Toronto Maple Leafs: Good Defense and Good Goaltending Are Not Strongly Linked

VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 10: Brock Boeser #6 of the Vancouver Canucks takes a shot on Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during their NHL game at Rogers Arena December 10, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Toronto won 4-1. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 10: Brock Boeser #6 of the Vancouver Canucks takes a shot on Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during their NHL game at Rogers Arena December 10, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Toronto won 4-1. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs finish in 12th place overall if the NHL season is finished.

Considering that the Toronto Maple Leafs had the 28th best goaltending in the NHL, I think a finish of 12th place is quite good.

I think that any time a team out-performs its goaltending, they are likely on track for future success.  The reason is that any team that can overcome bad goaltending is probably a pretty good team.

The Leafs are such a team, and since they are 12th while getting nearly the worst goaltending in the NHL, it stands to reason that if they got strong goaltending they would be better than 12th.

So are they capable of getting good goaltending? I think most would agree that Freddie Andersen and Jack Campbell are better than the 28th ranked combo in the NHL.

The question then becomes is Andersen just having a bad year, or is the Leafs defense to blame? Can this combo effectively be something more the 28th best goaltending tandem in hockey with this defense?

Goaltending and Defense

Maybe the Leafs aren’t the 12th place team in spite of goaltending.  Perhaps they play in a way that demands the 28th best goaltending.  This wouldn’t be a stretch either, since they clearly do make sacrifices on defense in order to try and score more.

But how would we know?

How would we know if the Leafs are in 12th place because of their goalies, or if they are in 12th place because they play bad defense that leads to bad goaltending?

We would have to know if defense and goaltending were linked, or independent.

I believe that goaltending and defense are not strongly linked. That strong defense doesn’t mean you’ll get strong goaltending.

Now clearly there is some relationship – it’s logically easier to score on a break away than against a defense.  But I don’t believe it’s as strong as we would like to think.

Hockey is a poorly designed game in that one player, the goalie, has way more control over the outcome of the game than all the other players combined.  This is especially true at the NHL level where all the players are amazing, and you only need the top 30 goalies in the entire world.

If an NHL team played an OHL team , but the OHL team had the best goalie in the world, having the best game of his life, he would still probably lose.  The NHL team would control 100% of the play and it would be an onslaught.

However, no team in the actual NHL is that bad. Even in a Senators vs Lightning matchup, the Senators will still win three or four times out of ten, on average.

In the real NHL I don’t believe there’s ever an extreme enough defensive deficiencies to impact goaltending all that much.

I think if we look at the stats, it becomes questionable how much goaltending and defense are linked.

I sent this idea out into the world and one reply said that  ” That might be the stupidest opinion I’ve ever heard about any sport.”

I admit it is a counter-intuitive concept,  but I think we see enough goalies in the NHL keeping bad teams afloat (often even winning Cups or going far in the playoffs) that it suggests that goaltending is more independent of defense than it would at first seem.

Goaltending and Defense Not Strongly Linked

You would assume goaltending and defense to be strongly connected, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Prior to the start of any season, we can look at rosters and coaches and make a fair guess at who will be the best defensive teams. This doesn’t work for goalies though, as no one can predict who the best goalies will be in any given year. If goalies were strongly linked to team defense, they should be equally as easy to predict.

But you can’t predict goalies like you can predict position players. Every year it seems there are several star goalies who fall off, and several no-name goalies who come out of nowhere to become stars (sometimes only briefly).

It’s almost assured that if healthy, Connor McDavid won’t have a season where he is hurting his team.  The same can’t be said for the likes of superstar goalies like Freddie Andersen, Sergei Bobrovsky, Carey Price, Matt Murrary etc.

Meanwhile, who could have predicted the play of Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikens, Jordan Binnington or Ilya Samsonov?

If goalies were dependent for success on the defense in front of them, I think we would be able to predict who the best goalie would ever year with a lot more accuracy.  In point of fact, no goalie has won the Vezina Trophy back-to-back since the NHL and the WHL combined in the late 1970s.


The Top Five teams in the NHL with the lowest shots against per minute:

St. Louis, Boston, Philly, Vegas, L.A

The Top Five teams in the NHL with the lowest high-danger chances against per minute:  Minnesota, Columbus, Boston, Tampa, Pittsburgh.

Now here are you five best team save percentages:  Boston, Dallas, Arizona, Columbus and Colorado.

Only one team makes all three lists (Boston).  Only two teams that allow the lowest amount of shots or dangerous chances appear on the best save percentage list. (Boston, Columbus).

Now if what I am proposing was “one of the stupidest things ever” then I think you’d see a lot more crossover.


The Jets are 31st in allowing high danger chances, they are 9th in save percentage.

The Blackhawks are 30th in high danger chances, and the Islanders are 27th, and they get the 8th and 10th best goaltending respectively.

If you ask any random fan to name you three of the best defensive teams in the NHL, chances are they’ll base their assessment on goaltending, and say Arizona, Dallas and the Islanders.  These are three teams with rock-solid defensive reputations.

In reality, they are bad defensive teams getting excellent goaltending.

Since Sheldon Keefe took over coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs, they allow roughly the same high-danger chances per game as Dallas does, while allowing less than Arizona or the Islanders.

During this time, Dallas has the 2nd best goaltending, while Arizona has the 7th.  The Toronto Maple Leafs rank 24th.

A few anecdotal stats don’t constitute absolute proof.  I am well aware.  In order to prove how much defense impacts goaltending, you would need to study many years of NHL hockey.

I do, however, suggest there are enough examples from this season alone to at least question the idea.  (All stats

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In my opinion, if you’re going to judge the Toronto Maple Leafs of this season, and the job that Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe have done, in order to be fair you have to consider that they have greatly outperformed their goaltending, which is something (given Andersen’s history) they can expect to be better in the immediate future.