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An Opinion and Analysis: [email protected]

Can the Leafs win the Cup in 2020? In a few words … unlikely, but possible with significantly improved defensive play delivered by the addition of a few new defensive specialists for the 3rd and 4th lines and improved defensive play from the top 2 lines. Currently under Keefe the Leafs give up about 2.8  goals per game, the 7th best in the league but score around 4.2 per game which is very good. The 2.8 against needs to be improved.

Will the Leafs make the playoffs with the roster they have now?  Yes, in my opinion.

The Leafs have done very well so far with Sheldon Keefe with a 15 – 5 – 1 record but they have only beat 3 teams who were more than 10 games over 500 in these 21 games. And they have lost to teams with poorer records. Still a very good turnaround so far under Keefe, placing them among the top 10 teams right now.

With the above suggested defensive improvements, the team should be able to compete well against the top teams. The team could have 2 lines and 4 D (Nylander (+5), Matthews (+16), Engvall (+7), Marner (+3), Tavares (-1), Hyman (+7), Reilly (+4), Barrie (-4), Holl (+16) and Dermott (+10) to effectively play a superior high risk offensive speed and puck possession style, and 2 shut down lines and D.  The offensive style 10 players would be expected to be a cumulative plus on the 5 on 5 Plus/Minus measure against the top teams and the 3rd and 4th lines would expected to be even on their cumulative Plus/Minus.

The PP goals for would be expected to be much more than the PK goals against, mostly delivered by the #1 PP unit. The PP % now is 35%+ and the PK is around 82% or giving up goals 18% of the times on opposition PP’s.

But the Leafs do not have the shut down lines or defensive play now to move into the top 2 or 3 teams, and worse the 3rd and 4th lines with overall average offensive skill sets seem to be playing the same high risk offensive puck possession style( e.g. 3 down low in the offensive zone, not a more conservative defensive style with F3 high. And defencemen playing with these lines are not for the most part stay- at-home.

Keefe has and probably will continue to make the team, as is, much better offensively, barring more injuries, but not good enough defensively with the current players to offset goals against with goals for against the best teams to win the Cup.

Why? In Part 2 of this article we will explore specifically what currently is being done well by the team, what isn’t, and how other teams will adjust to the Leafs new style leaving behind sports media rhetoric like the need to continue to work harder and smarter, more compete, manage the puck better, execute better, harder grinding with the lead, be more purposeful and intelligent with the puck, and so on. Very general and not very helpful commentary. No hockey detail when many of the issues causing goals against lie in the details right now, plain and simple.

So, the Leafs are being held back from being a Cup contender in part because only less than ½ the team has above average NHL skill sets to play with the superior offensive speed and puck possession skill or puck retrieval skill that would effectively outscore top level opponents like Boston (Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Tavares, Kapenan, Engvall, Reilly, Barrie, Hyman and Holl (the latter 2 have superior puck retrieval/protection skills). Some would argue that Kerfoot and should be in this category. But to me he is an average NHL skilled not superior skilled offensive players in my opinion because he doesn’t have a consistent scoring touch, superior passing or puck retrieval skills.

Many of the most highly skilled offensively leaning players also lack enough physicality, toughness (mental and physical), grit, defensive discipline, defensive hockey IQ, core strength and reach to play both offensive and defensive styles when needed at superior levels (e.g. Nylander). If the whole team had these superior offensive speed and puck possession skills that would dominate top level opponents, we could win simply outscore any opponent and defensive lapses could be overcome with so much offence. But the entire Leafs team now does not possess these superior offensive skill sets. Only about 8 or 9 players do.

So, what’s a possible solution?

 One style of play is needed with the puck and the another additional style besides speed is needed when we don’t have the puck, particularly when the puck possession style is so high risk leaving players, particularly defencemen out of defensive position when we lose the puck in the offensive zone with 4 players down low trying to score. Players get out of defensive coverage positions way more easily in this high risk style. Deadly, particularly if lines 3 and 4 play with the defencemen consistently playing very offensively without the scoring productivity to justify this high risk style.

Yes, defensively you need the speed to hound the puck and to catch or cover or strip the puck from the opposition, but that’s not all you need to win many more puck battles than the Leafs do now, to be in the best defensive position and to prevent odd man rushes.

Many players who excel at playing a high level puck possession game and have superior speed and offensive skill to “light the light” as Sam Pollock used to say while winning many Stanley Cups in Montreal, but these players most often do not have enough defensive mind set or physicality or coverage or stick skills to play the defensive style well when the other team has the puck (e.g. play more stick on puck, prevent more shots, block more shots, anticipate/stop more dangerous opposition plays, don’t get beat 1 on 1, win more 25-75, 50-50 or 75-25 puck battles).

 In a few words, these type of players are not hard to play against when the opposition has the puck. These offensive minded players have been that way ever since pee wee and it has been largely accepted because they are so talented offensively. They score more than they give up.

 Any coach who tries to change/teach added defensive skill sets to these stars has a tough change management task on his hands that will take a long time to effect, if ever. Keefe needs to find out early if all who need to improve their defensive skill sets will buy into playing less offensively and more defensively when we don’t have the puck or when it is loose. If some players will not, Dubas may have to make the necessary trades. Otherwise, the team’s goals against average will not come down.

So, let the top 2 lines focus on what they do best … score goals… and gradually improve slightly defensively and at the same time recontruct lines 3 and 4 as defensive shut down lines. That doesn’t mean play the 2-3 or 1-4 traps all the time with no aggressive forecheck at the right time or dump and chase all the time.

To get there, understand that players like Spezza (- 3), Timashov (+1), Kapanen (+1), Kerfoot(+1), Moore (-1) and Muzzin(+8) (who turns over way too many pucks in the Dzone) may all need to be trade bait when healthy for defensive minded forwards  and defencemen with size and reach and edge who can handle a puck and do not make as many defensive turnovers, coverage mistakes or lose as many puck battles.

Now, in PART 2, I will get way more specific in hockey terms about what I think the Leafs current strengths and weaknesses are.