Within the first ten minutes of the first period against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 10, the new-look offense of the Toronto Maple Leafs was putting on a clinic yet again.
After all, Toronto constantly swarmed Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and the sturdy Tampa Bay blue line to the point in which Toronto had 10 shots on goal compared to zero by Tampa Bay at the halfway point in the first period at Scotiabank Arena. A William Nylander wrist shot at the top of the crease with seven minutes to go would eventually see the swift swarm offense bear fruit. The fruit would eventually blossom into a 2-1 victory for the team north of the border.
Such has been the theme for Toronto since November 20 when they relieved Mike Babcock and promoted Sheldon Keefe to head coaching duties. The theme, which has consisted of a fast-paced, multi-purpose offense, and a three-dimensional defense that has been able to bend but not break, has helped vault Toronto from a mid-tier Atlantic Division club to a juggernaut on offense, which could turn heads come Stanley Cup Playoff time.
To fully understand the transformation, it is best to rewind the clocks and calendars to November 20.
On that day, the Maple Leafs were 9-10-4 and were losers of their last six games. Their offense was somewhat dependable. Their 3.13 goals per game ranked 13th in the NHL, while their 17.6 power-play percentage (PP%) ranked 18th. Their 33.2 shots per game were tied for 10th with the Nashville Predators, and their 53.8 faceoff win percentage (FOW%) was first.
While it was respectable, it was bland. The offense under Babcock was too station-to-station and did not fully tap into the potential it could when going up against other superpower teams on offense. Then you had the defense, which allowed 3.43 goals per game (24th) and 33.3 shots per game (25th). When coupled with the lackadaisical 73.1 penalty kill percentage (27th), you had an offense that could not counteract a porous defense.
Keefe, the keys are now yours.
Since November 20, the team did a collective turnaround, as the club went 27-15-5 up to the season’s pause. From November 20 onward, the offense was able to be the spark toward the revitalization of the team, as it ranked first in the NHL in goals per game (3.51). Its 26.5 PP% ranked second behind only the two-headed monster of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers. Additionally, their 32.7 shots per game, while down, was still good enough for fifth. While its 51.8 FOW% was also a decrease, it was still respectably in the top five (fourth).
With steady possession of the puck, the defensive side for Toronto showed improvements. Toronto’s 3.04 goals and 31.2 shots allowed ranked 17th, while the team’s 80.9 PK% ranked 13th. While not elite by any stretch of the mind, the near-constant possession of the puck on offense would provide an opportunity for the defense to catch its breath and produce at a more efficient level.
The overall team numbers, however, would not show the entire transformation. Roster usage would also show it. When looking at time on ice per game played (TOI/GP) during Babcock’s tenure, four defensemen (Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie) took the top positions, with the quartet all compiling over 20 minutes on the ice on average every game.
Since Keefe took over, two of the top four leaders on the team in TOI/GP are forwards (Mitchell Marner is second on the team with 22:23 TOI/GP, while Auston Matthews is fourth with 21:32 TOI/GP). While injuries to Rielly and Marner limited the skaters at times during the season, forwards averaged more time per game and have become more athletic and physical. The prowess has definitely shown itself. Among the top six skaters on the team averaging the most ice time per game (with all six skaters averaging over 20 minutes), all have a positive plus-minus. Only three of the top six skaters had a positive plus-minus when Babcock was the head coach during the season.
The plus-minus would emphasize the sheer production of the offense, as the team scored so efficiently, it jolted the club to a new level. Since Babcock’s departure, five skaters on the team have collected double-digit goals (Matthews with 33, Nylander with 23, John Tavares with 20, Zach Hyman with 20 and Marner with 12). Overall, four of those five (Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander) have collected over 40 points.
While the athleticism of the bend-but-don’t-break nature of the defense has been a positive for the team, the restless swarm of the offense has given Toronto a sleek, modern vibe that has launched them back into the Eastern Conference conversation. From raw production to its effect on the rest of the team, the offense has turned a new leaf (no pun intended).
Luckily for Toronto fans, the win against the Lightning was not the peak of the performance.
It was just the beginning.