Right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs are holding onto their leads like they’re covered in Vaseline.
In their last two games, the Maple Leafs have relinquished leads of three and two and were lucky to come away with three points where they should have cruised to four. It’s a pattern that has continued all season as leads have evaporated unbelievably quickly and with remarkable consistency.
As it stands, Toronto wins 70.4 percent of its games when leading after two periods, the 27th-best mark in the league. Even that poor number undersells the team’s propensity to blow leads as they have given up their advantage and come back to win a number of times – as they did on Saturday and at the Centennial Classic.
What is it that makes the Maple Leafs so incapable of putting away teams? There’s no doubt that personnel is a factor. Toronto’s strength is in young offensively-gifted forwards, not shutdown guys.
Frederik Andersen has run hot and cold between the pipes and the defence has three reliable contributors in Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev and Morgan Rielly with Connor Carrick as a bit of a question mark. While there’s no question about what Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak bring to the table, it’s not an encouraging kind of certainty.
This team simply wasn’t built to lock its opponents down, but there’s more to the story than that. In the last two games there have been some enormous defensive miscues that shouldn’t happen regardless of personnel.
In Boston, Zaitsev and Mitch Marner both converged on Patrice Bergeron in front of the net, leaving David Pastrnak, who helped his chances with a sneaky push-off, wide open for the goal that began the meltdown from a 4-1 lead.
If you leave dangerous goal scorers alone inches from the net, you’re going to have a bad time.
Similarly, on the game’s tying goal Rielly let Ryan Spooner find a spot with nothing between him and a yawning cage. The result was predictable.
On Monday, the Maple Leafs gave up the lead late on a play that involved two breathtaking blunders.
First, Ben Smith made an inexplicable decision to leave Josh Bailey all alone to cover Nick Leddy. Then Andrew Ladd was left by himself in front as Rielly covered him on the off-puck side.
These defensive breakdowns are the type of plays that are making the Maple Leafs’ reputation for losing leads well-earned. They are the type of mental mistakes that an NHL team – no matter how young it is – shouldn’t be making.
That said, the Maple Leafs have encountered their fair share of misfortune in their attempts to close out games. Looking at their underlying numbers it’s clear that they aren’t necessarily playing significantly worse hockey than other teams when they are up a few tallies.
When it comes to possession numbers, their performance when leading is subpar, but far from disastrous.
The Maple Leafs certainly aren’t driving play when they have a couple goals in hand, but for the most part neither is anyone else. Teams coming from behind take more risks, press harder and play their most talented offensive producers which is why they tend to outshoot their opponents by a significant margin.
Toronto isn’t allowing significantly more shots or chances than other teams in their position, it’s just that more of those opportunities are being converted into goals. With a lead of two or more, the Maple Leafs have an abysmal save percentage of .887.
Some of that is earned with defensive breakdowns and occasionally-erratic goaltending, but realistically there’s a pretty heavy dose of luck that factors in. It seems unlikely that Andersen will play that poorly in any scenario all season long.
Weird bounces – and accompanying weird goals – will happen and it seems like the Maple Leafs have conceded more than their fair share in recent games. The first tying goal the New York Islanders scored on Monday was a perfect example of that:
From here on out it’s probably reasonable to expect Toronto will be below-average when it comes to protecting leads. Their talent on the blueline is limited, they don’t have an elite goaltender and some of their forwards like to gamble.
Even so, it’s safe to assume they won’t be as hopeless as they’ve been recently. They aren’t getting pelted at an unprecedented rate when they have the lead in a way that suggests this is sustainable.
Right now, Toronto is scuffling in a way that exacerbates an existing weakness and it’s not a good look. When it comes to lockdown defence the Maple Leafs are never going to be pretty, but they aren’t going to be this ugly going forward either.