Leafs games making you nervous? Get used to it

Photo Credit: Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY SPORTS

Going into the third period of a 2-2 game between the Leafs and Sens, I really didn’t know how things would turn out on Saturday night. It’s been easy, particularly in recent years, to fall into this feeling of believing the team coming back to tie things up will inevitably finish the job. Maybe Ottawa could. But one thing I did feel confident about was that, heading into that final frame, Toronto wasn’t done scoring.

Since dropping a game in regulation against Anaheim on December 19th, the Leafs have only scored fewer than three goals in a game one time – a 3-2 shootout win against Florida. There have been some exciting games along the way, a few quotes about “finding ways to win”, and along with all of that some stressful moments for fans, from those blown leads especially. But it appears this is what the Leafs are. They’re built to stress you out a little. 

It might seem like the Leafs are trading off a lot of defense for offense and playing a firewagon brand of hockey. And that’s true. The numbers back it up (via datarink.com).

All Situations All Situations   5v5 5v5
GF/GP (Rank)    GA/GP CF/60    CA/60   
3.10 (6th)  2.80 (12th-highest)    59.8 (4th)   60.1 (3rd-highest) 

That’s a lot of action. For some teams, trying to play this brand of hockey simply can’t work. For Toronto, especially of late, it has. But we’ll see below that they’re not totally unique.

Another way to visualize just how “fun” the Leafs are is to look at this Pace chart, curated by Sean Tierney from The Athletic. This combines all attempts, for and against, per 60 minutes. Look at where the Leafs fit in to the group. (They don’t, really).

Sheet 1

There’s a bigger conversation to be had here about whether or not this team will try to dial things back defensively (or if they even should), but right here, right now, it seems like they’re willing to just trade events and dare you to outscore them. For the last month, not many have been able to. 

The classic line that’s usually tossed out here is that “This is fun but it drives coaches crazy“, but I’m not sure that’s true. Babcock has shown to be one of the best systems coaches ever, and certainly has the ability to create a tight defensive club, but it’s most likely he recognizes the makeup of talent in this lineup and has pulled the reigns off a little. If you don’t have a top-pairing shutdown defenceman, why would you play a brand of hockey that necessitates one? Babcock is constantly quoted as saying the team has plenty of work ahead of them – and they do – but I think overall we’re looking at a situation somewhat similar to that of Mike Sullivan in his takeover of the Penguins last season. Those horses have to run.

Which brings us to the Penguins themselves. 

I think there are parallels between Pittsburgh and Toronto in the ways they’re built. [I mean, I guess if you’re going to replicate or borrow characteristics from another club, it might as well be the best one in the league.] 

Like the Leafs, Pittsburgh is another team that doesn’t mind daring you to open up the game with them (their 8-7 win against the Capitals last night being a good example of this). They rank 1st in goals-for (per game), sixth-highest in goals against, and are near the top of the overall Pace chart above. Numbers-wise they’re comparable to the Leafs in some ways, and though they have far more established talent in their lineup, you can see how the two rosters have some similarities: Balance through the top nine with a major skill guy on each line, an unspectacular defence corps (at least on paper), and obscene speed overall. It’s a nice blueprint.

As for the Leafs in this second-half stretch, I won’t expect them to all-of-a-sudden become a smothering team that shuts things down and slows the pace on either side of the puck. And that isn’t a bad thing. Are there still holes in the lineup? Of course. This is essentially the first year of the “build” portion of their rebuild. 

Blown leads and late-game collapses are frustrating, no doubt. But we should be careful about over-exaggerating the flaws in this team. Some of the reasons they make you nervous about giving up a lead are also why you can count on their ability to take them back again. 

  • Harte of a Lion

    Great read Ryan, my main concern with the type of hockey they play is that my fingernails and hair don’t grow faster as I chew them to a nub and pull it out during every game.

  • AwesomeAuston

    my main concern is having to wait 15min between highlight reel goals. absolute torture. “But we should be careful about over-exaggerating the flaws in this team.” great point. the way we’ve been rolling with machine precision and frankly World Cup Team NA speed and skill is so far removed from where we were trending under Noobnis(hopelessness and sabotage) we can’t fully accept it yet. The only way to kick off our 100th year. CUP or BUST. Playoffs minimum.

  • Stan Smith

    I have mentioned this before but I see parallels between the Leafs and the Oilers of the 80’s. I’m not saying they are as good, but their “offence first” brand of hockey reminds me a lot of them.

    As for nervous? I would say excited is more the term I would use.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      Babcock hasn’t and won’t change. If you catch any of the interviews with the rookies and some of the vets, they tell you, every practice Babcock has them working hard on defence.

      • Capt.jay

        I’ve heard the interviews. I also played a high enough caliber of hockey to know that there are countless different styles to play defense. My point was more about changing our style. I should’ve clarified.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          … Ya, I knew you understood the game well. Babcock is certainly capable of changing their style for sure. His preferred style is this top nine format. Last year after JVR went down, he was forced to go with almost three checking lines because of lack of scoring. He even admitted he made a mistake in not keeping Nylander up. Sometimes I tack on some comments for some of the guys from England and Australia who visit this site who never had a chance to play the game.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    I think some are missing Babcock’s basic philosophy to defence. He sees absolutely no reason you can not play great defence and still be a great offensive team as long as you have the players that can score. Just look at how he has worked with Kadri. Sure at the beginning before playing good defence became second nature to him his offense dropped off. But now that Kadri no longer has to think about if he is in the correct position on the ice he is able to do both quiet easily. I don’t believe Babcock has loosened the reins so much. It is more like by playing better defence we end up getting the puck back sooner and then start heading the other way.