The Leafs need their own Virgil van Dijk

In a very relatable situation, Liverpool Football Club has had defensive woes for what seemed like decades. Not able to ever develop or acquire any top talent to calm their nerves in dangerous situations – until Virgil van Dijk arrived.

On the other hand  – relatable as well – this was a team that has had a bounty of offensive riches. Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah – the list of forwards that had their best years with the club in the Northwest of England is massive. Consistently being a threat when they had the pace and players up front, but when they were on their heels, they struggled and panicked.

Trying to find temporary fixes but never really paying premium transfer fees for such a player, Liverpool were caught in a situation that they didn’t want to waste. Another offensive force that would score goals at whim, but when they faced similar pressure, they gave up leads and lost to opponents that should have been easily dealt with.

Doesn’t that story sound familiar?

On December 27th, 2017, Liverpool management and ownership finalized a deal that would see the Dutch centre-back van Dijk come from Southampton to Liverpool for a transfer fee of 75-million pounds. A hefty fee, but looking back now, it was a bargain for what he did to the structure of this team.

His impact has been felt throughout the team and that has resulted in the team being one of the world’s best since he has made his Liverpool debut.

Without a doubt, van Dijk has been their most important player that shows up consistently every week for the club.

But what does this have to do with the Leafs?

The 2018-19 Leafs are a precarious team, almost halfway through the season and they are still just outscoring their problems. Similar to the Liverpool team before van Dijk, they have no problem creating offense and getting some lucky breaks to go their way from the elite talent that they have. But they are in a constant state of worry as soon as the other team gives them any bit of sustained offensive pressure.

Per Evolving-Hockey, the Leafs rank 20th in the league in expected goals against per hour (xGA/60) at 5v5 as a whole team (2.58)- meaning that they are towards the bottom of the league in terms of team defence. But they are the only team in the bottom-10 to have a positive expected goals plus/minus (+0.17)- ranking 12th in that category, all because of their fourth-best xGF/60 of 2.74.

data by Corsica / viz by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey)

Comparing that to the rest of the league, it’s obvious that the Leafs are stuck in a rut that is seeing them give up too many key chances to keep on winning this way.

This is graph is a broad look at the league’s expected goals for and against, but it gives you a sense as to what teams are massively over-performing and who should be looking to bounce back in 2019.

In short, the Leafs have one of the best offenses in the league but that doesn’t equate to much when they’re still barely scraping by when you take into account both ends of the ice. Of course the wins are still coming and the points are accumulating, but these numbers are worrisome when it comes to sustainability.

A metaphorical Virgil van Dijk would certainly help the Leafs lower that xGA/60 number to somewhere that is even just league-average; they would be able to win even more games.

It’s been noticeable how lucky some of these wins have been – getting two lucky bounces late in the third or Andersen completely robbing the opposition from some well-deserved tying goals. By getting their own “van Dijk”, the Leafs would then win more games in a pure dominating way, which we have seen seldom this season.

When I mention the Leafs’ “own van Dijk”, it might mean one specific player, or it could mean just a mentality or structure. Even optimizing the blue line (I’m looking at you Ronald Hainsey) could mean their own van Dijk.

There is no clamoring from me for Kyle Dubas to make a massive trade for a “go-to” top defenceman, rather there is some need for this team to figure out its own back end.

That can involve new personnel, but it is probably closer to being solved within the organization and just re-shuffling the blue line to match what the modern NHL should look like. No need for a slow defenceman that is only good at interrupting some passes when the opposition has already grown comfortable in your own zone – agile skaters that can successfully sustain offensive pressure is all that is needed.

Much like how van Dijk can use his height and skill with the ball to keep the Liverpool forwards deep into enemy territory, if the Leafs were able to get more of those players (or play those players more), they would be able to keep attacking.

Of course a centre-back is able to play the full game, while even a top-pairing defenceman is seeing about 40% of the game, this still leans towards getting a new mentality and defensive rejuvenation.

There needs to be something so drastic that it changes the outlook of the team completely. Much like how van Dijk brought up Liverpool from a team that can maybe squeak by with a 4-3 victory, to a team that has broken clean sheet records. They are a powerhouse on both ends of their playing surface and the Leafs should be too.

Whether it comes in the form of a new player or new strategy, the Leafs are swimming in dangerous waters currently and they need something to bring them out. Bringing them closer to the team that is rightfully winning games and dominating the league with its offensive and defensive ability.

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