Much like the foliage of early Autumn, the play of the Toronto Maple Leafs can be colorful, but often still green.
Now that I’ve hit you with that gem of an opener, how about we dive into my pick for most intriguing team of the 2016-2017 NHL season?
The Maple Leafs, who suit up six (!) rookies on their active roster, have shown signs of brilliance in the early goings of this season. Fast skates, quick sticks, and baby-faced forwards give the Leafs one of the most fun offenses in the league. However, these qualities will get old very quickly if the young team cannot get its defense and goaltending in order. Because, well, entertaining offense aside, it cannot be fun for this team and its fans to only have a single win through the first six games (1-2-3).
Figure Out the Forecheck
Because of the Leafs’ nucleus of young, fast, puck-hungry forwards, the forecheck can be this team’s best friend. So far, however, it’s been one of their worst enemies.
The key to any good forecheck is forcing the opposing players into tight corners of the ice, cutting off passing lanes, leading to turnovers in the opponent’s zone. And turnovers in the opponent’s zone often lead to great scoring chances. The Leafs have an extremely fast and active forecheck, as is the Mike Babcock way. However, speed isn’t the key to effectiveness in these situations. The Leafs’ forwards often have trouble cutting off passing lanes in the offensive zone, which against a good team, results in stretch passes and breakaway chances.
Take the most recent game against the Lightning for example. In the first period, Tampa’s goalie Ben Bishop gets his stick to a deflected puck from a forecheck, and deftly rifles it down to the end of the neutral zone right to his teammate. This results in an odd man rush that, were it not for an errant pass to the slot, would have probably ended in a goal. A better forecheck would not have let that Bishop three-quarter ice pass happen.
For the Leafs to finish games, the forecheck has to do a much better job of cutting off passing lanes and using those quick sticks to ensure stretch passes don’t get anywhere near their intended targets.
Tend the Goal
Six games in, the Leafs have allowed 26 goals. 22 of those goals were let in with Frederik Andersen between the pipes. Through his five starts, Andersen has a dismal .851 save percentage and a 4.29 goals against average. You, of course, cannot blame every single goal on poor goaltending from Andersen. His defense hasn’t given him a lot of help, save from a great one-goal performance against Ottawa. Regardless, Andersen looks extremely shaky and uncomfortable minding the net.
Andersen’s footwork is just plain bad. If you look closely at his feet, more often than not, he looks very unsure of his angles and placement. He dances around more than Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh.
Even on routine saves, he looks unsure of himself. Back in that 7-3 loss to the Lightning, a wrist shot from the point is sent in by Braydon Coburn and seemingly smothered by Andersen. However, the puck squeaks through and lands directly behind him, which ends up being a nice little tap-in gift for Alex Killorn’s fifth goal of the season. What should have been an easy save and a stoppage in play ended up being Tampa’s second goal of the period. Like I said, he just looks shaky.
Offense Gotta Play Defense
As I said, you cannot blame every goal on the guys between the pipes. Many of the Leafs’ defensive woes are results of young players trying to adjust to playing defense in the NHL. Look no further than the Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Zach Hyman third line. With an average age of 20.5, this line is going to take some time to gel on the defensive end.
You’ll see multiple examples of these youngsters not pressuring the point, allowing an opponent to set up its offense and establishing a player at the crease to shield the goaltender. When you have inexperienced defenders jockeying for position by the crease, the more experienced forward is likely going to win those battles, resulting in a tough line of sight for even the best goaltenders, let alone a struggling one.
We’ve already established that the Leafs have to get more consistent on the forecheck, but they also have to figure out how to clear the puck out of their own zone. If you get to a puck and can barely tap it along the boards, a good forward is going to jump all over that and burn you for a goal. Look no further than Steven Stamkos’ first goal. The Lightning pressured the Leafs on a loose puck that really should have been sent out of the zone more quickly, a deflection occurred, and the puck was sent right to Stamkos who made a nifty move and scored. Clear the puck, clear the puck, clear the puck.
I love watching this young team figure things out, but it’s been rough defensively in the early goings. Hopefully, they can figure out a way to get the goaltending in order and get more consistent on the defensive end. If not, it’s going to be a cold winter in Toronto.