Have the Maple Leafs taken a step back this season?

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5685/" data-ylk="slk:Morgan Rielly">Morgan Rielly</a> (left) has taken a step forward this season, but he’s in the minority. (Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Morgan Rielly (left) has taken a step forward this season, but he’s in the minority. (Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs entered their bye week third in the Atlantic Division and comfortably resting in playoff territory, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

Perhaps that should be expected after they fumbled away two straight winnable games at home and have gone winless in regulation over the last seven, but the uneasiness surrounding the Leafs has lingered for a while now.

Part of that is due to heightened expectations the team faces this year after reaching the playoffs last season with a team full of rookies. A lack of progression — both for players and the team — has also been a point of concern. As have Mike Babcock’s personnel decisions, which have been questionable at times.

It doesn’t help that the Leafs have essentially been a .500 team over the past two months, raising the question whether they have taken a step back in Year 2 of the Auston Matthews Era.

Let’s take a look at how some of the numbers stack up between this year and last year 45 games into the season:

As a team

If anything, the Maple Leafs have been consistent. Toronto’s record currently stands at 25-17-3, matching its point and ROW totals (53 points, 21 ROW) at the 45-game mark last season but with three extra wins in the bank.

Despite scoring three more goals, they have a marginally worse goal-differential this year (+12)  compared to 2016-17 (+14), but they’ve been much better in one-goal games. Toronto is 13-3-3 (5-3 in regulation) in that situation this season compared to 8-6-9 (3-6 in regulation) last season.

The Leafs have not been as good at controlling the play this season, taking fewer shots (31.3 vs. 32.5) and ceding more against (33.8 vs. 32.5) while being a minus-31 in total shot attempts at 5-on-5 compared to plus-17 last season. This has resulted in a worse corsi-for percentage, although the difference is negligible (49.68 vs. 50.38). The Leafs also have a slightly higher PDO this season thanks to an improvement in both shooting and save percentage.

On special teams, the Leafs have regressed slightly on both the power play (21.1% vs. 24.1%) and penalty kill (83.8% vs. 85.2%), although they remain a top-10 team in both categories. The Leafs have had 13 fewer opportunities with the man advantage this season, but they’ve also been short-handed 13 fewer times.

Individually

Outside of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Frederik Andersen and Morgan Rielly, Toronto’s top players haven’t looked as good this season and the numbers bear that out.

Besides those four, the only regulars who have seen their production increase this season are Zach Hyman (22 vs. 21 points) and Matt Martin (10 points vs. 6 points) — and that’s not saying much.

The James van Riemsdyk-Tyler Bozak-Mitch Marner line is off their points pace from last season, with JVR nine back, Marner eight back and Bozak six back. The trio has also combined for seven fewer goals this season, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it adds up. They are the team’s top three players in Corsi for, however, so at least they’re getting their chances.

Nazem Kadri has also had some difficulties in his shutdown role, posting worse numbers across the board. He’s shooting and scoring less while spending more time in the defensive zone, so it’s not surprising he has six fewer goals and nine fewer points.

Jake Gardiner is producing at a similar clip to last season, but the mistakes seem more frequent and more pronounced. And then there’s Roman Polak and Leo Komarov, who we’ll get to in a bit.

The positives?

Matthews is a Leaf, Rielly looks like a legitimate No. 1 defenceman and Andersen has been a rock. The additions of Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey have also worked out well for the Leafs, while defenceman Travis Dermott made a good impression in his brief taste of NHL action.

Usage

Everybody loves to pile on Mike Babcock for giving Komarov big minutes, and it’s hard to blame them. Komarov has been a black hole offensively (although not much worse off than last season) and the team’s worst possession player, albeit while playing tough minutes.

Compared to last season, though, Komarov isn’t really being used any differently. He’s eighth on the team in even-strength ice time (same as last year), is getting similar minutes on the penalty kill and is actually playing about a minute less per game on the power play. So while it’s fair to criticize Babcock for giving him any time on the power play, or starting him over Matthews in overtime, his ice time hasn’t really changed. But given how his played has dropped off, perhaps that’s the problem. The same can be said of Polak, who shouldn’t be playing as much as he is – if at all.

The only noticeable change in ice time this season has been about an extra minute given to the Matthews line and a minute taken away from the Bozak line. Gardiner has also played nearly two more minutes per game this season, which isn’t ideal given his play, but the Leafs don’t have many options on the blue line.

The big picture

The Leafs have stagnated a little bit in 2017-18, with most numbers as a team and individually down or on par with last season. But they’ve also had to deal with injuries to Matthews (10 games) and Nikita Zaitsev (11 and counting), something they didn’t really encounter in the first half of last season. They also have more wins and a 11-point lead on the fourth-place Panthers, so unless the 18-wheeler goes off the cliff the Leafs should be able to hold on. It might not be the big step forward most were anticipating, but it could also be worse. They could be the Oilers.

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