Toronto Maple Leafs playoff autopsy: Part 2 – Offence and lack thereof

It’s been a busy week or so, let’s cut through it a little and see what lessons we can learn.

Before the Internet, fathers could tell their children anything and they’d believe it. My Dad was as big of a sports nut as me in his day, and I learned all about Dick Irvin and Danny Gallivin through him, as well as Howard Cosell.

Cosell is a legend that has spawned impersonators even after the end of his career and his life. A Futurama gag involves Rich Little’s preserved head calling a boxing match as Cosell, who routinely called Muhammad Ali’s matches.

My Dad once told me about an interview done towards the end of Ali’s career, and kept repeating a line that Cosell supposedly said to Ali after losing a fight: “You’re over, you’re done with, you’re finished, you’re through. Where do you go from here?” to which Ali supposedly responded to Cosell with “Thanks for the plug, Howard.”

I’ve never found any evidence of that line ever being spoken by Cosell, even if you could read both sides of the exchange in both people’s voice. The line, which may have just been an invention of my Dad, who had a friend impersonate a line by Cosell that stuck with him as an actual memory (or, maybe this was a real line used by Cosell and I just can’t find the interview despite all my searching), has an appropriate context in sports. At some point, every team of every team, dynasty or not, passes its peak and starts to come down to earth. The Kyle Dubas Era of the Leafs is over, done with, finished, and through, and the question on everybody’s minds is: where do they go from here?

Before going on, please read Part 1 of this playoff autopsy, focusing on team speed.

This is the first of two pieces I’m planning to write this holiday Monday about the Leafs offence. The second one, hopefully published in the Athletic, will be a little bit more general. This first one is just going to be me working through my thought process to identify what the hell went wrong for the Leafs in the postseason.

The Leafs made a three-goal, third period comeback in Game 4 against Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Since that game, they didn’t even score three goals in a single game, let alone a span of ten minutes. Both of their wins were 2-1. They lost thrice by a 3-2 score and twice by a 4-2 score (though one of those games featured a very late empty netter: that game was 3-2 by a more logical measure).

So where did the offence go? The simple thing to say is that the series was stolen by Sergei Bobrovsky, who stopped 164 of 174 (94.3% save percentage all situations), especially as Bobrovsky has gone on to stop 100 of 103 shots over the first two games of the Carolina series (97.1% save percentage), both games being one-goal victories.

While there’s an element of truth to that, I don’t necessarily buy it. The Hurricanes offence is primarily built around the attackers gaining the puck in the offensive zone, going low-to-high, and trying to find a screened point shot. While those shots do add up and contribute to a team’s expected goals percentage, the Hurricanes don’t do much to pass the puck around the zone and open up seams. The Panthers (and Lightning) did a great job shutting the Leafs out from doing that, and we’ll get to some data below showing it.

First, let’s look at the team’s total scoring chances. These are the chances that are manually tracked by me, Any shot is a scoring chance if it meets one of a few conditions, which I spell out in the Glossary page.

These scoring chance numbers are going to deviate a bit from what’s found on public websites, because there’s a focus on pre-shot puck movement, rush chances are more accurately captured, and defensive positioning is considered (a goal is less likely to go in if a defensive player closes is on the shot to take away some part of the shooting lane, even if the player gets the shot away on net).

Below, I’ve compared the Leafs goals for rate at 5-on-5 (thanks to the data found at Natural Stat Trick) over four different periods of time: the regular season against weak competition, the regular season against strong competition (I made it simple: any of the other Final 8 teams was considered stronger competition), Round 1 against Tampa Bay, and Round 2 against Florida. I’ve compared the goals rate to the rate of scoring chances and expected goals found at that website, and compared it to my own tracking:

G/60xG/60*SCF/60* CC SCF/60
Reg. szn (weak comp)2.83.03322
Reg. szn (strong comp)2.92.72919
Round 1 vs. TBL2.72.42616
Round 2 vs. FLA1.72.82815
* – indicates data is from Natural Stat Trick

So, there’s a pretty significant drop in scoring chances in my own tracking from the regular season to the playoffs, that isn’t as obvious when looking at expected goals or scoring chances at the public sites. This isn’t a knock on NST, of course. As I’ve said many times, the NHL does a terrible job with its data and play-by-play and doesn’t give the public a whole lot to go on. The available models generally do the best they can do with the information given, but it’s incomplete because the NHL is intent on being run like a minor league and doesn’t give its fans enough information to properly research the game.

Back to it, though, and while my regular season tracking is incomplete (I gave up a couple of games after the trade deadline) and I don’t have a way to show whether the team was actually worse in the late stages of the regular season, there’s enough evidence to suggest that Leaf players weren’t testing goalies enough in the playoffs: the Leafs had 28% fewer scoring chances in the playoffs than they did in the regular season against weak opponents, which is to be expected, but were 18% worse in the playoffs than they were against the good teams. What’s going on here?

