After the Toronto Maple Leafs lost their third consecutive game, a 4-2 decision in which the Montreal Canadiens were in control all the way, their goaltender Jonathan Bernier spoke about an obvious problem.
“If you look at our games, we’ve been giving up lots of shots, and at a certain point you can’t have luck on your side all season,” Bernier said Saturday night in French. “We need to find the spark we had at the beginning of the season and be excited to come and play hockey.”
Yes, the fact the Leafs give up a lot of shots and it’s finally killing them because their goaltenders cannot work miracles every night, is not exactly news. But somehow this has escaped the notice of the Leafs players, much to the exasperation of their head coach, Randy Carlyle.
With a day to kill before the Leafs play the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre, maybe Carlyle could get through to them about tightening up in their own end by turning Bernier’s words around. It may not solve their big problem but maybe it will alleviate another one that needs attention – the Leafs defencemen do not shoot nearly enough for the team to make up offensively for what it is giving away defensively.
Nowadays, in addition to blocking shots with religious fervour, NHL teams defend the front of their net with equal zeal. So to increase the odds of creating scoring chances, teams have to shoot even more from outside, which is what is happening to the Leafs.
Teams are feasting on the Leafs of late because they blast away at Bernier and fellow goaltender James Reimer and take advantage of the ensuing bounces, rebounds and loose pucks. Stands to reason it might work at the other end of the ice, doesn’t it?
Well, no, not if you look at the shooting from the Leafs’ seven defencemen so far this season. Dion Phaneuf has the most shots of the defencemen, yet he has fired just 39 times in 27 games this season, which is 60th among the NHL’s defencemen.
As a group, the Leafs defence has produced three goals this season. If you were to ascribe all three goals to one defenceman, that fellow would be tied for 22nd among his NHL peers. That’s right, 21 defencemen have more goals than all seven of the Leafs’ blueliners combined.
The Leafs had it figured out last spring – in seven playoff games against the Boston Bruins, their defencemen scored five goals.
The Bruins are a typical defending team in today’s NHL – they defend the front of their net ferociously. So that leaves it up to the back end to fire shots into traffic, where they can be tipped or eventually a rebound can be converted into a goal.
Alas, that only happens if you shoot the puck. But this simple conclusion eludes the Leafs defencemen. In the playoff series with the Bruins, the eight Leafs defencemen who played in at least one game combined for 54 shots, an average of 7.7 per game.
That is not an impressive number, not when you consider that Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets, the top shot-taker in the league, averages 3.4 shots per game all by himself. But it is still better than the 6.8 shots per game the Leafs are squeezing so far this season out of the six defencemen they dress every night.
That makes life as easy for opposing goaltenders as it is difficult for Bernier and Reimer.
There are 20 defencemen in the NHL who individually have more goals than the entire defence of the Maple Leafs.
There are nine defencemen in that group, who themselves have twice the number of goals than the seven current defencemen combined have managed for the Leafs.
What to make of this, especially considering Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are perceived to be offensive defencemen? One, the Leafs defencemen don’t take enough shots. They have scored a pathetic three goals in 26 games.
Not a single Toronto defender ranks in the top 60 in shots on goal from the back end. The Leafs defence, as a group, ranks in the bottom five in shooting. It’s the old Wayne Gretzky thing come true: You don’t score on 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.
And with teams defending so tightly around their net in today’s NHL, the points have never been more accessible.
The overtime winner Christian Ehrhoff scored in Buffalo Friday night was just a shot through traffic. Nothing special. A puck to the net. James Reimer didn’t see it. The kind of goal the Leafs rarely score.
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