Has The Leafs’ Defense Really Improved?


Feb 2, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer (34) keeps his eye on the action in front of him against the Boston Bruins at the Air Canada Centre. The Bruins beat the Maple Leafs 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

If you have been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan for any significant amount of time in the last 40 years, chances are you are probably fairly pessimistic and sceptical at this point. Whenever something seems to be going well, you just can’t help but think there is a train wreck coming somewhere close behind.

That’s why no one could blame Leafs nation if they are questioning Toronto’s seemingly improved defensive play. The Leafs finished last year with the 29th best goals against average at 3.16, only Tamp Bay was worse, but so far this year they sit 18th and have lowered their number to 2.88. It looks like they are much better as a team in the defensive zone, but there is evidence to suggest otherwise.

One of the biggest signs of a good defensive team is how they limit their opponent’s shots on goal. In 2011-12 the Leafs were giving an up an average of 28.65 shots per game, and so far in 2013 they have dropped that number to 27.83 a contest. That is a slight improvement, but bettering their totals by less than a shot a game is hardly a significant change.

These next stats from DobberHockey.com’s Frozen Pool section are a little more telling. The feature has a tool that averages out the distance of the shots on goal a particular team is giving up. Last season the shots against for the Leafs were from an average distance of 35.69 feet, which was right around the middle of the pack in the NHL. This year, however, that number shows 34.06 feet, which is good enough for fourth worst in the league. So essentially, the degree of difficulty of shots on goal Toronto is giving up is actually worse now than last season.

So how has Toronto bettered its goals against this year you ask? Well the answer is simple: improved play from their goaltenders. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the bad goals the Leafs are no longer giving up. In 2011-12, Toronto’s goalies were awful against shots from 30-45 feet. Shots from that distance are saves your goalies have to have in order for your team to have a chance to win. James Reimer had a save percentage of .922 on shots from that distance, which ranked 30th in the league. In fact, Jonas Gustavsson was even worse at .896, ranking 33rd in the NHL. Need I remind you there are only 30 teams, meaning Gustavsson’s numbers were even behind some backups.

In 2013 things have been a different story. Reimer is boasting a .974 save percentage and has given up just a single goal on shots from 30-45 feet. Those numbers are tied for fourth best in the NHL. As much as Reimer has been making big saves, his real contribution may have been eliminating bad goals. He is at least giving the Leafs a fighting chance on a nightly basis.

Some squads have the skill to bounce back from giving up a bad goal, the Maple Leafs, however, are not one of those teams. They simply don’t have the firepower to overcome them, and they are not strong enough defensively to then shut the door going forward. Not to mention those types of goals can really rattle a young team like Toronto when it comes to confidence. Exhibit A would be the goal Ben Scrivens allowed against the New York Islanders when he whiffed on a glove save from a significant distance. A strong start by the Leafs quickly ended up in a 7-4 defeat, as the life went out of the team when Scrivens couldn’t make a routine stop.

It has been said in recent years that the Leafs need to upgrade their goaltending and find someone who can “win” them games. Maybe they just need someone between the pipes who won’t lose them.