Toronto Maple Leafs – Don’t Blame James

Toronto Maple Leafs Chicago Blackhawks

Toronto Maple Leafs Chicago Blackhawks

Team defense, not Reimer, responsible for the Maple Leaf’s struggles

THUNDER BAY – Sports – What a month it’s been for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A few weeks ago, the team found themselves in third place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, and fans were in a frenzy over the team’s continual improvement over the past two seasons.

Within a few games, however, the team found themselves in the midst of a five game losing streak and barely clinging to the 8th seed in a tight conference with only a handful of games left before the start of the post-season.

The slide has been so bad that, according to, Toronto has gone from above 70% odds of making the playoffs just a few weeks ago to a dismal 34.5% chance of extending their season past April as of this writing.

As it currently stands, Toronto holds a one point advantage on the East’s final wildcard spot over ther Washington Capitals, who have a game at hand, and a two point edge over the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have two spare games.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs New Jersey Devils

To put it simply: things are not looking good in Hogtown.

Goaltender James Reimer has taken the blunt of the criticism for the team’s recent struggles since he has taken over the reigns from Jonathan Bernier, who has been sidelined with a groin injury as of late.

The criticism is largely unwarranted, however, as Reimer has put up numbers equivalent to an average NHL goalie. Nothing more, nothing less.

It may be a stark contrast to the numbers Benier has put up, whose 0.927 save percentage ranks as one of the best amongst starting netminders in the league, but sixteen teams make the playoffs in the NHL, meaning average goaltending should, in theory, still allow a team to clinch a lower-seed playoff spot.

Reimer can serve as a scapegoat for Leafs Nation, but in actuality a large portion of the teams success belongs to Bernier and his night in, night out ability to stand on his head and bail the team out.

Toronto’s defense has been their achilles heel. This is a team is routinely outshot by a large margin, has allowed more goals than they’ve scored, and would likely find themselves firmly secured in a high percentage draft lottery spot if not for their injured starting goalie.

Sure, Phil Kessel has been a lightning rod on offense, but even his 76 points on the year leaves him in the negative when looking at plus-minus.

In fact, only a trio of Toronto regulars have posted positive positive plus minus numbers up to this point in the season: Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarson, who make up the team’s top defensive unit, and Tyler Bozak, who remains the team’s only positive forward with 44 points and a plus four rating in just 49 games.

Many would argue that plus-minus is terrible analysis of players, as hockey is a team sport and the stat is largely based on team play rather than individual efforts. Unfortunately, when nearly every player on a team sits in the negative in plus-minus, the stat becomes more about the team’s defensive woes and less about each individual skater.

Regardless, let’s ignore it and move on.

When looking at shots for versus shots against, the Maple Leaf’s recent slide seems like the law of averages catching up with them. Toronto currently sit 25th in the NHL with an average of 28 shots per game for, while they rank dead last in shots against, allowing a staggering 36 pucks to hit their own net.

To some, those numbers seem insignificant, as the Buds found ways to win for most of the season despite being out-shot nearly every night. But consider that of the five teams below the Leafs in shots for per game, only the Minnesota Wild (averaging 26.9) currently occupy a playoff spot.

The Wild, however, are averaging eight less shots against per game than Toronto, a significant amount when you consider Bernier has been allowing 7.5% of the pucks fired at him to hit the twine, while Reimer has allowed 9.2%.

In fact, the Leafs eight shot deficit on an average night is so bad that only the Buffalo Sabres, who average 8.5 more shots against than for, have a worse shot differential. Yes, the same Buffalo Sabres that are indisputably the worst team in the NHL, the same team that had given up on the season by December and gutted the roster for futures. And their differential is only half a shot worse than Toronto’s.

That doesn’t exactly leave Toronto in good company.

Not surprisingly, the massive shot deficit leaves Toronto’s players as an advanced stat nightmare, with nearly every skater being out-shot, and outscored, by the opposition.

That leaves a couple distinct possibilities to explain the Buds situation: either the team is a – when it comes to defense, and has been led by superior offense all season, or the team is a black-hole of defense that has been bailed out by their goalies.

The truth actually lies somewhere in between the two concepts.

For the majority of the season, the Leafs had been paced by Bernier, and their offense has scored 213 goals for on the season. Toronto is one of just 11 NHL teams to have cracked the 200 goal barrier so far this year, and all of those teams, aside from the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, find themselves current in a playoff spot.

The Buds, unfortunately, have also allowed 226 goals on the year, and join the Detroit Red Wings as one of only two teams set to make the post-season with more goals against than for.

The team’s 226 goals against actually put them near the bottom of the NHL, and only the Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, and Edmonton Oilers have allowed more.

None of those teams are making the playoffs, and unless things improve Toronto won’t, either. Not even the lowly Sabres have allowed as many goals as the Maple Leafs.

To circle back to a point made earlier, hockey is a team sport, and Toronto has been a one man show. Bernier has been the team’s MVP, not Kessel, not Phaneuf. It’s takes a lot more than an all-star goalie to make the playoffs, nevermind be considered serious Stanley Cup contenders.

Bernier’s play has been so important to the team’s success that if he had put up a save percentage similar to Reimer’s ‘average’ mark of 0.908 (instead of his phenomenal 0.925), the team would have allowed roughly 27 more goals on the year.

Considering that 18 of the team’s 36 wins have come by outscoring the opposition by a single marker, Bernier has likely been the difference between the Leafs battling for the first overall pick in next years draft and fighting for a playoff spot.

While playing hypotheticals is always a dangerous act, one thing about Toronto should be clear: the team needs to spend the off-season looking for players who are better in their own end, or find a coach who has a defensive system better suited towards their current players.

Maybe they should try a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B.

Michael St. John

Previous articleThe Staal Foundation Open Presented by Tbaytel
Next articleTen things on Raptors and Hawks