114; and Zaitsev – 123

    High Danger Chances Against Per 60

    Carrick – 42; Gardiner – 70; Hunwick – 136; Reilly – 127; Marincin – 104; Polak – 116; and Zaitsev – 158

    High Danger Chances For Percentage

    Carrick – 8; Gardiner – 10; Hunwick – 87; Reilly – 61; Marincin – 130; Polak – 35; and Zaitsev – 183

    Based on the data, my observations regarding the Leafs defensemen are as follows:

    -They have to do a better job of preventing scoring chances, including the high danger ones
    -In terms of generating net scoring chances and net high danger chances, Carrick and Gardiner have been very good
    -Only Hunwick has averaged less TOI per game than Carrick and Gardiner, who have earned more ice time
    -Zaitsev has struggled at 5-on-5

    These observations do not consider the quality of competition but my guess is that would not have a large impact on any comparison between Carrick, Gardiner, Reilly, and Zaitsev.