February 24 2017 05:40PM
The Toronto Maple Leafs need points wherever they can get them right now. The Atlantic Division race is very, very night right now; with six or so weeks to go in the season, the blue and white can very well win the whole thing or drop out of the playoff picture. If it's the latter, one of the things that will surely be pointed at is how they've done in the shootout.
Specifically, they have a 1-7 record this year in the skills competition; the worst in the league. Washington and Buffalo both have somewhat similarly gaudy 1-5 records, but after that, its no contest. Let's make no mistake either; those seven points could go a long way.
If the Leafs got super lucky this year and were 7-1 instead? Well, they'd be first in the division already, two points clear of Montreal, six points clear of Boston, eight points clear of Florida, and in the conversation to be one of the top non-Metropolitan teams in the league, tied for 8th overall.
Even just going 0.500? They'd hop over the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators and be chasing the Habs for the division crown. Remove shootout winners from the NHL.com standings, and you'll discover that Toronto is both a Top-10 goal differential team and a team that's won more actual hockey games than they've lost, an art that's becoming increasingly rare.
But 1-7. That's going to look rough at the end of the season.
The question then becomes this: Is there a reason why the Leafs are struggling at it? Is there a way for them to get better? Let's take a glance.
On the Offensive
A few things of note:
Toronto has only gone with two shooters on a consistent basis this year in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Those aren't very surprising picks, as they're considered the team's two best offensive players, and are the ones that they want to be "go-to guys" moving forward. Their results have been hit and miss; Matthews has gone two for seven, Marner has gone three for seven.
Auston Matthews scored Toronto's lone shootout goal, but the Leafs lose 2-1. Now 1-7 in the skills competition this year, worst in the NHL. pic.twitter.com/stPwX1hTcA— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) February 24, 2017
Matthews made a good decision to go with a shot yesterday because he had been well known to go for the deke all year. Specifically, this move, which worked on its first try against the Blackhawks on October 22nd, became an easily noticable tactic when he did it two more times on November 23rd vs New Jersey and on December 13th vs San Jose. Heck, he even tried to use the same move on Martin Jones again in the All-Star Skills competition, so you can see there was some muscle memory happening.
Auston Matthews misses his attempt in the shootout pic.twitter.com/VYGWzt2l76— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) January 29, 2017
Other repeat shooters include Nazem Kadri, who has gone 0/2 with dekes, Tyler Bozak, who has gone 0/3 while shooting on every opportunity, Nikita Soshnikov, who tried two different moves and failed on both, and James van Riemsdyk, who has missed the net and hit the post with a backhand move that he's used with success in previous years.
Toronto has deked on 14 of its attempts and taken a straight up shot on nine. They have just five goals, all from Matthews and Marner to show for it, including just one up high in six efforts.
Between The Pipes
If we're being honest about things, Frederik Andersen hasn't been good at this skills competition this year. Like, at all. He's faced 20 shots and he's given up 10 goals; basically 50/50 odds (the 2/3 saves missing is Jhonas Enroth against New Jersey on November 23rd). While he's been able to keep the lower posts and his middle body protected, teams have one an insanely high 9 for 11 when targeting the corners or his five hole, which are the most opportunistic and most well-practiced spots for a top end shooter to pick.
I feel like a lot of that comes from his positioning. Andersen likes to spread out aggressively to start opportunities, and when inching backwards, he kicks his legs out a bit wider than most and tucks his shoulders in. This was most obvious in the first shootout in Chicago while he was still adjusting to his pre-season injury, but it's continued to be an issue in the shootout since, effectively requiring a forward error to get the inches back that he needs to force them to shoot to the lower/mid sides, which he has the frame to cover. So long as he doesn't over-commit, of course.
Is There A Solution?
Here's the thing, though: Even though we kind of threw Andersen under the bus there, and not undeservedly so, him getting better doesn't make the Leafs a great shootout team. They still haven't had a single game this season where they've scored more than one goal, and while he and Matthews have done what they can, they've had no help from anyone else.
The others have struggled in recent years too; the likes of Kadri, van Riemsdyk, and Bozak were all dominant several years ago but have been cold since. Is that because they've gone stale or become bad at them? I don't know; it's possibly just luck. In fact, a lot of this comes down to luck; especially nowadays, it's becoming rarer and rarer to have a team take more than 30 or 40 of these attempts a season, and a few millimetres on some goalposts is all it takes to make a team go from bad to specialists.
Even still, you want to try to minimize the amount of reliance you have on the coin toss by weighting things a little more on your side. So, with that in mind, areas that I feel the Leafs could improve:
- I want to see Auston Matthews stick to shooting for the next few opportunities. Shift speeds (fast to slow or slow to fast) or fake near the hashmarks and rip it at the best available corner. He's got the release for it. In fact, most guys do; this should be considered the safe move across the league as it's really your safest opportunity at getting a clear option, unless you really undress the goalie with a deke.
- If breakaways and shootouts aren't already encouraged in optional skates, it would be nice to get on that. It's not like a team as mobile as this one doesn't get those chances in the actual games as well; refining how you do when it's you against the goalie is good.
- Perhaps re-evaluate how Frederik Andersen approaches 1-on-1's. I'm not a goalie coach here, so maybe I'm off base, but it does seem like he makes himself unnecessarily wide and short with how he starts and crawls back, and it hurts him.
- If nothing else, get him and the others in the video room for a bit. That's something that the Devils did in their game against the Leafs that was clear as day; Cory Schneider was reviewing shootout footage of Toronto's regulars seconds before things got started. Have Andersen and McElhinney pre-scout potential shooters, have the skaters learn the book on the goalies. It probably won't change the world, but it helps tilt the odds a bit.
Ideally, though, they just stay the hell away from the shootout. Toronto's top priority should be using their speed and natural prowess in 3-on-3 it gets to that point, but more importantly, to get these games closed out in regulation. Because not only are you not losing a point to a coin toss if you get it done in 60, you're not handing them to the competition either. The contest isn't going away anytime soon; as fun as continuous 3-on-3 would be, Mike Babcock brings up a fair point about the length of the season and concentration of the schedule making such an idea a little risky, but it would be nice to limit times that that team has to rely on it for points. After all, losing six of them kind of stings; even if you know a good chunk of it is likely just coincidence.