Despite a 15: 6: 2 record since Sheldon Keefes took office as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he has a series of three direct losses – interrupted by 8: 4-drubbing by divisional rival Florida Panthers – some a bit nervous, like play the Maple Leafs defensively.
It has been a widespread chorus on sports talk radio for years that the Leafs have to change their defensive style of play in order to be successful in the playoffs. There is always talk in Toronto about the question of who is on the blue line and the supposed lack of defensive talent.
In addition, Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are put in the injured reserve and you have a potential recipe for disaster if everyone is right that the Leafs are down defensively trending.
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Toronto has improved significantly this season compared to recent years, but a slow start by Frederik Andersen and a sharp drop in offensive production by the entire team held them back until Mike Babcock was released. With Keefe behind the bench, the locks opened, creativity began to flow and the Leafs were once again one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league.
The way things work in hockey. Sometimes, if you aggressively push the game to an extreme level, you will compromise defensively because the risk of making dynamic, creative games is greater. Does Keefe's free-running approach to the Leafs' offensive game produce an equivalent but opposite reaction in his own zone?
To find out how the Leafs behaved defensively under Babcock, we can look at how they have played since the coach change.
Most things haven't changed defensively under Keefe. Taking into account the good things Babcock has done this year, a little more effort and a few minor improvements have resulted in a slightly better overall process for the Leafs in their own zone.
Shots and attempts to shoot from the slot area are directed slightly downwards, although shots from the high slot in the network are directed upwards, while attempts are directed downwards. This fits with the slight increase in bike chances, since the chances of the bike are mostly in the high slot area – it is difficult to penetrate the network front with a pass, because the defense is particularly concentrated, less space is available and the goalkeeper is a goalkeeper additional option to block a passage.
Away from the onslaught, the Leafs give up a little less, although they didn't really lose much when they were completely offslaught or with passes for the slot.
One area in which the Leafs on Defense seem to have changed somewhat is the number of shots allowed on the net, which have increased by more than 25 percent under Keefe.
When I saw this, I first wondered whether the Leafs before Andersen had switched to a kind of front defense and were more willing to take dangerous shots but not block them, which was the reason why his safe percentage had dropped recently ,
So I asked Steve Dangle if that was true and then I watched a video.
Steve did not believe this was the case and mentioned that the strikers are now jumping up more to hide the points. So I broken down the scanned shot data a bit more and watched another video.
While it looks bad on the surface that the Leafs deliver more screened recordings than before, they actually release fewer screened recordings from the slot. 1.17 per 60 minutes compared to 1.52 under Babcock. This area would be most vulnerable if the Leafs were in the front but couldn't block shots, and they obviously don't.
The biggest difference was in point shots where the Leafs gave up 3.98 under Keefe compared to 2.5 under Babcock, which makes sense given what Steve said about strikers' more offensive stance towards point shooters.
Under Babcock, the Leafs played the points relatively conservatively in their own zone, which gave them some time and space, since it is not very dangerous to shoot out of this zone – and instead the defensive positioning in the lower half of the zone prioritized.
If a team is very good defensively, this can force opponents to shoot more from the area, hoping to get through only pucks, which actually makes them far less effective. But the teams only used the time and space Toronto gave them under Babcock and built better games. The Leafs allowed the fourth longest attempt to shoot in the league from the periphery under Babcock, while 39 percent of their total attempts to shoot Babcock came from the slot that took 30th place.
Under Keefe, close-range shots have increased – the Leafs now allow the 10 least, as attackers put more pressure on the point shooters to force them to make quicker decisions, leaving opponents to throw the puck need the network more often. This in turn has reduced the percentage of attempts to shoot that the Leafs allow from the position to 36.5 percent. While this is still not the best place in the league, it is clearly an improvement.
Every strategic decision in hockey has a give and take, and more aggression along the blue line means that the goalkeeper loses sight of the puck with these shots. Interestingly enough, the Leafs block fewer shots than under Babcock.
Based on the data and watching a video, I have come to the conclusion that Keefe's philosophy is to make bad decisions with great force, and sometimes those bad decisions can end up in a strange rush on your team. If the puck is in the slot, it is more important for the goalkeeper to clearly recognize it than for a defender to stand in the way.
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Most of the time these are not major changes, but overall I would say that they are good and the net effect is positive. It's just that Andersen hasn't been great lately and the team still tends to isolate individual mistakes from time to time.
However, a comparison with yourself cannot tell the whole story, because in the end the question arises whether the defensive staff and the defensive strategies of the Leafs are good enough to win in the playoffs. Where do you stand as a defense team throughout the season so far and what is the comparison to previous Stanley Cup winners?
Not all of the metrics I've used are available for other years – specially screened recordings aren't available beyond last season – but based on the various defensive metrics, we can see that the St. Louis Blues is a defensive powerhouse was. They were a scary team that tried to discredit last season. Not that they had no weakness (they were a below average team to ward off the onslaught), but overall they were amazing in keeping the puck away from dangerous areas.
Because this league has a short memory, the way the blues won the Stanley Cup last season is incredibly great among fans and the media. How can you hope to beat a team like the Blues with the relatively poor league ranks that the Leafs have set up defensively? They are incredibly permeable from the high slit and especially out of the cycle.
But then go back two years and three years, and you can see that the capitals of 2017-18 and the penguins of 2016-17 weren't a big shake defensively either. Both teams did a much better job of stopping the cycle chances and stopping the slot passes, but the Leafs were better on their net front.
When we go back to 2015-16, I don't have access to data for rush and cycle opportunities, so I kept them away from the graphics, but the penguins' first cup win in consecutive wins looked very defensive closer to the blues: They were seventh, fifth, seventh and fifth in controlling inner slot shots and attempts as well as high slot shots and attempts. They also allowed the sixth smallest slot pass.
Defensive skills are absolutely a help to get to the promised land. However, we have two in the last four cup winners, whose average league rank in these metrics is nine and two at 20, while the average of the Maple Leafs appears on the 18th
Not all areas are equal here, and the Leafs should definitely try to improve their defensive structure in the high slot, but anyone who says that only large defensive teams can win in the playoffs will sell you wrong information.