Another lacklustre (good word) offensive performance and the Leafs drop their third straight.
Last season, we remember the Leafs had a pretty bad start. They were also 4-4-1 after 9 games and didn’t really have a big game until the 10th game of the season, a 4-0 win against the depleted Las Vegas Golden Knights. It feels we’re still waiting on that breakout win.
That’s not to say everything is great here and we just need to start waiting for the scoring chances to fall. That’s not completely true. We have seen an unfortunate shift way from offence with this team. Last October, when the Leafs were playing from behind, they generated 72 shot attempts per 60 minutes, 5th in the NHL. I can remember them really pressing against the Sharks and Rangers at home, and also against the Hawks before finally breaking through. So far this October, they’ve generated just 58 shot attempts per 60, 19th in the NHL.
The Leafs are a top-10 corsi team and are going to turn this around even without any changes. We know this because we’ve seen decent teams with slow starts do this. Regardless, that’s not going to be good enough for the organization. Being regulars in the playoffs and a middle seed isn’t what the team should be accomplishing with the best player in franchise history in his prime years. At this point, you’d hope that the team is perennially competing for the Presidents Trophy. They’re still a 4- or 5-game win streak away from being right back in that conversation, and we know this team has the capability to do it, but they need to generate a lot more offensively. I’d be a bit more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt if they were all over the net. The offence is very slow and methodical, and a huge departure from last season. You can still forecheck, you can still cycle, but you do need that quick strike ability and I’m not seeing it.
Now, the rational. Leafs losses tend to elicit a bit more of a hysterical reaction than when it happens to other teams. How much will we hear from the national media in the coming days of the Penguins brutal road trip through the West (they’re now 4-4-1 after being out-scored 18-6 in their last four, including dropping games in both Vancouver and Seattle). For as much heat as Justin Holl gets (I actually think he was all right against the Kings), do you remember which Kings defenceman turned the puck over twice and then failed to tie up his man on Pierre Engvall’s goal? Probably not, since the failings of the players we watch routinely are amplified, but similar mistakes on the other team aren’t. These are long seasons, and you’re going to have good weeks and bad weeks.
The Leafs are in Anaheim tonight and can still salvage this road trip with a win. They’re on the second half of a back-to-back, but are playing a team that’s looked wretched defensively to start the season and haven’t been moving the puck as close to as well as I thought they would have when rosters were set in the preseason.
Anyway, as much grief as the defensive group is going to take, I maintain that the issues on this team are strictly offensive. The PK save percentage is going to right itself. As of this writing, the Leafs are 6th in the NHL in GA/60 and 29th in GF/60.
5v5 shots and scoring chances
Here’s the biggest issue for the team right now, as noted above: the Leafs are hardly generating any offence when trailing, which is when you really need to be pressing. Now, part of that is that the Leafs don’t tend to throw the puck at the net a lot; they have a more methodical style of attack in the OZ and look to set up good shots rather than throw random point shots in the direction of the goalie. Sometimes it feels the team ought to be doing more of that, but that’s wroth keeping in mind when looking at single game corsi or expected goals. When the Leafs are able to get shots away, they’re generally of good quality. The Leafs weren’t able to get shots away in this one.
This was very similar to the game in Vegas, with the Leafs generating almost nothing off the rush or in transition. They also didn’t have any quick strike scoring chances following turnovers or offensive zone puck recoveries.
Unlike the Vegas game, however, the Kings were almost as inept on offence. They scored twice on the powerplay, and scored on Sandin’s giveaway to Fiala at the defensive blueline. The Leafs had just the one powerplay goal, and the teams traded goals off chaotic DZ sequences where neither team was able to get the puck out. Neither team really had much sustained offensive pressure, or periods of the game with the other hanging on.
If you squinted, this game could have been a 2012 Kings game rather than a 2022 Kings game.
