The Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line has never recovered from the loss of Jake Muzzin.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were, at the time, able to overcome their lack of a legitimate number-one defenseman by having three low-end star players.
T.J Brodie, Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin gave the Leafs a pretty great blue-line.
Unfortunately, while Rielly is having a good season, Brodie has declined severely (he’ll turn 34 before the Stanley Cup is awarded this year) and Muzzin is now retired due to injury.
And while John Klingberg’s unplayability and injuries to Jake McCabe and Timothy Liljegren have been the talk of the town, the top of the Leafs blue-line depth-chart is what is hurting them the most. (Stats for this article do not include last night’s loss to Chicago).
The Toronto Maple Leafs Blue-Line Is Killing Them Slowly
While Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are still racking up points, their results are slightly worse, and their peripheral stats are much lower than they were at any point since Sheldon Keefe took over for Mike Babcock.
For example, with Matthews on the ice over the last three seasons, the Leafs have won 65% of his minutes, 59% of his minutes, and 65% of his minutes.
This year, they have won just 57% while his Expected Goals Percentage has dropped from 57-64% to 51%.
Basically, without goalies factoring in, Matthews and Marner have barely been playing well enough to break even.
And while the second line is playing great, their actual results are underwater. Clearly a team as deep at foward as the Leafs should be getting better results.
The reason they aren’t? Likely the blue-line.
62 different defenseman across the NHL have dressed for 300 + 5v5 minutes so far this year, and TJ Brodie has allowed the sixth most high-danger scoring chances per minute.
When it comes to Expected Goals For Percentage, the most predictive stat we have for identifying future success, five of the Leafs six defensemen are under 50%.
You can’t win many hockey games over the long-term when your blue-line sabotages the efforts of the rest of the team.
The fact that Nylander is playing as well as he is – MVP Level- and the Leafs aren’t winning his minutes is a major indictment of the team’s blue-line.
An underrated facet of Brodie and Muzzin (and even Justin Holl) was that they were all competent puck-movers, which is really what being an NHL defenseman is all about (*i.e play-driving).
The current Leafs blue-line gets hemmed in, and since they don’t move the puck like they used to, they can’t break out as well, and they then spend more time in their zone.
This is why the Toronto Maple Leafs are only 14th in puck-possession, despite that being their main strength over the last four years. They allow the 8th most high-danger chances per game.
It would be nice to think that Connor Timmins or Nikita Zadorov could address these problems, but unfortunately, all that will do is get Klingberg and Benoit out of the lineup. (all stats naturalstattrick.com).
The real problem the Leafs have is that for most of the year, Jake McCabe has been unplayable, while Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie have both had major, and most likely irreversible, declines.