Barely any of the season has been played, but we’ve probably seen enough of it to be very worried about the Leafs defense. In fact, I’ll go so far to say that pretty much all worries about the Leafs defense have rightfully been carried over from last season and supported by at least another decade of justified fears. It’s hard to feel good about the blueline, but perhaps it is time we start more aggressively assigning blame and asking some harsher questions about what the solutions are.
So that’s not ideal. I mean, the positive CF% is nice, as is the goal differential and exciting pace, but high amount of shot attempts against, and higher expected goals against numbers point to a problem that seems like it will only get worse now that Auston Matthews is out of the lineup and the Leafs aren’t going to as easily fall back on the best defense is a good offense motto.
The breakdown of the Leafs D…
Morgan Rielly seems to be the bright spot here, as he should be, and both Dermott and Ozhiganov are looking capable as the bottom pairing. I’m not sure anyone should feel truly comfortable about the idea of moving them up test the waters in 2nd pairing situations, but it might be an interesting experiment to see what they can do with either more ice time at home or give them a bit more time against weaker opponents.
The majority of the issues seem to be stemming from the Gardiner and Zaitsev pairing, who seem to be handling the bulk of the defensive zone starts, a task that has helped cripple their numbers compared to the other units. It’s a pretty dramatic swing between Rielly getting a 57.99 offensive zone start rate compared to Gardiner’s 42.86, and while that doesn’t explain away all of the troubles of Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing, you’d hope that Babcock would at least begin exploring other options on a frequent basis.
Since the beginning of the 2016-17 season no pairing for the Leafs has spent more time together than Gardiner and Zaitsev. These are the results:
So that’s not a good sign. Especially when you look at how Gardiner and Carrick was often one of the best pairings in these categories. There is the caveat to those previous Gardiner results that he didn’t face tougher competition until he was paired with Zaitsev. Though it should also be noted that Zaitsev and Rielly also didn’t produce favourable results. The common denominator seems to be the inflation of what Zaitsev can do defensively.
As for Ron Hainsey…well, by the numbers he still seems to be coming across pretty well relative to his peers. A wealth of his sins seem to be masked by Morgan Rielly, and to some degree I think it is important to recognize they are paired together because Hainsey is viewed, at least by Babcock, as having abilities that address the deficits in Rielly’s game. Ultimately, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that Hainsey is in a role beyond his abilities, but there doesn’t seem to be another option that Mike Babcock is comfortable trying. This is part of the problem.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
#1. Test to see if Dermott/Oziganhov can handle more
I know it seems like a crazy idea, but perhaps it is time to take the pairing that is doing well against the weakest competition and gradually up their difficulty levels. Maybe even put them on the ice with some offense producing units and see if they can manage to be on the ice at the same time for a Leafs goal. The samples may be small, but the options are few, and seeing what Dermott and Ozhiganov can do in a bigger role should be tested, even if it is still largely keeping them as the third pairing as far as 5v5 ice time goes.
#2. Holl, etc.
November 1st marks the 2018-19 debut of Justin Holl. This is exciting because it’s different. Not that bringing in Martin Marincin has changed a lot of what is experienced in the way of Leafs team defense, but exploring new options is promising. I have been a little discouraged that Igor Ozhiganov is the player rotating out for Holl and has been pulled for Marincin as well, but it is a long season and as long as the Leafs are beginning the journey to get their defense right by the playoffs, this is an important first step.
If Holl isn’t the answer, maybe Calle Rosen or Andreas Borgman will be. It’s important to try these things. As for Marincin, I think he’s ultimately a very good 7D who rotates in well, especially on the road. He by no means seems to be the answer beyond that depth role.
#3. Find a way to play Hainsey and Zaitsev less
What good are defensive specialists who aren’t particularly good at defense? Assuming that Mike Babcock is looking for checks and balances partner for the more rush inclined Rielly and Gardiner, there still have to be better options than these two. I mean, Dermott and Ozhiganov being split up and finding their ways onto pairings with Rielly and Gardiner is already an upgrade, and that leaves Mike Babcock with his ideal (ideal to him only) defensive faceoff pairing in Hainsey and Zaitsev.
#4. Acknowledge Jake Gardiner Does Make Mistakes
This again ties back to the deployment, and starting Jake Gardiner in the defensive zone seems like setting him up failure. By its nature sending anyone out for a high number of defensive zone starts is doing that, but arguably it might be time to have Rielly and (sigh) Hainsey start taking on that role, or better yet, let Dermott and Ozhiganov do it. Really the more I look at all of the situation overall, maybe it’s just better to roll through the pairings without much thought to matchups at even strength, because the freshest guy of Rielly, Gardiner or Dermott is going to be the best option, and all of Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Ozhiganov are going to be outmatched against the unit the Leafs are trying to match up against.
Since this point was supposed to be about Jake Gardiner, I will say that someone needs to bring him up to speed on how to defend against odd man rushes.
#5. New Personnel that is sourced from the NHL
Not that Ozhiganov, Borgman, Rosen, and even to some extent Zaitsev haven’t shown that they belong in the NHL, the Leafs issues aren’t with the bottom half of their defensive depth chart. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner account for two thirds of a decent top half, but that missing piece sure is noticeable on a nightly basis and a legitimate top pairing NHL defenseman seems like a requirement before real conversations about the Leafs as cup contenders can occur.
This solution may not come this year, but another summer of having faith in who the Leafs have is unacceptable. Having Sandin, Liljegren and others in the picture definitely will help, but counting on them to slide in when the rest of the team is ready to win now seems like Toronto could be wasting part of their window.
#6. Don’t have forwards try to pick up the slack defensively
The Leafs need to be a high octane offensive team first and foremost. That’s what they’ve been built for, and even on their blueline that is their greatest strength. Don’t slow down what is working to fix what is broken. The end result is often the Leafs being bad in two areas.
I’m just a blogger talking out my ass, largely telling you all something you already know, whether you’ve gotten there through stats or otherwise. The Leafs defense hasn’t been good, but they have a lot of time to fix it. The unsettling part seems to be the commitment to sticking with what hasn’t been working, and not taking advantage of the long regular season to take advantage of different options.