- The first line didn’t generate a whole lot of chances, with Matthews’ only scoring chance coming late in the third period on a rebound from a Morgan Rielly shot. I think this was the first game of the season where Marner didn’t set up Matthews for a chance at 5v5.
- The second line did alright, after a bad night in San Jose. However, they didn’t have much volume, even though all five shots taken by Kerfoot, Tavares, and Nylander counted as scoring chances, they just didn’t nearly have enough zone time to wear down the Kings defence or Cal Petersen. Just an easy night for the players in white.
- Last season, the Kings were 4th in expected goals rate, per NST, but 24th in goals rate. I think the right-most column here is a good indication as to why. When the Kings started climbing up the xGF column on public websites, I watched a few of their games to try and pick up exactly why. They do shoot off the rush and they do shoot from good areas, but they do not create a lot of scoring chances from setup passes. Many of their setup passes are point shots, and they try and generate tips and rebounds. I believe that setup passes are the best way to score goals in this league; you have a much better chance of beating the goalie while he’s still moving to get into position, and the Kings don’t do enough of that. They have just three scoring chances set up by teammates in this game.
- I feel like Carl Grundstrom is due for a few more big nights against the Leafs throughout his career. I really liked him in his draft year, and I really liked him as a Marlie. He hasn’t really found a way to stick as a full-time NHLer on this lineup (he’s bounced around the bottom-six and been a healthy scratch this season) but I like his combination of strength and skill. He led the Kings in scoring chances tonight, with two, in addition to four shots.
5v5 zone entries
The Leafs controlled the entry attempts here, but were a little less efficient than the Kings, so the overall controlled entries were pretty close to even. The Leafs also had a lot of entries from defencemen, who typically enter with control less often.
That’s just as well, since like the Vegas game, the Leafs were just not able to get shots off the rush. It’s looking like the scoring chances per controlled entry number hovers around 0.6 on average in these games I track. Both teams were a ways below that Saturday evening.
At least the Leafs were able to recover a few dump-ins. The forecheck was really working, even if the team didn’t get any chances directly following those forced turnovers.
The Kings also had a high number of dump-ins recovered, and the teams roughly traded scoring chances off those shoot-ins. Despite having more volume, the Leafs weren’t really able to turn that into much of a scoring chance advantage.
- Matthews had a slightly better game than we’ve come accustomed to. A twitter thread put out by User @RinkRatReport showed that coming into this game, Matthews had the fewest controlled entries per 60 minutes among Leafs forwards, with just under 8. He had a little under 12 here (with 3 controlled entries in 15:25 at 5v5), so, positives? He also didn’t have any failed entries (the Leafs as a whole managed to avoid those, with one exception) but, as expected, the team wasn’t really able to generate much from those entries.
- Late in the game, Sheldon Keefe moved Pierre Engvall onto the Matthews-Marner line, maybe in an attempt to boost that line’s ability to transition the puck with a bit of a speed element. Engvall’s also not afraid to shoot, so maybe Sheldon was looking for a different mix. I like the idea of experimenting, particularly since Marner has been so good at gathering pucks this season it kind of renders Bunting’s usual role on the line obsolete.
- The best Leaf in terms of entries, again, was Tavares, who has been one of the best Leafs in terms of zone entries this season and it led to a handful of chances from that line.
- I haven’t really been a big fan of Gabe Vilardi prior to this season. I found him a little too slow in previous campaigns, but he’s been a revelation this year for the Kings. He’s scored a bunch of goals and has moved up onto the top line, replacing Fiala, and earned top PP minutes as well. He wasn’t slow here, all over the puck in the NZ, entered the zone in the middle of the ice multiple times with speed, and helped the team create some of the few rush chances of the game.
- Another player you may not hear of often is Blake Lizotte. He’s been cemented into the Kings 4C role since last season. He’s young, responsible, and has an great combination of awareness and speed. He’s probably not a player worth being on your fantasy team (you’d have to be in a real deep league) but you might want to learn his name before he starts showing up on those lists of “all underrated” players.
