It’s been a problem all season, and it appears to be getting more pronounced with every game they play.
The Toronto Maple Leafs can’t break out of their own end, can’t get open for teammates and can’t manage the puck, three key weaknesses a well-structured and coached team like the Boston Bruins will pick apart night after night.
That was the script in Game 1, a 4-1 Bruins win that could have easily been even more lopsided if not for netminder James Reimer hanging in the game late and making several saves with things already out of hand.
His teammates didn’t seem to have any problem identifying their issue on the night.
“Undisciplined turnovers played a factor,” Nazem Kadri lamented after the game. “We are just killing ourselves when we do those types of things. No one expects to win when you’re playing shinny hockey out there.
“We’ve got lots of things to correct, but the positive thing is that they are easily correctable. We are going to head back to the drawing board and figure this all out.”
It may seem easy to some, but the concern for the Leafs is this is a problem that has plagued them all season and which has consistently been getting worse – not better – the past few weeks.
The Leafs outshot their opponents marginally (29.9 to 28.6) in January but were out shot in subsequent months 32.6 to 26.7 in February, 32.4 to 27.1 in March and an incredible 33.4 to 22.9 in 12 April games.
That they were downed 40-20 in Game 1 by the Bruins – the third best team leaguewide in that department all year – shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The funny thing about shot differentials in hockey is that traditionally they haven’t been considered a key statistic, with many around the game using anecdotal evidence and recalling games where teams are outshot but found a way to win.
But in the NHL over the past decade, having a positive shot differential in a season has correlated pretty strongly with winning, to the point that it’s a better relationship to being a good or bad team than having a strong or weak power play, penalty kill or team save percentage.
No team in recent memory has had as good a record as the Leafs did this season when being out shot by an average five or more a game.
More advanced shot differential numbers, like Corsi or Fenwick – which incorporate missed shots and/or blocked shots – are even more highly predictive of teams’ future success or failure, and the Leafs have posted some of the worst numbers of any club in that department in the past five or six years.
Having the puck on your stick less than 45 per cent of the time, as the Leafs are estimated to by some measurements, simply isn’t conducive to winning many hockey games.
It is a sign of underlying issues and that’s a big reason every hockey statistician out there has been predicting Toronto was ripe for a fall going back to at least early March.
That the Leafs somehow found a way to finish the year 11-8-5 and get enough points to claim the fifth seed was a testament to how strong some other elements of their game have been.
That said, puck possession remains Toronto’s central weakness, and it’s the main reason why they have so much difficulty with a team like the Bruins.
You could see it very, very clearly in Game 1. While the Leafs jumped out to an early lead on the strength of a power-play goal, at even strength, Boston continuously had the puck and was rushing it down the ice.
Toronto’s time with the puck, meanwhile, either became a quick neutral zone turnover or a one-and-done rush that was turned the other way.
Early on, the Bruins weren’t able to generate much with all of their time in the offensive zone, but simply having possession and being able to fling shot attempt after attempt at Reimer ultimately worked.
This is a surprisingly good strategy in a league where so many goals are now going in off bodies or through screens.
Look at Wednesday’s game.
The first goal went through a bit of a screen in front.
The second was tipped right in front.
The third was from point blank range as defensive coverage broke down.
And the fourth was one Reimer obviously would like to have back.
While the 40 to 20 margin on the shot clock may get the most attention and is an obvious issue, consider also that the Bruins missed 15 shots to the Leafs’ five and had 16 shots blocked to the Leafs’ eight.
That adds up to a 71 to 33 differential in shot attempts (or Corsi), which is a perfect illustration for how little Toronto’s offensive players had the puck.
At even strength alone, where this series (and most) will likely be won or lost, Toronto was outshot 25-16 and out attempted 49-25.
(Here’s the game numbers in a handy chart that illustrates which players contributed to the issues.)
Those are both abysmal numbers – and they’re similar to many of the Leafs outings over the season’s final 15 or 20 games.
So, no, Toronto hasn’t been good with the puck for a while now and, as a group, they rarely if ever are against the Bruins. But all the data in the world isn’t very helpful if you can’t root out the source of the problem, and in this case, it appears to come down to two things.
Coaching and personnel.
The first front is the most important when it comes to this series, as obviously the Leafs can’t make a trade and airlift in any new players to rescue things mid-series.
Coach Randy Carlyle has gotten a free pass much of the season because the Leafs won a lot of games with great goaltending and special teams early on as part of a 15-9-0 start, but some of his choices in the lineup have been curious at best – especially given his team’s main weakness is maintaining control of the puck.
Part of the problem is simply not dressing the players who can skate the puck out of their zone and into the offensive one.
The worst possession players for the Leafs this season, in order, have been Jay McClement, Ryan O’Byrne, Frazer McLaren, Nikolai Kulemin and Colton Orr.
The best ones have been Jake Gardiner, Clarke MacArthur, Matt Frattin and Kadri.
Now, we can give players like McClement and Kulemin a pass as they play exceptionally difficult, defensive minutes and obviously aren’t going to be in the offensive zone as much.
But the players who have pushed the puck in the right direction are some of the better puckhandling types who have fallen out of favour with Carlyle, including two (Gardiner and Frattin) who were healthy scratches on Wednesday.
MacArthur and Kadri, meanwhile, played about 13 minutes each.
Which brings us to the personnel issue.
While the Leafs obviously have made strides this season in finishing as high as they did, it should also be very clear to GM Dave Nonis at this point that they need upgrades at a lot of positions (outside of in goal) in order to correct these issues.
Dion Phaneuf is probably the team’s only first pairing defenceman, and Carl Gunnarsson and maybe Cody Franson qualify as reasonable second pairing ones. After that, this is a team with big-time needs on the back end, with the lack of skating and decision making skills highlighted hugely by the struggles of Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka (among others) in Game 1.
Up front, something has to be done with the first line, as while Phil Kessel had another hugely productive season, his unit barely outscores the opposition at even strength, giving up basically as much as it gets.
Mikhail Grabovski, meanwhile, has traditionally been a terrific possession player but had a terrible time under this coaching staff, with a dramatically heavier defensive role killing the value he brought offensively.
Then there’s the fourth line, which has been a black hole possession-wise, even while racking up the much ballyhooed highest fighting major totals in the league. No, they don’t play a lot, but when they do, they’re adding to an already pressing issue for this team.
Overall what this adds up to is a need for more high end talent, as the Leafs risk not only bowing out in a short series this year but having difficulty repeating their finish over a full 82-game campaign a year from now.
All Boston did in Game 1 is highlight some of the issues that have been there for Toronto for a while now, issues that threaten to derail more than simply this series if they continue.
And there aren’t a lot of easy answers to fix the problem in the next two weeks.