More Offence Needed: Maple Leafs Style Limits Success Potential

Jan 27, 2024; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe looks on in the
Jan 27, 2024; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe looks on in the / James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the most talented rosters in the NHL, but they play the same basic strategic game as every other team.

Now, I'm exaggerating a lttle bit, but not that much. Each team has various stylicstic tics, but no team is obviously divergent in the style they play. That isn't saying much, this is probably true in most pro leagues (since people who are the best and who are succeeding but whose jobs are pretty much always on the line, have liltte incentive for inovation) but I don't think that should preclude us from talking about it.

While any hockey-nerd can explain the variations in systems between teams - most, if not all, NHL teams play a conservative-leaning mixture of a hybrid game that is defensively responsible and seeks to exploit mistakes for offense. Some teams carry the puck more than they dump it in, but there are no high-risk high-reward teams in the NHL right now.

I submit that this style of play helps teams with less talent, and hurts teams with more talent.

More Offence Needed: Maple Leafs Style Limits Success Potential

Colorado and Edmonton and Toronto are more fun to watch because they have great players, but I really feel like the traditional non-innovative nature of the NHL holds them back.

Run-and-Gun hockey gets a bad rap because the heart of the game is the romantic ideal about hard-work, determination and getting it done despite not being the most talented player. This romantic ideal is personified in shot-blocking, playing while hurt, fighting, lost teeth, and defense.

I submit that a purely offensive team is almost offensive to the people who still act as the gatekeepers of this sport. And yet, I think the first team to dress 12 offensive forwards and six puck moving defenseman and to care zero-percent about size or toughness will absolutely dominate the NHL

The goal of the game is to outscore the other team, and most people in hockey team goal scoring like a secondary concern. In the NHL, all one-goal games are pretty much a coin-flip, and the team winning after two periods wins an astounding percentage of the time. The games are so heavily goalie-dependant that it almost takes a willful suspension of disbelief to care about the outcome of a regular season game.

A team willing to play all-out offense would obiously kill it in the NHL because of the randomness of goaltending. Unless three or four of the 60-something goalies in the league are involved in a given game, it doesn't even really matter who the goalies are, as there will be a 50% chance you have the best goalie in any given game. This isn't true in sports like football and baseball where there isn't so much parity at the QB or Pitcher positions.

If there is a 50% chance you have the best goalie, then as long as you play in a way as to have the most scoring chances in more than 50% of your games, you will have a winning season. And that's just if your team is average. If you have multiple elite players, like the Leafs do, you can play a much riskier game and get away with it.

It is not. uncommon in the NHL for the team's 4th best defenseman to skate as much as their superstar forwards. Teams will play their best player for 2 mintues on the power-play, tire him out, then skate their worst players more when the game goes back to 5v5. The problem is that when there are an even amount of players on the ice, elite players have a bigger advantage than they do when there is a power-play, and thus more room, and every offensive player gets a huge bump.

But beyond those examples, the stupidest thing about NHL games today is that coaches aren't thinking in terms of "how can I get Auston Matthews 15 shots in this game?" This is backwards because you want to maximize the advantage you have, and the more shots Matthews gets, the better chance of winning.

The bizarre thing about hockey is that teams play in a way that favors less talented players. The majority of the time Auston Matthews is on the ice, he's limiting his offensive game so that he can play a defensivly responsible two-way game. He's very good at this, but it takes a lot more defense to equal a goal than I think most people realize. IT would be better if he scored more and was worse defensively. And he scores a ton already. But anyone can play defense, not everyone can score like he does.

Teams need to run and gun. Matthews is going to outscore whoever he trades chances with, so why waste his talent playing a two-way game?

Or what about players like Max Domi and Nick Roberstson? They have tons of trouble being effectivce NHL players because they are bad at playing a two-way game, yet they have elite offensive talent. If NHL coaches were so concerned with turning everyone into a prototypical two-way player, the coach could weaponize the talents they have and use them accordingly. Instead coaches basically never do this, but waste rare talent to play the game in a safer way.

There are players in the AHL who are more talented than most players at the bottom of every NHL roster, but they can't play in the bottom-six of an NHL team because they don't fit the profile of prototypical third-liner, and can't make any team's second line.

The Leafs have a bevy of highly talented offensive players, and they have players like Domi and Robertson who excell offensivley but can't really play the kind of all-round game the NHL demands of its players.

Obviously being a well-rounded player is optimum, but demanding that from every player - which NHL teas regularly do - might cause you to miss out on a player with an elite skill.


Given the talent on the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's really quite ridiculous that you can't watch a game they play and notice that they take significantly more chances and play in a different way than other far less talented teams.