For the second straight season under Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto Maple Leafs have gotten off to a slow start. Last year the Buds had three wins through eight games. This year they have only four. Toronto has looked slow, sloppy, and in some games, downright terrible. Leaf fans know better than to press the big red panic button this early, but concerns about the legitimacy of this team as Stanley Cup contenders are creeping in.
The Leafs’ biggest strength since they drafted Auston Matthews has unsurprisingly been scoring goals. The lowest they’ve been league-wide in five-on-five goals since 2016/17 is fifth. They have finished in the top three in that statistic for the last five years. So far this season, the Leafs have just twelve five on five goals, ranking them 27th in the NHL. Their underlying stats are a little better, but nothing suggests that the Leafs are massively underperforming. Their expected goals for is 17.14, which ranks them tenth in the league and most of the stats that track scoring chances rank the Leafs around there as well. It is hard to say what exactly the issue is with the Leaf offence, but from what I see, they are struggling to get unaffected shots from the slot area. They are being kept to the perimeter and are accepting that. When this Leaf team is at their best, they are deadly off the rush, but they also break opponents down in the offensive zone by cycling and creating space. According to SportLogiq data, the Leafs are 31st in ‘shots without pressure.’ This speaks to how limited the offence has been. They just aren’t working on getting open looks, and their skill has been stifled. A bit of this can be attributed to early-season sluggishness, but the Leafs should be past that at this point. Toronto must return to its roots and work the puck around as a unit. Then they can start to open teams up again.
The biggest worry is that it is not like Toronto has played a murderer’s row to start the season. They’ve lost to three terrible hockey teams in Montreal, Arizona and now the Sharks last night. The Leafs have always struggled against these teams, but you would hope by now they would have figured out they should be pumping these teams. As Sheldon Keefe said, we have elite players. They do not. Ultimately, it falls on Nylander, Matthews, Marner and Tavares to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, they haven’t been doing that.
Speaking of last night’s game, one issue continued to plague the Leafs and is another factor in why this offence is struggling. That issue is Toronto’s defencemen’s lack of passing ability. There was a solid ten-minute stretch in the second period last night where I am not sure if a pass was completed from a Leaf defenceman to a Leaf forward.
Sheldon Keefe addressed this after the game, saying, “Our inability to move the puck up the ice efficiently is slowing down all of our game on offence. And it’s really hurting our game defensively as well — because we’re just getting stressed.”
Whenever the puck touched Justin Holl’s stick, it was like someone just threw a live grenade at him, and he couldn’t wait to get rid of it. You cannot accomplish anything as an offence if the first pass is to the other team. The Leaf forwards isn’t doing much, but they’re feeding off scraps. I have no idea what to do about the defence, mainly because it hasn’t been good defensively either; the Leafs are in the bottom ten in expected goals against. There probably has to be a change, but winning a trade this early into the season is tricky when everyone knows you’re trying to make one.
The last thing I want to talk about regarding the Leaf offence is the complete lack of… well, anything from the fourth line. They are getting absolutely blown off the ice at five on five with an xGF% of 19.4! I am not really sure what their identity is. They don’t create energy, they haven’t defended well, and none are particularly physical. No one expects the fourth line to light it up, but they must contribute more.
Here are a few positives I want to point out. The first is, of course, the play of Ilya Samsonov. He has been incredible, ranks fourth in the league in goals saved above expected and has won the Leafs at least one game this season. He must play as much as possible until Matt Murray gets back because Erik Kallgren is not an NHL goalie. Secondly, Rasmus Sandin! The young Swede looks excellent and has meshed well with Mark Giordano. I would like to see him get a chance on the first power play init because Morgan Rielly has not looked good this year. However, Sandin’s been skating confidently and breaking the puck out with ease. Early signs are that the contract was a steal.
The Leafs’ next eight games will make it very clear how serious this team is this season. Some easy games against the likes of Vancouver and Anaheim. But also two games against the Penguins and dates with the Hurricanes, Bruins and Golden Knights will be challenging. Who knows, maybe they’ll win em all?