Toronto Maple Leafs Put In Poor Defensive Effort


John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the worst defensive minded teams in the NHL and yesterday they proved it. A 6-0 loss to the bottom feeding Columbus Blue Jackets is bad, but what makes it worse is how each goal was scored.

Outside of the second and maybe the third, every goal was completely the fault of one defenceman…or both.

The game was a microcosm of a bigger issue with the Leafs, a young and mistake prone defence combined with a lack of any control when it comes to taking penalties.

The Jackets first goal was caused by a blown coverage by Jake Gardiner. Cody Franson was the other defenceman on the ice, but it was Gardiner going around the wrong side of the net and leaving his man all alone that cause the goal.

Columbus’ third goal was a two on one after Mark Fraser made a bad pinch on the blue-line. Morgan Rielly played it pretty well and Reimer truthfully should have had it, but without the bad pinch this play doesn’t happen.

The fourth goal, and by this point the game is pretty much over, was a powerplay shot from the point. What makes that bad? All four Leafs were below the hashmarks. That’s not as indicative of poor play from Phaneuf and Gunnarson but the forwards on the ice, who in this case were McClement and Smithson – the Leafs supposed ‘defensive specialists’. Also for the record, it was Gardiner in the box at the time.

Why did I mention Gardiner on the fourth goal? Because he was the cause of the fifth goal. Another bad pinch at the blue-line left a two on one for Gunnarson to deal with. Gunnarson then failed to take away the passing lane, he didn’t even have his stick in it, and the next thing you know the Leafs are getting blown out by one of the worst teams in the league.

Goal six was a three on two with Gardiner and Gunnarson on again. Gardiner committed to the wrong side, freeing up the man he was supposed to be covering, who promptly scored. The pass again came through the middle of the ice with neither defenceman in the passing lane. You could also blame Reimer for this as he was deep in his crease, but frankly by this point the game was over and Reimer had had no help all game.

The Maple Leafs have made an impressive habit of winning games where they get outshot this year, sometimes brutally. That’s because elite goaltending can cover for a lot of mistakes. Coming into the game Reimer led the league in save per centage.

Reimer was average this game. One goal was simply a scramble in front and those goals will happen. Another two Reimer possibly could have, or should have, had. That still leaves three goals given up directly by the Leafs defence.

To win when the Leafs play like that you’d need to score four goals and that’s just not going to happen every game. Almost every goal the Leafs had no forward help or were trying to kill a penalty.

With the exception of Phaneuf, the Leafs defencemen are either young (Rielly-19, Gardiner-23) or don’t have many NHL games (Ranger-270, Fraser-143, Gunnarson-224). Even in the case of Ranger, that’s barely more than three seasons of work. That means that the defence is going to make mistakes, and games like the one against the Blue Jackets can and will happen.

But what made the Leafs so successful last year was by limiting those mistakes and a solid defensive effort from forwards. They also turned around one of the worst penalty killing units in the league into one of the best.

That being said, the impressive ‘defence first’ philosophy of Randy Carlyle that improved the penalty kill so much last year seems to be gone.

Currently the Leafs sit in 18th when it comes to penalty killing at 81.5 per cent. That’s not good but not terrible. What makes it terrible is that the Leafs are the most penalized team in the NHL.

I’m going to repeat that, because it bears repeating.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are the most penalized team in the NHL. They give up an average of 16.5 penalty minutes per game. That’s almost an entire period of penalty minutes. Last night the Leafs were slightly above their average, with 18 minutes in penalties.

The Leafs can’t continue to put that kind of pressure on a young and developing defence core. Some days the goaltending simply won’t be there. The best thing the Maple Leafs can do to improve their chance to win each game is to play smarter and stay out of the penalty box. That’s something that’s going to come down to coaching. We’ll see if Carlyle is up to the challenge.