One thing is certain under new head coach Sheldon Keefe: when the Toronto Maple Leafs lose, they are going to lose in dramatic fashion.
Toronto delivered one of their first real stinkers since Keefe’s Nov. 20 promotion to the big league club on Sunday night, conceding five goals in the opening 22 minutes en route to a heinous 8-4 loss.
To say that the lineup was defensively indifferent in front of goaltender Frederik Andersen – a goaltender already struggling in recent weeks – would be an understatement. And the concerns about breakdowns in defensive structure are increasing as Toronto goes through their first slump of the Keefe era.
When pressed after Sunday’s loss to the Panthers, Andersen added this to TSN’s Mark Masters: “We need to be connected through all three layers – goalie, D and forwards. That support is so huge for us to sustain pressure and not open the ice for them too much.”
Keefe has put a significant emphasis on throttling up the team’s offensive firepower since taking over. Maximizing their offensive output, by and large, has pushed Toronto out of the middle of the pack and into contention for first place in the Atlantic Division. Their 15-6-2 record (32 points) under Keefe is fourth best in the league, trailing only the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
No team is scoring more goals (4.0) then Toronto over this stretch, so the Maple Leafs continue to win games despite being a team with obvious defensive limitations. A lot of the increase in scoring is coming from the team’s big guns, too – the type of players who are going to be more likely to sustain such scoring bursts.
Most of Toronto’s forwards are up considerably in rate scoring since the coaching change, and that’s true for all four of Toronto’s core forwards. The only forward who is down in scoring to a material degree is the recently acquired Alexander Kerfoot:
Keefe’s offence, to be sure, is driving the bus. And while I think there is an interesting discussion about how much this team has to trade defensively – a team already limited defensively by personnel – to chase this type of scoring, it’s important to emphasize that they are still driving hugely favourable goal differentials in the process.
Strong defensive teams can suck the life out of a game. Strong offensive teams can outscore mistakes, and sometimes in bunches. The Maple Leafs appear to have made the decision that their path to a playoff berth and deep postseason run is one that’s keyed by their offensive excellence and less so about balanced two-way play that the team may not even be able to realize.
If you look at their trending goal differentials – which are very much in line with trended expected goal differentials – you can see that, by and large, they are well ahead of the competition. Emphasis on 5-on-5 play here:
The biggest thing to remember, even amidst a three-game losing stretch, is that teams with this type of frenetic, up-tempo, attack-at-all-times style of play are vulnerable to some high-scoring losses that can look ugly defensively. These games are just one end of the spectrum – they just tend to get a lot more attention than low-scoring, offensively devoid teams churning their way to another 2-0 loss.
It won’t, and shouldn’t, take the sting out of a loss as ugly as the Florida game on Sunday. But perspective is important. The Maple Leafs are running incredibly favourable differentials since the coaching change. For the occasional gory defensive game they’ll play, the Leafs will put two or three games together where the opposition’s futile attempt to defend all four Toronto lines will be just as pronounced.