Are the Blue Jackets Really Superior to the Toronto Maple Leafs Defensively?

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 21: Seth Jones #3 of the Columbus Blue Jackets defends against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 21, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Blue Jackets defeated the Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 21: Seth Jones #3 of the Columbus Blue Jackets defends against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 21, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Blue Jackets defeated the Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /
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The Toronto Maple Leafs are often cited for having bad defense.

Some people have even gone so far as to say that the Toronto Maple Leafs will lose to the Flavor Town Blue Jackets because of the Blue Jackets’ (supposedly) superior defense.

I strongly disagree that this is true, and I will do my best to prove it in the following paragraphs.

Thanks to user Hockeyluvr for inspiring this response with a comment from an earlier article.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Blue Jackets

Here is what Hockeyluvr wrote:

"When I look at the two teams, the thing that stands out to me is A) defense – Columbus is better. We might have the better defenseman, or defensemen, even, but Columbus’ whole plays better than our collection of individual parts. B) Columbus is a team that bought into their coach and plays a sound system. Leafs fell apart the last 25 games under Keefe and actually ended the year on a losing streak of 11-15."

I think this is a fair take on the these two teams for anyone who watched the hockey this year.  I just think that it’s a common misunderstanding based on narratives and goalies.

The Jackets and Leafs finished with roughly the same record, and while the Leafs were among the league’s best scoring teams, the Jackets lost Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, and still had success.

When an underdog team has success, especially after losing two elite offensive players, it is inevitable that there will be a narrative about their “great defense” and how they “bought it” to their coaches teachings.

But is this true? Or is it just a really lame hockey cliche that gets trotted out ever single time a team that should fail has success?

Let’s try to find out.

The Leafs Record Under Keefe

First, I think it’s important to establish that the Leafs are a much better team than their record indicates.

They were terrible under Babcock to start the season, and that culminated in a six game losing streak.  You shouldn’t be able to make the playoffs in the NHL if you lose six games in a row, so let’s give the Leafs some credit for bouncing back.

Under Keefe they were – in total – the 8th best team in the NHL.  Yes, they finished 11-15 in their final 25 games, but for nine of those games they were without their two best defenseman.

There were as many as six regulars out for some games, but realistically, the fact that the Leafs finished 8th under Keefe despite playing about a quarter of their total games (with Keefe) down Muzzin and Rielly should be seen as a great accomplishment.

The Leafs won over 70% of the games where Keefe coached and Rielly played.   And if injuries cost them three games under Keefe (which I think is realistic) then they would have otherwise been within inches of first overall from the time they hired him, despite getting horrible goaltending.

The Leafs Defense vs Columbus

This section will use 5v5 team stats for the whole season, including the Babcock games. (All stats naturalstattrick.com).

Shot Attempts Allowed per 60 minutes:   

Leafs 55.05  Columbus 56.06

Shots Against Allowed per 60 minutes:

Leafs 30.83   Columbus 29.35

Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes:

Leafs 2.32  Columbus 2.04

Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes

Leafs 24.89  Columbus 26.71

Dangerous Scoring Chances Against per 60 Minutes

Leafs 11.06  Columbus 8.82

Conclusion?  Columbus is slightly better defensively.  The Leafs essentially allow 2 dangerous chances more per game, leading to one goal extra, every three games.

Columbus “great coaching” and so called commitment to team defense has given them a microscopically small defensive advantage over Toronto.

But this is for the whole season.  This doesn’t include the fact that the Leafs defensive numbers improved significantly across the board once Sheldon Keefe took over.

These numbers also include a quarter season where Cody Ceci was tried as the teams top pairing right-side defensemen.

So despite the supposed complete buy-in of the Blue Jackets players to game plan of their supposedly excellent defensive coach,  and despite most people seeming to think the Leafs are absolutely terrible defensively, it turns out that there is hardly a difference between the two teams defensive performances.

If you factor in the Leafs clearly superior offense to the equation, it’s clear who the better team is.

The fact is, narratives are convenient and easy to follow, but the only actual reason the Blue Jackets had such a good season was that they finished 5th in 5v5 save percentage while the Toronto Maple Leafs finished 4th last.

I’ve often been insulted for my view that goaltending isn’t strongly linked to team defense, but if I am wrong, please explain how such a small difference in team defensive performance can explain such a large difference in the goaltending?

Next. Leafs Have Real Shot at #1 Pick. dark

In conclusion, there is no evidence to consider the Blue Jackets to be a superior defensive team.  They may be slightly better at team defense, but not enough to explain each team’s reputation.