The Toronto Maple Leafs are 5-4-2 through their first 11 games of the season and are under heavy criticism for the way they have played recently.
Needing overtime to secure their only win in the last four games, there have been some major holes in their performance. Whether it be defensive miscues, goaltending woes, or missed offensive opportunities, the Leafs have experienced all the struggles as of late.
The undercurrent running through this season and the present situation is the notion that this is the team’s one year to win it all with some players. They were able to lock-up their core of forwards, but as of right now, three of their top-four defencemen are set to test the open market this summer.
There was a major sense that this season would be the best one for the Leafs in a very long time. On paper, the front office assembled the best semblance of talent that they could and there were certainly expectations for that roster to perform.
Though they currently wallow in some state of uncertainty, there is still hope that the club can improve before the season really picks up steam.
Two key players — “key” is subjective — are close to playing their first games of the season for the Leafs. Defenceman Travis Dermott and winger Zach Hyman have recovered from injuries and are slowly nearing their debuts.
Both of them can almost instantly improve the depth on the roster.
Hyman played in a top-six role for all of last season, and even with his regular centre John Tavares out with a broken finger, it can easily be assumed that he will return to that role. With him on the ice, the Leafs had a 55.01 expected goals percentage and were able to control the majority of the quality chances that transpired on the ice.
Even if he isn’t able to accumulate the same amount of points that his linemates do, he still plays an important role and there’s a reason why he was able to earn as many minutes as he did last season.
On the other side of the ice-time spectrum, the expectation for Dermott this season is to hopefully rise through the depth chart and become one of the top-four defencemen for the Leafs. With the acquisitions of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, that objective appeared to become more challenging before the season began. But as the season progresses and the pairing or Ceci and Morgan Rielly continue to look worse with each passing game, the possibility of the 23-year-old defenceman shouldering a bigger load than he has previously is becoming more realistic.
Dermott is arguably the best option for a defensive player on the team’s blue line right now. Last year, through 62 games played, he contributed 3.0 goals worth of even-strength defence, using the Goals Above Replacement metric from evolving-hockey.com. That placed him tied for second-highest on the team with Nikita Zaitsev, just below Jake Gardiner. Since neither Gardiner nor Zaitsev are with the club anymore, Dermott might sit atop this category this season.
Even beyond the complex equations, adding the young blueliner should improve Toronto’s depth all the way down to the bottom pair, potentially shifting the role of a certain defenceman whose initials are an alliteration in Cody Ceci.
The return of two players who are clearly missed should be a boost for the rest of the season for the Leafs, potentially changing the team’s playing style and results.
Right now, the Leafs are peppering teams with shot attempts, but are failing to generate anything with any sense of value and quality at even-strength.
CF% (league ranking)
Toronto is in the top-tier of teams when it comes to the rate of shot attempts and the general shot share in the league. But when it comes to expected goals, — the likelihood of a scoring chance becoming a goal based on history — the Leafs are not where they should be.
Stumbling through the bottom-half of the league in this metric with the on-ice talent they possess should be slightly concerning for the club. However, taking into account that the Leafs haven’t yet iced their full lineup still validates those gargantuan expectations before the puck was dropped this campaign.
Most of those expectations relied on the goaltending situation not to be a complete disaster through the month of October as well. Thus far, the Leafs duo of Frederik Andersen and Michael Hutchinson have a combined even-strength save percentage of .900, good for fifth-worst in the league. They also own a combined high-danger save percentage of .770 which equates to sixth-worst.
These types of numbers simply do not continue throughout the remainder of the season without improving. The poor metrics are a result of early-season miscommunication in front of the net and a limited sample size of games. There are far greater problems if the goaltending stays this abysmal.
All of this information that sums up how Toronto is performing right now is based on a sample size of not even a dozen games. Considering the expectations for this team and the way the season has begun, we can chalk up the struggles to poor timing and a load of other factors.
Injuries and unlucky goaltending should spell out the possibility of temporary disappointment. The Leafs will return to full health eventually and most likely end up winning more games than they lose by the time April rolls around.
No panic button needed — just more hockey games and important players returning to the lineup. The Leafs are fine.
More Leafs coverage from Yahoo Sports