The Toronto Maple Leafs Defense Is Incredibly Underrated

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 4: Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly #44 looks on against the Colorado Avalanche during the first period at the Scotiabank Arena on December 4, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 4: Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly #44 looks on against the Colorado Avalanche during the first period at the Scotiabank Arena on December 4, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Defense has been an area of concern for the Toronto Maple Leafs for quite some time. However, the Leafs defense corps is not as bad as commonly believed.

Ask any fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs the following question: “If you were GM for a day, what’s the one change you would make immediately?”

I have no doubt in my mind that 90% of the replies would be “acquire a right-handed defenseman who knows how to play in his own end.”

Sadly second and third place would probably be something like “a tough guy who can actually defend” or “Trade Nylander” (horrifying but still somehow true).

The Leafs defense is not bad, and I believe that one big move is not what the Maple Leafs need to improve their defense, and in fact, I would argue that they are well set-up for the future.

With just a little bit of patience and some minor changes at a coaching level, the Leafs defense going forward will be able to contend with even the highest-flying offense the league has to offer.

The Leafs Must Improve From Within

Another issue to consider is the salary cap.

With so much right now up in the air regarding the currently paused season, teams that are currently operating with a perilous cap situation like the Toronto Maple Leafs will have to continue to act conservatively in the unlikely, but still possible, scenario that the salary cap will go down until the league recoups some of the losses they’ve sustained from putting the season on-hold or cancelling the playoffs.

It is all but written in stone that the Leafs are not going to acquire any big-name free agents like Alex Pietrangelo, Dustin Byfuglien, or Sami Vatanen to bolster their defense without giving up more assets like important roster players, prospects, or high-round draft picks to clear space on the cap.

As it stands right now, they may have to move some players just to make room to re-sign some players on expiring contracts.

There is no debate here, to continue the success with (most of) the current roster of forwards, the Toronto Maple Leafs must improve their defense from within.

Toronto Maple Leafs Blue-Line

Except for Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, who are both expected to move on in free agency, the Leafs have a core group of young defensemen who are still developing.

For too long the modus operandi of the Toronto Maple Leafs defensive strategy has been “just get the puck to a forward or fire it up the ice and hope for the best.”

Under Mike Babcock, this paint-by-numbers style of play was so predictable that I still have nightmares over how easy it was countered: right side defender moves it to the left-side defender, who moves it up the ice, (usually via stretch pass). This set-in-stone strategy didn’t work, and furthermore, didn’t play into the strengths of the defenseman in the organization.

Puck possession is the key to Sheldon Keefe’s strategy, and it was one that brought the team success early in his tenure. In his first 15 games as head coach, the team’s Corsi For percentage (CF%) among the defense pairings alone went up by an average of 8% and the total number High Danger Chances Against team-wide reduced.

Overall, his team played much better defense than they did under Babcock, but the sample is short and the last month or so was destroyed by having – at times – over half the blue-line out with injury.

Under Keefe’s tutelage (whether in the NHL or AHL), most of the underlying numbers for defensemen who will have to play big roles going forward during the cap crunch, such as Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott, and Timothy Liljegren are good (or at least league-average) and getting better.

I posit that bringing in an assistant coach who can bring a legitimate defensive structure that plays into the strengths of the team as a whole, and more to the point, actually coach and teach these players how to be successful is the only move that needs to be made.

An Assistant Coaching Change Will Lead to Success

Dave Hakstol has done an adequate job in his role as an assistant, however, I don’t believe he’s the guy you put in charge of this particular core of defensemen (I’ll take one Bruce Boudreau please!) as teams coached by Hakstol in the past have routinely ranked among the bottom 10 in the NHL in defensive categories and penalty kill.

The Leafs under Sheldon Keefe saw their best results this season when the entire team committed to the possession game, and in doing so, boosted the overall team defense by committee. When forwards dropped back to support during breakouts and the offensive zone cycle, protecting the puck when the team had possession was the top priority and clearing the front of the net to make Freddy Andersen’s job easier was a common occurrence.

This is the beginning of a solid defensive structure like I mentioned above, bringing in a coach who will reinforce this game plan, and teach the young core how to best use their greater skills to implement that structure will net positive results.

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These young players are teachable, they’ve still got years of development potential ahead of them. There’s a saying that goes like this: show a carpenter a blueprint, and they’ll show you a house. In that same line of thinking, show these players a solid defensive structure, they’ll show you success.