There’s never a dull moment these days when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Usually just mediocre-to-bad, the Leafs tantalized their long-suffering supporters by actually showing flashes of real potential over the last few seasons. And for a fan base that celebrates the slightest success, playing in the media capital of Stanley Cup-starved Canada, that also meant sky-high expectations. Toronto was installed as preseason Cup favorites after signing John Tavares in the summer of 2018, went into this season ranked third and still generally look like one of the best teams in the league on paper.
Which makes it all the more baffling that the Leafs’ playoff chances are little better than a coin flip right now.
According to Hockey-Reference.com, Toronto has a 62.5 percent probability of making the playoffs, sinking them toward the bottom of an Eastern Conference postseason blender that also includes the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Panthers and Flyers as teams with between 49.8 and 65.9 percent playoff odds.1 After firing head coach Mike Babcock in November and swinging an early trade ahead of the Feb. 24 deadline, general manager Kyle Dubas has leftover cap room and a few more ways to shake up the roster before the stretch run. But in what was supposed to be the year Toronto finally got its postseason breakthrough, the Leafs have been in a dogfight just to make the playoffs — because, with this franchise, of course it has.
Toronto’s talent may explain why the Maple Leafs still have a decent-enough chance of lifting the Cup — 3 percent, if we average odds from Hockey-Reference and Vegas — despite their tenuous playoff chances. Beyond Tavares and winger Mitch Marner, who are tied as the NHL’s 17th-leading scorers over the past three seasons, the Leafs also boast 22-year-old Auston Matthews and 23-year-old William Nylander, a pair of phenoms who have combined for 65 goals this season in Toronto’s 56 games. (Matthews, in particular, has garnered some MVP buzz despite a deep stable of high-scorers across the league this season.) Add in solid, proven netminder Frederik Andersen, plus a supporting cast built around maximizing puck possession, and these Leafs would appear to have all the ingredients for the team’s first championship in 51 seasons.
So why have those appearances been so deceiving? You could say it’s bad luck, but Toronto’s team shooting and save percentages — two of the flukiest stats in hockey — haven’t been particularly aberrant this year. In fact, according to Hockey-Reference’s expected goals model, the Leafs’ actual 5-on-5 goal differential (+6) is slightly better than we’d predict from the quality of their chances for and against. And although they have gone 1-4 in shootouts, Toronto has a 7-8 overall record after regulation (22 points in 15 games), so it’s not as though they’ve lost too much ground in the standings because of the NHL’s weird overtime policies.
Toronto has, however, been unlucky in a different sense: that most of its veteran players have underperformed to some degree or another. This is clear when we look at their adjusted goals above replacement (GAR),2 which adds up the total net goals added or saved by each skater and goalie based on his box score stats, prorated to 82 team games. We can get a sense of how each player was expected to perform by calculating his “established level” of performance over the previous three years (weighted toward more recent seasons), and comparing that with his actual adjusted GAR this season:
|Previous Adj. GAR|
|Player||Age||Pos||2019||2018||2017||Est Lvl.||Adj. GAR||Diff.|
Aside from Matthews and Nylander — young stars each on a meteoric trajectory — and solid forwards Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen, most of the other Maple Leafs have played below expectations. Andersen has been hurt the past few games, but his save percentage is also down from .917 to .910 this year; Tavares’s 47-goal, 88-point performance from last season looks like a career year; defensemen Morgan Rielly (who is also injured), Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin have all failed to repeat their previous form. And it hasn’t helped that Toronto ranks among the league’s most banged-up teams. The result has been a roster long on name-brand talent but surprisingly short on results.
Still, the offensive returns have largely been there. Toronto is tied for first in the NHL in goals scored with 199, with a power play humming along at the league’s third-best rate (25.3 percent). According to data from LeftWingLock.com, the Leafs own two of the 21 most prolific forward line combinations in the league at 5-on-5, between Matthews, Nylander and Andreas Johnsson (20 goals) and Matthews, Marner and Hyman (17). The Vegas Golden Knights are the only team in the NHL with as many top-ranked forward lines as Toronto.
Instead, the issue — as usual for the Leafs — has been on defense. Only the Blackhawks and Jets have allowed higher-value shots according to expected goals. And only the Panthers, Senators, Devils and Red Wings have compiled less defensive value as a roster, according to GAR.
Toronto has gotten away with weak defense before. The Leafs ranked fourth overall in GAR last season despite sitting 19th in defense, thanks to their dynamic offense and sturdy goaltending. But this year, the defense has only gotten worse, the offense is relying strictly on its gifted forwards more than ever (Toronto ranks just 19th in offensive GAR from its blueliners), and the goaltending has suffered from the poor performances of backups Michael Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo. Stellar offensive talent is great, but there are limits to how far even the most skilled forward unit can carry a team if it is the only source of production.
The good news for Toronto is that Dubas has the trade deadline to help address some of these major problems. In fact, he already has. Last week, the Leafs dealt a depth forward and draft picks to the Los Angeles Kings for a more serviceable backup in net (Jack Campbell) and a gritty winger (Kyle Clifford). Campbell wasn’t great in L.A. earlier this season either (.900 save percentage), but he should at least be better than Hutchinson and Kaskisuo were — which, in turn, should improve Toronto’s aggregate goaltending performance down the stretch run. And it’s no coincidence that most of the Leafs’ prime trade targets are defensemen, which should only help with the team’s biggest, most glaring weakness.
Asking coach Sheldon Keefe to reclaim the motivational form that saw him win 15 of his first 20 games after taking over for Babcock is probably a bit much, but he will need to coax peak performances out of this roster to lock down a playoff spot. And even if he does, this team will never be confused with the defensive-minded 1993 version of the Leafs, whose legacy still hangs over the club as the most magical run in recent franchise history. (Where have you gone, Doug Gilmour, Felix Potvin and Todd Gill?) That’s especially true with Rielly likely out for a while after fracturing his foot last month, no matter who Dubas brings in to reinforce the defense over the next few weeks.
At their best, the Maple Leafs do have the star power of a true Cup contender. But unless they improve on D and play with more consistency, Toronto may never get the chance to prove it can finally get over the hump in the postseason. (Or at least maybe not lose to the Boston Bruins yet again.) Even for a team with a long history of springtime disappointments, missing the playoffs after a season that started with such big expectations could rank among the worst letdowns Toronto fans have ever suffered through — which is really saying something.