Hockey fans outside of the “6ix” can see the obvious flaws the Toronto Maple Leafs have. Their defense is lacking. Their bottom-six does not seem to be producing much. They miss William Nylander, and with Auston Matthews injured their power play has been dropped down a notch.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are who we thought they were going to be — and that is not a bad thing.
The Leafs Are Who We Thought They Were Going To Be
Going into the season, even the most loyal of Maple Leafs fans knew there were going to be problems on the back end. The Leafs don’t have an elite top-pairing defenceman. Morgan Rielly is good, but he cannot do it all by himself. That being said, even for the biggest of skeptics, the Maple Leafs have been limiting their mistakes. Their biggest problem as of late has been scoring and winning at home.
From the start, fellow LWOH writer Oscar Elief and I have predicted that these would be early season issues, especially if there was an injury to a top player like Auston Matthews.
Without Matthews, the Leafs are a two-line team. That makes it easier for their opponents, like let’s say the Dallas Stars, to get the matchups they want. That has been their thorn in the side. Not that it is an excuse. With the talent Toronto has they should be playing a lot better then they have been, even if they are missing Matthews and Nylander.
It is blatantly obvious that teams have adjusted to the Maple Leafs offensive onslaught. For starters, teams are taking away the breakout pass that Toronto loves to do. By taking away the Leafs main method of creating offense, it has left them stumped when it comes to getting pucks in the zone.
Players like Mitch Marner and Jake Gardiner try to carry the puck into the zone and sometimes it works, but when it does not — and there is no one on the point — Toronto gets caught up in odd-man rushes.
It puts a lot of pressure on Frederik Andersen to come up big saves. To his credit, he has been making them. The only shots that have been beating him are the “perfect ones”.
Another issue the Leafs have is that they play to their size. They are a smaller team and there is nothing wrong about that if they can produce. That does not mean that they should play small.
The team has players that can be physical and get under their opponent’s skins. Nazem Kadri is a great example. Zach Hyman too. They should use that fiery edge to their advantage. If they can wear players down earlier in the game, that can help them out later on because that is when their speed can become a major factor.
How to fix their problems
The main thing the Maple Leafs need to get into a habit of doing is dumping and chasing the puck into the offensive zone. If they can do it like they were doing it early in the season, their chances will come. They have those big and strong players that can go in and get the puck. Look no further than Zach Hyman and John Tavares.
The stretch pass is great when it works, but when it is not clicking, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense to come up and make sure whoever is coming back on those plays does not get a quality scoring chance. The Maple Leafs defense is not good enough to handle that pressure. Sloppy passing will get (and have been) exposed. I can almost guarantee that this drives Mike Babcock nuts. It is simple things that make a big difference in the game.
In terms of the Leafs getting more physical, that will come when they can do the smaller things better. They will get the confidence to make the big hits and use their speed to capitalize on them. The key is patience and timing them right. The last thing they need to be doing is taking penalties. If they can stay out of the box and get a little more physical, look for some more ice to be opened up that the Leafs can use to do what they do best, score goals.
Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons will have you think that the Leafs problems are deeply rooted, and maybe some less noticeable ones are. That being said, the majority of their problems can be easily fixed with some minor adjustments. So calm down Leafs Nation, Rome was not built in a day. The regular season is like a fight. At some point in time, someone will have to take a punch. How they react after they get punched is what defines them.
The Leafs are way too good of a team to just drop dead. They will get their problems sorted out. No that does not mean that someone like Justin Holl will morph into a top-two defenceman. No, it does not mean that the Leafs third line magically starts scoring. All it means is that everyone starts playing a little bit smarter and start paying attention to the details. The small things matter.
Have some faith. Not all hope is lost. The Toronto Maple Leafs are who we thought they were going to be and that is not a bad thing.