Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Leafs actually building for playoff success?

The following is a guest post from Twitter’s @PDWhoa. Give him a follow!

Dominating a lot of the discussion about the Leafs is stylistic changes the team has made and whether those are or will be effective in the long term. Some contend that this newer plan to limit chances against is part of a strategy to set them up for playoff success. To see if that is true, I point you to this article from Micah McCurdy about what translates into successful playoff runs. I encourage you to read it for yourself, and see the delightful visuals that accompany the words, but I will outline the key points here.

  • “Especially looking at full-seasons, the historical pattern is that playoff winners are the ones whose regular season results show strong offence, much more so than defence.”
  • “It’s commonly said that coaches and players adopt a more defensive style in the playoffs, and that defense-first teams are the ones who win. The former may or may not be true, but the latter is not borne out by history.”
  • “good regular season goaltending is crucial—that is, teams with sub-par regular season goaltending have virtually never gone on long playoff campaigns. Shooting talent, on the other hand, appears to mean very little…”
  • “we are *more sure* that a shot-production juggernaut will have a deep playoff run than we are of a team with strong goaltending doing the same.”
  • “Looking at regular season results, the historical path to deep playoff runs has been good defence, better offence, and an above-average goaltender.”

Working backwards, the Leafs have the latter covered, at least this year. Andersen has been excellent, quelling any worry there for the time being.

The other two are far less optimistic. Despite the apparent structural changes, the Leafs don’t look well positioned to go anywhere this spring. When Micah speaks of good offence and defence, he refers to shots for and against at 5 on 5, with the best mix of the two around 60 CF/60 and 53 CA/60. The Leafs currently produce 59.6 CF/60 but allow 60.53 CA/60. The season isn’t over, but the results aren’t promising.

You might think that this shows Babcock’s strategy is a good one, and in some ways, it is. It is evident this team needs to limit shots against. But the new strategy hasn’t really improved anything. The Leafs produced just as much last year (59.86 CF) but allowed less (58.94 CA). The Leafs, with the same personnel, are allowing 1.5 CA per 60 more than last season.

It is unclear if this is due to the stylistic change or something else, but for a team that signed an ageing free agent in an attempt to compete immediately, this stagnation or regression is worrying. This might be evidence that the current group just won’t cut it, which I think is a fair assessment. It might also be evidence that Babcock is under-performing and/or making costly roster decisions, which I think is also fair. That said, even if the lineup is optimized (Polak out, less Komarov, etc.) I don’t think the impact of that is enough to eliminate 5+ shots against per 60. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done; any improvement is still improvement. The question is then how to improve the roster?

The troubled areas aren’t ground-breaking or new. Zaitsev and Hainsey likely aren’t going to cut it as the top-4 RHD. Bozak has long been maligned for his poor effort defensively, and the organization has no real replacement or upgrade within at either position. To upgrade the D, Carlson might be available this summer, or one of Ekman-Larsson, Karlsson or Doughty the following year. It is tough to sit back and do nothing in hopes of a couple huge maybes coming true. Maybe one of them makes it to UFA, maybe one of them chooses to sign in Toronto then. The lack of superstars to go to the market in the past makes these quite unlikely, I think. On the trade market, maybe Severson has fallen out of favour in NJ. Beyond that there isn’t any noise or smoke about available guys, so the safe assumption is that those types of guys just aren’t available.

The outlook at C is quite similar, with maybe a couple more names available this coming summer. Tavares, Backlund, and Thronton all have the same maybes, but all would be a definite upgrade over Bozak. Thornton would only be a stopgap for a year or two, but what a stopgap he’d be. Again, there is no noise on the trade market, leaving no obvious way to upgrade here either.

In a way, the lack of clear avenues for upgrade makes the decision for the team. Work with what’s here but be sure to save the space to add a big-ticket player if they do become available. The current system shows no real path to a good playoff run, so I’d propose letting go of the reins. Let the offence go wild and hope the talented forwards score more than the suspect defence gives up.

During the team’s hot start, before it looked like they really started trying to tighten up defensively, the team generating 61 shots and only giving up 55 against, both right along that mix that Micah found to be quite successful. There’s the huge caveat that this was only 9 games, but I see no reason why this team full of offensive weapons wouldn’t succeed playing up-tempo run-and-gun hockey. At worst, it’ll be more fun.

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  • Jroc

    I’m hoping that this is all a byproduct of being in such a garbage division. They are in such a comfortable playoff position that Babcock is using a good chunk of the season as a teaching exercise and once he feels they have learned the lesson he can go between the 2 playing styles when the game dictates…. or it’s all a big mindf***