I’m using an ancient photo for this article because it’s far too fitting.
Mike Babcocks prediction has finally come to fruition. The pain is here.
Who knew it would take this long? And who knew that as much as things have changed, they have stayed the same in a lot of respects.
The numbers I’m about to show people aren’t in depth by any means. Nor are they indicative of any one player, players, or coaches. But when I started to think about the recent history of the team I started to feel like a real life version of Bill Murrays “Phil” from Groundhog Day. You know, that movie where Phil lives the same day over and over again?
Dangerous power play.
Bad penalty kill.
Solid goals for.
Terrible goals against.
Horrid shots against.
Get a good nights sleep (or summer off, if you will), and wake up to the same nightmarish reality.
|2019-20||16th (21.2%)||22nd (78%)||6th (3.54)||23rd (3.38)||9th (32.7)||24th (32.8)|
|2018-19||8th (21.8%)||17th (79.9%)||4th (3.49)||20th (3.04)||4th (33.4)||24th (33.1)|
|2017-18||2nd (25%)||11th (81.4%)||4th (3.29)||12th (2.80)||16th (32.2)||28th (33.9)|
|2016-17||2nd (23.8%)||10th (82.5%)||5th (3.05)||22nd (2.85)||4th (31.9)||27th (32.6)|
|2015-16||29th (15.4%)||13th (81.6%)||28th (2.34)||25th (2.93)||6th (30.7)||21st (30.5)|
|2014-15||26th (15.9%)||22nd (80.5%)||24th (2.51)||27th (3.13)||22nd (29.2)||29th (33.5)|
|2013-14||5th (19.8%)||28th (78.3)||14th (2.71)||26th (3.07)||25th (27.9)||30th (35.9)|
|2012-13||14th (18.7%)||2nd (87.9%)||6th (3.02)||17th (2.67)||28th(26.3)||27th (32.3)|
|2011-12||10th (18.4%)||28th (77.3%)||10th (2.77)||29th (3.16)||21st (28.3)||24th (30.8)|
|2010-11||22nd (16%)||28th (77.5%)||21st (2.60)||24th (2.99)||25th (28.8)||19th (31)|
|2009-10||30th (14%)||30th (74.7%)||25th (2.56)||29th (3.21)||5th (32.6)||13th (29.8)|
|2008-09||16th (18.8%)||30th (74.7%)||10th (2.98)||30th (3.49)||9th (31.7)||17th (30.3)|
**All 2019-20 stats are accurate as of Oct. 27th
The Wilson Era
I went back as far as the end of the Mats Sundin era, which seems like a century ago. With the end of Sundin as captain came the start of Ron Wilsons tenure as coach.
Wilson didn’t have a lot to work with walking in. Jason Blake lead the team in points at years end, Luke Schenn had a solid rookie year, Jeff Fingers name was written onto somebody elses contract, and Vesa Toskala was terrible.
Wilsons era ended in March of 2012, 64 games into his 4th season behind the bench. By the time he left the team had been largely turned over. Phil Kessel finished that season as the Leafs point leader, Joffrey Lupul was enjoying a lot of success, Dion Phaneuf was their captain and #1 defender, and Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer were manning the nets.
The good: Wilsons teams’ PP% and GF/GP were okay half the time, and his S/GP could be called good to really good in his first two years behind the bench, before dropping off.
The bad: Wilson never managed a penalty kill better than 28th in the league. His GA/GP never improved past 24th in the league, and his SA/GP topped out at 13th in the NHL.
The ugly: WILSON NEVER MANAGED A PENALTY KILL BETTER THAN 28TH IN THE LEAGUE!!
The ….. Good?…. I guess?: The first three years under Wilson saw their SA/GP ranked 17th, 13th, and 19th. These are the three best results for the Leafs since Mats Sundin has been on the team. Just let that sink in for a minute.
The Carlyle Era
On March 2nd, 2012, Randy Carlyle was hired as Ron Wilsons replacement.
His first full year was the 2012-13 season. That season was shortened due to the lockout, but once the teams resumed play it was evident that the Leafs came prepared. They made the playoffs that year and gave the Bruins all they could handle over 7 games. Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, and James Van Riemsdyk paced the team in scoring. Meanwhile, James Reimer and Ben Scrivens did their best to keep pucks out of the net. His key players remained mostly intact during his time here.
The good: Maybe more than good, I might even call it great that the Leafs sported the 2nd best penalty kill during Randys first season behind the bench. Jay McClement, Nikolay Kulemin, Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson helped lead the way in that regard. It was short lived though, as the PK never went past 22nd in the league under his reign again.
There were also times of good power plays and GF/GP numbers.
The bad: GA/GP, S/GP and SA/GP were all terrible. His teams were regularly outshot by large margins.
The ugly: SA/GP deserves it’s own shout out here. It was in the bottom 4 in the league during Randys entire tenure.
The Babcock Era is next because Peter Horachek never stood a chance.
The final era that we’ll cover is the current one. How long it will last is anybodys guess, but most guesses would likely be in the “day to day” range.