Let’s look at the scoring chances per 60 breaking down each shot type:

There are three notable things I find in this chart, to be honest:

  • Rush offence and forecheck was pretty consistent throughout the season in all four segments. “Rush” shots are shots within six seconds of a controlled entry and 11 seconds of a zone exit. The Leafs were pretty good about getting up the ice for scoring chances even against the Panthers, even if I thought they looked quite slow, as I covered in Part 1.
  • There was a HUGE drop in transition chances in the playoffs compared to the regular season. Transition chances are those that come within six seconds of a zone entry, but not within 11 seconds of a zone exit, indicating that the team could have gotten the puck in the neutral zone by a variety of other ways.
  • Cycle chances also dropped, and that’s what I want to focus on. The Leafs saw their number of cycle chances decline linearily as the competition increased. “Cycle+” chances include chances off the cycle, as well as scoring chances that came when the puck was in the offensive zone for more than six seconds following an entry or more than ten seconds following a faceoff.

I don’t know where to begin with breaking down transition chances versus cycle+ chances as to which was more important in costing the Leafs offence in the playoffs. I think I’d like to focus on the cycle, though, since that speaks to some actual problems in creating offence that have gone unexplored on this website. The lack of transition opportunities speaks more to the idea that the Leafs did a poor job of countering Florida or Tampa’s mistakes with speed, rather than because they did a poor job creating offence once they had the puck in the offensive zone.

A key thing to know is that in the regular season, the Leafs turned 34% of their cycle shots into scoring chances, which is way higher than the average I tracked for other teams, which was just 27%. Still, in the playoffs, the Leafs turned just 25% of their cycle shots into scoring chances against the Lightning (they did re-imagine their offence around Andrei Vasilevskiy’s weaknesses, however) but just 18% against the Panthers. They were still getting lots of zone time and taking shots, but weren’t being selective enough with their shots.

Their passes weren’t getting across and the shots they did take weren’t preceded by puck movement: in the regular season, 53% of cycle shots were preceded by puck movement, compared to just 44% in the playoffs.

One thing I check is also the elusive “chances at chances”. I count shots that are attempted but disrupted around the net (because a pass was blocked or the shot was suppressed before it was taken, or if it was just whiffed on by the shooter). As a result, I have a basic “pass completion percentage on setup attempts to the slot” metric available to me.

The samples are too small too read too much into it at an individual level, but it’s worth noting that Marner, who was by far the best Leaf when it came to scoring chance assists in the regular season, especially off the cycle, completed 57% of his pass attempts for a chance in the regular season (team average 58%) but completed just 1 of 3 attempts in the playoffs, 33%. The Leafs lost both volume and quality when it came to cycle attempts, spending less time trying to make passes across the slot and more time wasting time with outside shots.

Perhaps they were a bit gun shy from the way that the Panthers closed down the crease, but the Leafs did have lots of zone time and failed to really create much out of it.

Let’s look at a couple of sequences in Game 5 overtime against the Panthers, both William Nylander-adjacent. The first is off a neutral zone turnover, Nylander breaks into the zone and the Leafs don’t get a shot off the initial rush, as they don’t have numbers. Watch what happens next:

This is a play where, to me, Ryan O’Reilly needs to make a better decision with the puck. Rather than just slam the puck towards the opposition’s net (and Nylander is in no position to receive that pass for a shot), O’Reilly, after the turnover, would have been better off to feed a pass to John Tavares on his right side and potentially get a more coherent attack going.

The second play leads to a shot, but a more dangerous one was potentially lost on the table. Calle Jarnkrok, who had a poor series, made a good puck recovery here, but the Leafs don’t take advantage of the space left by the Panthers defenders here, who are really taking away the slot from the Leafs:

Jarnkrok, as a right shot covering the right side of the ice, is never in a good position to quickly release the puck even if he gets it on his blade. A better option would have been to go to the far side of the net and at least draw another Panther in his direction. That would have opened up Timothy Liljegren to receive a pass and possibly take a downhill wrist shot with all five Panthers defenders tied up in front.

As to why Nylander didn’t attempt a pass to the front of the net, well…

…it feels like that’s what the Leafs were looking at for most of the series. Florida ignored winning the puck possession battle to collapse around Bobrovsky. If you ignore the fact that Nylander has to feet a pass through Radko Gudas, to a stick that’s tied up by Sam Reinhart, and then Tavares has to somehow get the puck past Anton Lundell before it reaches the net, it’s a pretty standard bang-bang play off a cycle that I was talking about.

So that’s a thing I noticed. The Panthers essentially took away a core weapon for the Maple Leafs, leaving them unable to whip pucks to the front of the net, and Leafs forwards weren’t able to make the proper adjustments to get them flat-footed. Attacking off the cycle was a big reason the Leafs had some offensive success in the regular season, and they weren’t able to carry it over to the playoffs, leading to more shot attempts from the perimeter.

Bobrovsky played well, but you also have to credit the Panthers defence for shutting down those passes, too.

Programming note: for those of you who purchased subscriptions, I appreciate it a lot, but I would advise you to cancel those subscriptions. If you’re interested in supporting this work financially, there’s still a donation form at the bottom of the “About” page, but I have no interest in continuing to stress myself out by getting timely, valuable information out to a hundred or so subscribers rather than writing at my own pace. I appreciate those that subscribed and kept me going throughout the year, but I will no longer post any subscriber-only content, instead focusing on nuanced, balanced analysis of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.

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