Maple Leafs aren't nearly as weak on defense as critics claim

Maple Leafs aren’t nearly as weak on defense as critics claim

Last night, I shared my nausea over people tripping over their own feet to blast the Maple Leafs and Panthers for putting on the kind of show the NHL needs more of.

That Panthers – Maple Leafs game revived the same old complaints you’ve heard about Toronto for years now. And, at times, some of those critiques have been fair. But if you merely look at the numbers, and look past a 7-6 OT loss to a powerhouse offense that’s making historyyou’d likely conclude that the Maple Leafs aren’t anywhere near as weak on defense as many assume.

[More on that 7-6 OT loss to the Panthers]

You might even (gulp) say they’re pretty strong defensively, especially for a team that’s such a scary scoring machine.

Now, for those who love mocking the Maple Leafs, don’t fret. In the likely event that the Maple Leafs face elite first-round competition in the Lightning or Bruins, their strong overall team game might fall short anyway. Then you can lean back on whatever tired narrative you’d like. (Then maybe throw in a blue Maple Leafs Hulk image and call it a day?)

By most measures, the Maple Leafs are either solid on defense, or downright good

Truly, you can comb through almost any team-related stat for defense, and the Maple Leafs look competent. Sometimes they look very strong.

  • In volume stats like Corsi and Fenwick, the Maple Leafs rank close to the top 10 in limiting shots against at 5-on-5.
  • Their quality stats check out, too. At 5-on-5, the Maple Leafs rank ninth-best at expected goals allowed, and 11th-best at limiting high-danger chances.
  • Of course, they accomplish solid-to-good defense while creating a ton of scoring chances. They’re also tremendous on special teams. As noted last night, you won’t find many teams as balanced as the Maple Leafs appear in 2021-22.

Not satisfied? The Maple Leafs could be better on defense down the stretch, too.

If you’re especially tough to please, you may still sneer at a team being elite offensively, strong on special teams, and pretty good on defense. Well, the Maple Leafs could end up even better on defense going forward.

That’s because they added Mark Giordano at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, and Jake Muzzin returned to the lineup on Tuesday.

Sure, Giordano isn’t the Norris candidate he once was, but he’s still a viable defensive contributor. His presence makes life easier for Muzzin, who was struggling this season amid some troubling concussion issues.

Theoretically, the Maple Leafs can mix and match defensive assignments, leaning on Giordano for tough defensive work, shielding Muzzin, and also throwing out Morgan Rielly in a ton of scoring situations. A rising young talent like Rasmus Sandin, and a solid still-semi-recent addition in TJ Brodie gives them enviable depth.

To get the most out of their defense, the Maple Leafs need to make the pieces fit. Some of that may boil down to scratching the right players, and being honest about how a player is performing.

On paper, an already good defense might have been upgraded to the level of very good.

Goaltending is the real, glaring issue

So, in my opinion, defense is unlikely to be the cause of a Maple Leafs playoff letdown. Instead, a mix of these two forces loom largest.

  • The Maple Leafs might just meet a team that’s even better and / or hotter. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Bruins (first), Panthers (second), Maple Leafs (fourth), and Lightning (sixth) all rank in the top six in expected goals percentage. An early playoff exit might be more of an indictment of the NHL’s current playoff setup than a supposedly weak Maple Leafs defense.
  • If there’s an area most likely to doom Toronto, it’s the one you were likely expecting: goaltending.

In the larger view of the season, the Maple Leafs’ goaltending probably leans closer to concerning than alarming. Take this Hockey See chart, for example:

Plausibly, a solid Maple Leafs defense could climb to good, only to be undone by goaltending that went from OK / slightly below average to a genuine problem.

Uncomfortably, Jack Campbell is under a ton of pressure. There’s not much of a Plan B with Petr Mrazek out for some time, so the Maple Leafs need to restore Campbell’s confidence.

Since Jan. 1, he’s won 11 games (11-4-3) despite the .885 save percentage of a bad backup. We’ve seen much better than that from Campbell, so the Maple Leafs have to cross their fingers that he’s healthy, and confident.

At least he should have a sound defense in front of him.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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