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For Toronto, is it a hurdle or a roadblock?

For Toronto, is it a hurdle or a roadblock?

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in one of their biggest slumps since the start of this 2021/22 season. Over the past two weeks, following a six-game win streak, the team has now lost five of it’s last seven, going 2-4-1 in that stretch. If that record sounds familiar to you, it’s the same record that the team started the season with, creating initial concerns about the team’s viability moving forward.

Now, the blue and white did respond with the 28-6-2 run sandwiched between those streaks. They still rank seventh in the NHL in standings points and sixth in points percentage. They still hold the seventh-highest goal difference in the league. While they’re slipping a little, they still hold preferable spots in projections as well. Dom Luszczyszyn’s model ranks the team 5th in projected points at the end of the year, Micah Blake McCurdy’s model projects them second in the same race, and SportsBettingDime.com has the Leafs at the fourth-highest betting odds to win the whole thing.

Hearing none of this will comfort the average observer in Toronto, though, and it’s hard to entirely blame them. Sure, it’s not super rational, but the team has shot itself in the foot repeatedly. So maybe we can take a quick glance under the hood to see what’s been wrong over the past little while. Most in the discourse are taking wins and losses aside in the debate of process and starting the line at New Years – not just a round date, but when the team returned from the NHL’s holiday and Omicron pause. Here’s where Toronto stands since then in the more popular shot metrics:

Metric (5v5)ForAgainstOverall
Shot Attempts60.6 (7th)50.3 (6th)54.6% (5th)
Shots on Goal34.1 (6th)28.7 (9th)54.3% (4th)
Scoring Chances31.8 (4th)23.5 (2nd)57.5% (3rd)
Dangerous Chances11.6 (12th)9.2 (3rd)56.0% (5th)
Expected Goals2.7 (8th)2.3 (8th)53.7% (7th)
Actual Goals3.2 (7th)3.3 (29th)49.5% (18th)
Metrics are taken at 5v5. For and against are per-hour rates, overall is a share/percentage.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, Toronto’s process-driven numbers actually look pretty good here. In fact, for all the gripes that have been made about the Leafs’ defensive corps, and how they’re responsible for this mess, the team is allow less traffic, low quality and high, to get to the net over these last 20 games than they did in the first 30.

Where the struggles are really coming from is between the pipes. Toronto ranks just 24th in all-situations save percentage (0.890) since New Years, including a 31st rank in 5v5 SV%. They have the third-lowest SV% on high-danger attempts, making the few close shots conceded look that much worse, and with all of this in mind, they’re conceding goals at a bottom-five rate, dipping below break-even at even strength despite continuing to fill the net themselves.

This issue has impacted both sides of Toronto’s goaltending tandem, though expectations are lower for Petr Mrazek and until Saturday night’s slapping against Montreal, it felt like he was turning a corner. The much larger concern is in Jack Campbell, who entered the semi-forced break with a 15-5-2 record and a 0.937 save percentage through 23 games, put up a shutout in his first game back, and has since fallen off the face of the earth, putting up a 0.886 rate in the 13 that have followed.

This, of course, isn’t to put all the blame on him or Mrazek. Toronto have had games in this run where they haven’t risen to the occasion, particularly against some aggressive forechecking teams, which has created concerns of softness. I feel that those are somewhat valid but ultimately overblown, in the sense that they should be addressed systemically and internally rather than by a list of trades (the Ilya Lyubushkin deal notwithstanding), but they are legitimate blemishes nonetheless. No blemish right now, however, can exceed what’s happening between the pipes, as driving play at an elite rate, doing so while eliminating dangerous chances, and still coming out with a ton of goals against does at some point have to come back to the goalie, particularly in cases like Mrazek on Saturday and Campbell last night against Columbus.

There’s optimism in that too, though, in the sense that these should sort themselves out. If I’m the Maple Leafs I’m doing everything I can to give these two goalies, who are likely the ones you’re heading into the dance with, the resources to succeed. Whether it’s finding the right balance of schedule, helping them deal with tuning out the noise, or just finding little ways to get their confidence back up. Goaltending is a very mental game, and both Campbell and Mrazek have shown themselves to be heart-on-sleeve type personalities, especially the former – who also has contract year implications to internalize. Getting them back into a groove needs to be the top priority moving forward. It doesn’t have to be immediate, but it does need to hold into the postseason, or else none of this matters.

As for the general wins and losses, it’s hard to look at the above and be overly worried about the whole group. There are minor gripes here and there, and I do wonder a bit about the Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander trio starting to go cold, but the overall contributions of the skaters have been more positive than given credit for. If you assume their consistency and figure that at least one of these capable NHL goaltenders will get back to at least average play, this slump will likely go the way of the one that started the year. The big issue will be to avoid having another one like it in a few months, because come playoff time, you don’t have the same rope for win/loss inconsistencies.

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