Mike joined a true rebuild. His first year was a designed tank and the team looked great doing it. They were structured, but basically unskilled, and they had little chance to win many games. It’s the following season when things really started to go right.
With the additions of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Frederik Andersen for the 2016-17 season, the Leafs finally had big time star power. With a defense lead by Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and a rookie from Russia named Nikita Zaitsev, it looked as though Mike had many of the tools needed to compete.
They managed to make the playoffs that year and have been to the show every season since. With a first round loss to Washington, followed by back-to-back first round losses to Boston, the ice beneath his feet is quickly thinning though.
The good: The power play, GF/GP, and S/GP numbers are the best they have been in years. The penalty kill has also improved over previous coaches in the sense that it’s been in the top half of the league consistently, even if it hasn’t been spectacular.
The bad: SA/GP and GA/GP have consistently been in the bottom 1/3rd of the league. SA/GP are especially bad.
The ugly: A coach that preaches defense without being able to coach a team into the top 2/3rds of the league in SA/GP is just plain ugly. Also, did I mention the teams back-to-back first round exits at the hands of the Bruins?
The other thing: The teams GF/GP has risen consistently each year under Babcock, while their penalty kill has consistently gotten worse.
What was all of this about anyway?
Sometimes an expanded look at some general team numbers can really paint a picture.
The picture here is simple enough to see. The defense hasn’t been nearly good enough for the Leafs for far too long. The last time their SA/GP numbers were solid was the 2006-07 season, where they ranked tied for 6th in the NHL with 28.4 shots against per game.
Bryan McCabe played nearly 27 minutes a night that season, while Tomas Kaberle played just shy of 26 minutes a night. With Hal Gill, Pavel Kubina, Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo rounding out the top 6, it was the big top pair that really took the brunt of the minutes.
That group wasn’t exactly teeming with Norris Trophy candidates (Kaberle received 12 votes, McCabe 1. Nicklas Lidstrom won with 1,217), but under the tutelage of Paul Maurice they managed to do what no other coach since has done, and that’s implement a system that can suppress shots.
Now, I’m not shocking anybody by saying the defense hasn’t been good enough, but, if nothing else, I do think it should help fans see just where some of the blame should lie when it comes to the lack of success the team has had over the past few years. When your teams PK is being run over in the regular season and playoffs, you need to ask why upper management isn’t doing more to fix it. Bringing in players like Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie is great, but I do cringe when Barrie is called a 1st pair defender, because he simply isn’t that. He’s a terrific offensive defender with question marks around his game in his own end. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially considering his place next to Muzzin on the 2nd pair would give him the right amount of responsibility and the right partner to help him thrive.
However, we need to be realistic about what some of these players are exactly, and a shot suppressing guru isn’t what Barrie has been throughout his career.
To start I have to say that I think Leafs GM, Kyle Dubas, has the right idea…. in a way. First he brought in Ron Hainsey to play alongside Morgan Rielly. Hainsey was meant to be the defensive conscience of the pair, a guy that could help cover up Morgans defensive miscues and allow him to play a more offensive game. After Hainsey departed they brought in Cody Ceci for the same job. Ceci needed a change of scenery and got it in Toronto, and while his start has come with mixed reviews, the idea of sheltering Rielly with a defensive minded partner isn’t exactly terrible.
At this point I think they need to go another route because, to date, this has yet to lead to the Leafs having a legitimate top pair on defense.
One solution is to stop beating around the bush and go get THAT guy. A big RD that is impossible to find needs to be found. An all situations, all-star defender that can play 25 minutes a night. If they could get a minute eating defender like that to pair with Rielly it would take a lot of pressure off pairs 2 and 3. Who is that guy? I wish I could answer that question, but I can’t. Who/what do they trade for him? Another great question that I can’t answer but is worth debating. Sounds tough right?
Another solution is to forget about the offensive defenders they have been going for and go full on defense. I’m not necessarily talking about big brutes like Erik Gudbranson, but mobile defenders that know their way around the defensive end (think Andy Greene, Travis Hamonic, and our very own Jake Muzzin). Fill your blueline with players that can make a defensive play and get the puck to your forwards. Nothing more, nothing less.
Lastly, no matter what you do with the defense, you have to get your forwards to buy in to play both sides of the puck. More players like Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman could really help this group take another step forward.
At the end of the day I think one thing is clear.
The Leafs have been stuck in the same pattern for far too long, a pattern of allowing far too many shots against, which results in far too many goals against, which results in little success when the games really matter.
It’s hilarious to me that as I was writing this piece the team matched a Mike Babcock era record for fewest shots against, with 17, against the San Jose Sharks. Timing, am I right?
Another shot has been added to Sharks' total, well after the game. 17 ties fewest in one game in Babcock era. #Leafs
— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) October 26, 2019
It’s also hilarious to me that one night later they decided to allow 38 shots on Michael Hutchinson, their backup goalie, because a leopard can’t change its spots.