Is Coaching Holding the Toronto Maple Leafs Back?


A GIF is worth a thousand words.

Although the Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be locked into third place in the Atlantic Division, they’re in total disarray. They’ve allowed 23 goals in the past four games and their defense is tied for second-worst in the NHL since the start of February. In a nutshell, they’re finally struggling to outscore their bad habits.

Even when they win, they look awful. Their coverage is porous, they can’t break out of their zone properly and their stars don’t see enough of the puck. These issues may seem trivial in light of a 43-24-5 record, but we’ve seen all this before — as recently as last season. The divisional standings were identical a year ago and the 49-26-7 Leafs boasted a defense that ranked 12th (2.80 GAPG) in the league.

Then the playoffs started and reality hit them like a ton of bricks. Boston dropped four goals per game on a jittery Toronto squad that came apart at the seams on the biggest stage. With the very same matchup looming in 2018-19, the Leafs may well fall in the first round for the third consecutive season.

Certain players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain, but when the team consistently fails to start on time and performs best when it abandons the game plan, the symptoms point to dysfunction on a coaching level.

We won’t get too deep into ice time distribution or lineups. Every single coach makes questionable decisions in those respects. As long as Patrick Marleau is kept far away from the top six, Mike Babcock can cobble together a competitive group. The problem with these Leafs is much more basic and thus much more serious: There’s a disconnect between the bench boss’ philosophy and the players he has at his disposal.

To be fair, the personnel isn’t really built to smother opponents. Morgan Rielly (68 points in 72 games) will earn Norris Trophy consideration this season, but it won’t be because of airtight defense. Newcomer Jake Muzzin (14 points in 23 games with the Leafs) is a puck-possession beast rather than a shutdown artist. Jake Gardiner (29 points in 60 games) routinely alternates between spectacular and boneheaded plays. Though the back end is competent with the puck, it’s a different and far uglier story without it.

As such, Toronto’s best bet would be to control possession for as long as possible. Instead, the club’s system is defined by willingly relinquishing the puck over and over again. The Leafs are married to the following sequence: Launch a stretch pass, tip the puck into the opposition’s zone and attempt to retrieve it.

There are a few issues with this tactic.

Firstly, it suits only a handful of Leafs forwards and doesn’t take full advantage of the talent on hand. You simply aren’t going to thrive in the postseason when your strategy revolves around Zach Hyman (33 points in 61 games) and Connor Brown (25 points in 72 games) as opposed to Auston Matthews (66 points in 58 games) and Mitch Marner (85 points in 72 games).

With impressive firepower and depth (Matthews, Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen), why on earth are the Leafs fixated on the dump-and-chase? This roster is seemingly begging to capitalize on its abundance of speed and skill.

Secondly, having your forwards fly the zone in preparation for a chip-in significantly limits the puck-carrier’s options. If he doesn’t spot an open man quickly or the opposition puts the clamps on the long bomb, he’s left with no other choice but to dump the puck in himself. Since the forwards are then left standing still up ice, they don’t have a head of steam and can’t deploy their forecheck in time to disrupt the other team’s breakout. Within this setup, sometimes the Leafs can’t even muster a dump-in. They’ve committed the most icings in the entire league this season.

When Toronto does manage to wrestle back possession, its counterparts have already settled into their defensive posture. Those conditions don’t favor the Leafs because they aren’t designed to win in the trenches. Defenders bear down on their star forwards and point shots are all that remain. Unfortunately, the blue line isn’t particularly adept at getting its bids through traffic. The team controls 51.3% of the shot attempts (11th) but only 49.6% of the unblocked attempts (15th) and 48.6% of the actual shots (18th) at 5-on-5.

In other words, squads are perfectly happy to concede those looks to the Leafs because Babcock’s men seldom produce anything noteworthy with them. It’s one-and-dones galore. Every point shot taken is a minor victory for the other team.

Finally, this reliance on the stretch pass gifts opponents scoring chances that wouldn’t exist in a different scheme. Seeing as the forwards and defensemen are effectively stranded on separate islands, a turnover allows the opposition to attack with a numbers advantage. This would be acceptable if the approach granted the Leafs additional opportunities as well, but it feels as though they’re constantly on their heels. Zone exits are remarkably difficult for them and remarkably easy for their opponents.

In an effort to spend as little time as possible in their end, they’ve taken the counter-intuitive approach of surrendering possession with their dump-ins and tilting the ice toward their own net.

Now that the club’s goaltending has begun to falter, this blueprint is being exposed. Starting netminder Frederik Andersen (2.74 GAA, 91.8 SV%) is once again fading under a heavy workload, as his performance in March has been atrocious: 3.97 GAA, 88.5 SV%. Meanwhile, Garret Sparks (3.24 GAA, 90.2 SV%) isn’t the type of backup who can steal games. On Saturday night, the last-place, talent-depleted Ottawa Senators repeatedly intercepted Toronto’s breakout passes and beat Sparks on odd-man rushes.

Granted, Gardiner, Kapanen and Travis Dermott (17 points in 60 games) are out with injuries at the moment, but these troubles still existed with those three in the lineup. After all, no team has allowed more shots since the start of 2016-17. Not one. Yeah, there’s something fundamentally wrong here.

Frankly, it’s hard to understand why the Leafs employ this scheme. This is the most talented roster in franchise history, but Babcock is treating them like a bunch of grinders. He didn’t coach this way during his successful years in Detroit either, emphasizing short, quick passes through the middle and a five-man breakout. While the club doesn’t have forces of nature like Nicklas Lidstrom or Pavel Datsyuk to call on, its overall skill level remains superb. It also remains untapped.

As the standings indicate, Toronto can win regular season games on the strength of its goaltending (6th in OISV% over the past three years) and flashes of individual brilliance. In the playoffs, however, that will only get you so far. The competition is stiffer and opponents have more time to size you up. You need every little edge you can get.

Dumping and chasing religiously with this particular lineup accomplishes the exact opposite: It puts the Leafs behind the eight ball from the very outset.

On the few occasions when the club breaks free from its shackles — typically when trailing in the third period — it runs roughshod over its opposition (+23 goal differential) and offers a glimpse of its true potential. This collection of talent rivals anyone’s in the NHL, yet it’s rarely given the license to display its potency and creativity. That issue doesn’t plague other contenders. Even teams with lesser rosters look more prepared for the postseason because they get the most out of their personnel.

Can you truly say the same for the Leafs? Imagine what their young guns could do in a system that actually plays to their strengths.

The rest of the Eastern Conference is praying we never find out.