- To be expected, not a lot going on here. Sandin gave up the line 4 times on all 4 targets against, but it led to a single Kings chance. Holl had a rougher night relative to other Leafs D, allowing 5 controlled entries and allowing 3 chances (for 0.6 chances per entry) but that would be considered a good night most nights.
- Filip Kral had a real strong debut. I’ll get into it a little more in the zone exits section, but he certainly had no problems defensively (although this was a good environment for a young defenceman, with so little going on)
- Fun moment last preseason: during one of those interminable exhibition games against Montreal, Chris Cuthbert and Craig Simpson were handicapping Cole Caufield’s Calder Trophy odds. As this was happening, Caufield was on the ice, and the Leafs D at the time were Kral and Mac Hollowell, two other rookies. The Habs attempted two zone entries during that shift that sparked the conversation, and both times up the ice, Kral and Hollowell easily shut down Caufield’s line, and got virtually no credit for doing so. This isn’t to say that Kral is a Calder favourite (and Caufield has obviously progressed a lot since then) but I found it funny that two rookies made tidy work of a then-Calder frontrunner and it wasn’t really noticed. If Kral’s going to be a good NHLer, now’s the time in his development where we should start seeing him play some good games.
- The Leafs failed to make Drew Doughty pay for the 8 controlled entries he allowed, generating just 2 chances off those entries. That’s kind of been the theme on this road trip: empty calorie forays into the offensive zone. It bothers me because as a zone entry-counter, it’s tough to convince people that this stuff matters when they don’t turn the entries into any actual offence.
- Alex Edler’s career has taken a huge 180 since he went to the Kings. Remember during the covid year how slow he looked with the Canucks? Rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated. I’ve been very impressed with him the last two seasons. He’s even been forced to play up in the lineup with all the injuries the Kings had on D last season, but his lack of footspeed hasn’t seemed to be a huge issue.
5v5 exits and DZ touches
As we’d expect for a trailing team, the Leafs exited the DZ with control well. Their forwards did a very fine job, and we’ll see just below that all the players you’d want to have the puck in the DZ did well. The DZ wasn’t the problem for Toronto. They turned these exits into good entries, with either controlled entries or puck recoveries, but just failed to generate shots off them.
Both teams had a high rate of DZ turnovers. This was mostly due to one bad night on the part of one player on the Leafs. For the Kings, however, they didn’t really respond well to a very good Maple Leafs forecheck and were kind of on the ropes much of the night.
- Real tough night for Morgan Rielly. Turnovers haven’t been a common theme for him this season though, so I’ll be willing to chalk it up as a one-off.
- I saw lots of criticism about Justin Holl during this game, and while I hadn’t watched the game yet, I was willing to accept that he had another rough performance, especially since he’s been pretty poor the last few weeks. I didn’t think he was all that bad, though. He broke up a lot of scoring chances in around the net, and his puck management was fine, even if he didn’t have a lot of volume. Multiple penalties isn’t good, but he (nor any other Leafs D) wasn’t the problem Saturday. It was the offence failing to get much going.
- Kral had a couple of preventable turnovers, but they were both along the boards and away from any real danger. I thought he did well using short passes to facilitate breakouts, and he skated confidently into the neutral zone twice. It’ll take a few games for me to have a take on whether he’s a great improvement over Mete.
- Speed shows up a bit more for zone exits than it does for zone entries, and this is where Lizotte shines. I enjoy watching this guy play, except for the fact that when he’s on the ice, Brendan Lemieux is, too.
- You can see that the turnovers really affected players on all defensive pairings for the Kings. As good as Edler looked mobility wise, he had some bad turnovers, including one that directly led him to tripping David Kampf.
- Since I mentioned it above, it was Sean Durzi who had two turnovers the sequence that led to the Engvall goal, and he failed to tie Engvall up in the slot when the shot was taken.
- Did I really hand count nearly 200 defensive zone touches by the Los Angeles Kings? That’s it, time for bed.
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