Why Goaltending is the Biggest Threat to Leafs’ Playoff Success

A lot has been made recently of the Leafs’ lacklustre efforts defensively, so much so that Kyle Dubas added a defenceman, Ilya Lyubushkin, who is good at practically nothing other than playing defence.

The only problem is that Toronto’s defence isn’t actually bad; in fact, it isn’t even mediocre. The Leafs are 6th in the NHL in Expected Goals Against, and not a single one of their defence pairings has an Expected Goal Share of under 52 percent at five on five. This means that the Leafs are out-chancing their opponent with a defensive pair on the ice at all times. The Leafs’ incredible forward group helps these numbers, there is no doubt of that, but the opinion that the defensive unit will kill this Leafs team is based on previous years’ Leaf teams, not this one. 

I will not sit here and say that all is well with the Maple Leafs backend. The 6-3 defeat to St. Louis and last night’s 5-2 loss to the terrible Habs did exemplify some weaknesses the Leafs have; things like their poor efforts in defending the transition and the immobility of some of their defencemen stood out. But good goaltending can cover up many defensive issues that teams have, and the Leafs haven’t been getting good goaltending for about two months now. Since January 1st, Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek both carry a .894 SV%, which is objectively terrible. Despite this, the Leafs have still gone 12-6-1 in the 19 games since the turn of the year, but the lousy tending of the net is starting to catch up with them now, and the last two losses are proof.

Let’s dive into the Leafs’ goalies and how they’ve played this season. It wasn’t long ago that Jack Campbell was in the conversation to win the Vezina trophy, he had the best save percentage in the league on the 31st of December and promptly started playing like Michael Hutchinson. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen from Soup over the last 45 days is not what Leaf fans have come to expect from the former Soo Greyhound, he has been seemingly devoid of confidence, and his game in the crease has become messy. It’s safe to say his early season form was a bit of an overachievement, but there is not a chance that he is as bad as he has been playing lately. Even with how bad Campbell has been of late, he’s still 14th in Goals Saved Above Expected and has a .922 SV%, so if he stays at that level, the Leafs will be fine. However, if he keeps getting worse, the backup option is not much better.

I am a big believer in the work that Kyle Dubas has done with the Leafs and think he should be up for GM of the Year, but Petr Mrazek is easily the worst move he has ever made. Mrazek carries an AAV of $3.8 million over three years and has been, to put it bluntly, terrible. Ignoring the fact that he’s been hurt for a massive chunk of the season, the former Hurricane has been bad according to virtually every metric. His GSAx is 82nd in the NHL, his Wins Above Replacement is 83rd, and his .890 SV% is also one of the league’s worst. To make matters worse, last night was possibly his worst performance of the year. He allowed legitimately one of the worst goals I have ever seen any NHL goalie allow ever

How in the world did this go in.

and made another minor league-level mistake of oversliding on a 2 on 1 leaving an easy finish for Cole Caufield.

The eye test and the stats align amazingly here, as there is not one person on planet earth who is confident watching Petr Mrazek play goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

So the question now is, what are the Leafs options in net? The first is simple: stick with what you have and hope all works out. This is probably the most sensible option at this point in the season. Odds are that Jack Campbell will return to some level reminiscent of his early-season form, and that would be enough to make noise in the playoffs with how good this Leafs team is at scoring goals. If it doesn’t work out, well, at least you went with the guy who brought you, and you didn’t give up any valuable assets in doing so. 

This brings us to the second option, a goalie trade. Very rarely do these happen, and even more rarely do they work, but there is precedent. The Vegas Golden Knights trading for Robin Lehner in 2020 is eerily similar to what the Leafs could do this year. The Golden Knights had an underperforming starter, so they traded for another starter to give them two solid options, leading them to the Conference Finals. The Leafs could go after Semyon Varlamov, Elvis Merzlikins and Braden Holtby in terms of trade targets. They would have to include Mrazek and other assets in the deal, but it certainly is an option. I would only make a trade for Varlamov as he has played 34 playoff games in the last two years and has been consistently good for five years now. The only problem is his $5 million cap hit and the year remaining on his contract after this one. So realistically there is little chance the Leafs make any trade involving a starting goalie.

Robin Lehner’s midseason move to VGK two years ago almost won them a Cup.

The final option would be to promote a goalie from the farm system and hope they catch lightning in a bottle. Joseph Woll is the only viable option for this, and he is a long shot at best, although he was solid in 4 games for the Leafs earlier this season, going 3-1 with a .911 SV%. I wouldn’t mind giving him a shot near the end of the season if you can get rid of Mrazek’s contract in some sort of cap-clearing deal, but it would be unfair to put the hopes and dreams of Leafland on a 23-year-old AHL goalie. 

So, all of this was pretty much to say the Leafs are stuck with what they have, which could be a problem. You can win in the playoffs with incredible goaltending and just average five-on-five play; such is hockey. Last year, the Canadiens did it thanks to some monumental Carey Price performances, as did the Stars in 2020 with Anton Khudobin and the Jonathan Quick-led Los Angeles Kings in 2012. You can even win with just average goaltending as long as you dominate in all other facets of the game, which the Leafs, for the most part, do. But bad goaltending, you have no chance with bad goaltending.

The margins in the playoffs are too small to get by with a goalie letting in one out of every ten shots. You cannot outscore bad goaltending for an entire playoff run, it just is not feasible. Since 2000, the worst SV% a goalie has had in the playoffs whilst winning the Stanley Cup is a .910. Furthermore, only three times in that span has a Stanley Cup-winning goalie had a playoff SV% of under .920. Goalies get coaches fired, but they also win Stanley Cups and nothing about it makes any sense. 

The good news is that regular season play is by no means indicative of how a team or player will play in the playoffs, the Leafs know this better than anyone. But if nothing changes from now until game 1 of the playoffs, and the goaltending doesn’t get fixed, Leaf fans can expect another early exit.

Data from: Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and Moneypuck

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