Myth: Toronto’s defence is a weakness

No evidence to support this claim

One of the biggest myths that hockey fans and media subscribe to nowadays is that the Toronto Maple Leafs are weak on defence. For instance, Howard Burger, a reporter who covers the Leafs closely, just wrote an article entitled, “Defence Still Leafs’ Shortcoming” posted on Hockeybuzz.com.This notion that Toronto’s blueline is a weakness is not only false, but also one of the most widely uncontested theories that exists, accepted as fact and rarely disputed by fans and media alike, including well-respected writers like Burger.

Below I will provide strong evidence to the contrary. In fact, I will argue that Toronto’s major strength is their defence.

Foremost, to set the record straight here and now. The problem with the Leafs in the 2006-2007 season was NOT their defence.

TORONTO CARRIED THE PLAY MOST NIGHTS

If anybody out there watched the games closely and formed an opinion based on how the Leafs actually played rather than relying on the hockey writers to tell us what happened, they must have noticed one prominent and consistent observation: the Leafs actually carried the play in most games last year.

Consider these key stats (from espn.com):

Toronto was ranked No. 3 in most shots on goal taken (32.7 per game).

Toronto was ranked No. 7 in fewest shots on goal against (28.4 per game).

Toronto was ranked No. 2 in highest shots on goal differential (+4.3 per game).

Thus, the Leafs were among the absolute league leaders in most shots taken, fewest shots against and largest shots on goal differential. What does this mean? It does not take a nuclear fissionist to understand that the Leafs obviously spent more time in the opposing team’s zone over the course of last season.

In addition, bear in mind that much of this happened despite the injuries to Mike Peca, Darcy Tucker and Kyle Wellwood for very long stretches during the season. Clearly, the Leafs were not a powerhouse up front.

So why did the Leafs spend more time in the other team’s zone this past season? The answer lies in their defence.

Consider Toronto’s top 6: Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill, Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White.

Each of these players, apart from Gill who offers a physical presence, can skate well or move the puck up the ice, and they are excellent passers as well. They can handle the puck, skate their way out of danger, or make that nice outlet pass to one of the forwards. Bingo, you are now on offense! If anyone has a better explanation for Toronto’s excellent shots on goal differential last year, I would like to know about it.

In short, the Leafs actually controlled the play for most of the games last season, and anyone who watched the Leaf games carefully already knows that.

POOR GOALTENDING

So why did the Leafs fail to make the playoffs, despite having the no. 2 shots on goal differential in the NHL? You don’t have to look too far beyond the net.

Consider Andrew Raycroft’s statistics:

Raycroft was ranked No. 32 in goals against average (2.99).

Raycroft was ranked No. 35 in save percentage (0.894).

(Remember there are 30 teams in the NHL)

Again, all this despite the Leafs having one of the best shots on goal differentials in the league, and carrying the play most games. This adds up to some very poor goaltending by Raycroft.

Yet, despite Raycroft’s poor performance last year, the Toronto media mostly focused on Raycroft’s quest to break Eddie Belfour’s win record (kind of helps when you play most of the games). In actuality, the opposite argument can be made: 37 wins in 72 games is nothing to brag about, and given the aforementioned shots on goal statistics over the course of the season, one wonders why he didn’t win even more games.

I also found it bizarre that Raycroft’s poor performance only became a topic of discussion in the media AFTER the season ended in early April and then again when the Toskala trade was made. Before that, the focus was on Raycroft’s win total. Insane.

Clearly the Toronto media completely missed the boat on Raycroft. Perhaps I’m spoiled after watching Cujo or Eddie for 7 years. Nevertheless, Raycroft was not very good.

PHYSICAL PLAY

The Maple Leaf’s defence also gets knocked for being soft. Admittedly, this is their chief downside (no defence is perfect). However, the point is largely over-emphasized and often exaggerated. Everyone knows that Gill is physical. McCabe is a very aggressive defender, especially in his own zone. Colaiacovo is well known for his open ice hits. White and Kubina can play physical if they want to, and Kubina is obviously a big man. Kaberle is the softest defender, but no fair-minded Leafs fan would suggest that Kaberle be traded.

SCORING CHANCES

I also don’t want to hear that rather flimsy argument that the Leafs give up too many scoring chances. Firstly, I already provided stats showing the Leafs had one of the best shots on goal differentials in the NHL. Secondly, consider the Anaheim Ducks. Even with Niedermayer and Pronger, did anybody notice how many glorious scoring chances the Ducks gave up throughout the playoffs? The difference, of course, is that Anaheim had JS Giguere in goal. Think about it, how many of you honestly believe that Anaheim would have gone beyond the first round with Raycroft as their goalie? Not a chance.

The point is that poor goaltending will ALWAYS make the defence look bad, regardless of who’s playing defence. This was certainly the case with the Leafs last season, and has helped to fuel The Myth.

OFFENCE FROM THE DEFENCE

When the free agency season started on July 1st, the overall consensus among the media and fans was that the Leafs needed help in their forward position.

Clearly the Leafs are not going to scare anybody with their forwards. But guess what? The Leafs still finished no. 8 in the NHL in scoring (tied with cup champion Anaheim), despite the absence of Tucker, Wellwood and Peca for about half the season.

