Toronto Maple Leafs Success Isn’t Because of Good Defense

Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in first place in the NHL.

The  Leafs season so far has been excellent – they are on pace to be one of the best regular season teams in NHL history.  The best team in NHL history – if you account for the existence of a salary cap which increased parity and made it hard for good teams to pad their record – is the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lighting, whose .780 points percentage is currently being bested by the 2021 Toronto Maple Leafs.

One reason the Leafs are doing so well is because of the insane play of their two best players, another is their ridiculous league-best depth, and another is their goaltending.   The defense is getting all the credit, however.

The narrative that is dominating right now is that this Leafs  team finally learned to play defense, and so they are finally winning.

But like most NHL narratives, this one is a little too convenient, and looking into it proves it’s pretty much 100% inaccurate.  The Leafs have improved their defense only slightly, and certainly not enough to account for moving from 24th to 3rd in 5v5 save percentage.

Toronto Maple Leafs Defense About the Same As Last Season

In the NHL, it goes without saying that teams who get good goaltending win.  The goalie is the most important player on ever team, and if we were to give the Hart Trophy to the actual most valuable player, it would go to a goalie every season.

Connor McDavid has been the NHL’s best player for at least the last three seasons.  In each of those seasons a goalie was more valuable than the NHL’s best player.  The problem with goalies, and the reason there isn’t a goalie who is considered on McDavid’s level is because goalies are unpredictable.

We know that each season there will be a goalie who helps his team win more than McDavid (or Crosby, or whoever the best player is) but we never now which goalie that will be.  Position player performance is far easy to predict that goalies.

Now that wouldn’t be true if goalie performance was based mostly on defensive performance.  I’m not saying that good defense doesn’t lead to good goaltending, but I am saying that the relationship is far more complicated than people think.

Last year I wrote so many articles about how the Leafs were putting up decent enough defensive stats, but getting sabotaged by their terrible goaltending. It didn’t matter, the narrative was that the Leafs had bad defense.

I pointed out that teams with reputations for good defense – the Coyotes, the Blues, Stars and Islanders – were not preventing a lot more high-danger scoring chances than the Leafs.

And I will do it again right now, but using the Leafs last year and comparing them to the Leafs this year. What you will see is that there is nothing that explains the Leafs massive goaltending improvement.

The following stats are for the Leafs last season under Sheldon Keefe, compared to the Leafs this season.  The stats are all rate stats per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice-time.  I will list last year’s stats first and this year’s second.  Remember that it takes more than one game to get 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time. *all stats

Shot attempts/60:  55.68 vs 53.67.  I do not think that two less shot-attempts every four periods is really going to make a huge difference in goalie performance.

Shots/60: 30.73 vs 28.98  – This year’s Leafs are preventing just over one shot extra per game.

Expected Goals/ 60:   2.33 vs 2.25.  If we could  take luck out of the equation and work with a large enough sample size, the Leafs this year vs last year would be pretty the same defensively.  They would be expected to allow 0.08 less goals this season for roughly every four periods of hockey.

Scoring Chances / 60:  27.50 vs 26.54 – the supposedly great new defense is allowing less than one less scoring chances every four periods or so.

Dangerous Chances / 60: 11.14 vs 10.6 – the narrative is that this version of the Leafs is allowing a lot less chances off the rush – but assuming that those are getting picked up in the dangerous chances category, this simply isn’t true.

As you can clearly see by the evidence, last year’s team (under Keefe) and this year’s team are pretty much the same in terms of their defensive performance.  This year is slightly better, and that is probably owed to the team not having to play so many of their games without both Rielly and Muzzin, as well as the addition of T.J Brodie to the team.

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The point here is that NHL goaltending fluctuates wildly. The Toronto Maple Leafs have slightly improved their defense, but nowhere near enough to explain their 5v5 save percentage rising from 24th to 3rd.