How is that possible? Well, just consider the offensive production from their 6 defenders:

Kaberle: GP (74), Goals (11), Assists (47), Points (58)
McCabe: GP (82), Goals (15), Assists (42), Points (57)
White: GP (76), Goals (3), Assists (23), Points (26)
Kubina: GP (61), Goals (7), Assists (14), Points (21)
Calaiacovo: GP (48), Goals (8), Assists (9), Points (17)
Gill: GP (82), Goals (6), Assists (14), Points (20)

Kaberle and McCabe are among the league leaders, while the points per game of White, Kubina and Calaiacovo are nothing to sneeze at. All five players own excellent offensive abilities.

The offensive contribution from the blueline is often overlooked. To be a contender, you have to have offense from your defence, plain and simple. As you can see, the Leaf defenders do extremely well in that department.

But offensive production from the defence is only part of the story. The other part is the ability of the defence to handle the puck or make the pass out of the Leaf zone, which itself generates offense, as mentioned earlier. The facts speak for themselves: the Leafs managed to score goals and had an amazing shots on goal differential last year.

THE CONSTANT BASHING OF BRYAN MCCABE

I do not understand the constant bashing of Bryan McCabe. One issue some people have problems understanding is the distinction between quality and salary. Before you consider salary, you have to consider quality. Would any reasonable hockey fan want Anders Eriksson or Aki Berg on their team, even at a cheap salary? If you forget his salary for a moment, ask yourself if you would take McCabe on your team
if he made, say, $1-2M. Trust me, every GM would scoop him up immediately.

As a sidenote, I hope people took notice of Wade Redden’s play in the playoffs? It is a major understatement to say that he struggled badly, and he makes even more money than McCabe! Also consider the salaries of other recent free-agent defenders, like Rafalski, Souray, Hamirlik and Schneider. Certainly not cheap.

The point is that McCabe is a quality, above-average NHL defenceman, regardless of his salary. Unfortunately, he is not worth $5.5M. But his salary does not suddenly make him an Anders Eriksson. He’s still a very good player. Remember that we are discussing whether the Leafs have a good defence, not whether the McCabe or Kubina salaries are justified. Those are different topics of conversation I’ll leave for others to debate.

CONCLUSION

So there you have it. The chief strength of the Maple Leafs is their defence. Their ability to handle the puck, make a nice pass, or skate the puck out of their own zone explains their outstanding shots on goal differential this past season. And despite their modest forwards and injuries, the Leafs still were able to score goals, thanks to the ability of the defence to generate offense as well, an added advantage. To conclude, it is a complete and utter myth that the Leafs’ defence is a weakness.


155 Responses to Myth: Toronto’s defence is a weakness

  1. leaffansareajoke says:

    You've missed the point of everything i've been trying to say.  Just like a typical leaf fan.

    Your D is not what you think it is.  McCabe is not some phenom D man.  Gill is pretty much over the hill as far as i'm concerned.  Kaberle is good, but Leaf fans make him out to be the best D man the NHL has ever seen. 

    I can honestly say, Toronto's D has NEVER been a fear of mine when the flyers went to play them.  Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever.  Not even last year when the FLyers were the worst team in the league was i afraid of the Leafs D.  No one is.  Stop kidding yourselves.

    McCabe was a +3 btw.  Great D-man.

  2. Groinberry77 says:

    Yes the Leafs controlled the play for most of the games, but they still managed to lose enough games to not make the post season. Then you have to wonder maybe it’s because all the Leafs D are good for, is offense. They put all kinds of perimeter shots on net, but they can't actually play defense so when the other team gets there chances it’s in the net. Despite what you believe, scoring chances are a better way to tell how good a defense is verses shots on goal. For the simple reason of perimeter shots. Teams will gladly let you take shots from the outside. Here’s another way for you to tell as well. Just go look at the number of blocked shots they have. Combined with the low amount of shots on goal, and game losses = good scoring chances and bad D. Or I guess it was Eddy's fault the other years too. Take off your rose colored glasses, look in the mirror, ask yourself, is it all the other hockey experts that don't know what they're talking about? Or…… ?

  3. Groinberry77 says:

    Yes the Leafs controlled the play for most of the games, but they still managed to lose enough games to not make the post season. Then you have to wonder maybe it’s because all the Leafs D are good for, is offense. They put all kinds of perimeter shots on net, but they can't actually play defense so when the other team gets there chances it’s in the net. Despite what you believe, scoring chances are a better way to tell how good a defense is verses shots on goal. For the simple reason of perimeter shots. Teams will gladly let you take shots from the outside. Here’s another way for you to tell as well. Just go look at the number of blocked shots they have. Combined with the low amount of shots on goal, and game losses = good scoring chances and bad D. Or I guess it was Eddy's fault the other years too. Take off your rose colored glasses, look in the mirror, ask yourself, is it all the other hockey experts that don't know what they're talking about? Or…… ?

  4. the_next_agent says:

    i dont think anyone really doubts the leafs defence they just really doubt how much money there are all getting, i think they should trade Kubina, Pohl for witt and a draft pick this would free up cap space so we could resign Peca. When deadline day comes we can trade raycroft for a first round draft pick, we can easily get a top 10 draft pick seeing as roloson who had a 6-16 record got trade for a first round pick

  5. leafy says:

    Trust me, you're NOT going to get a 1st round pick for Raycroft.

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