On the eve of their first meeting of the 2017/2018 regular season, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs are both in trouble. Period. That the trouble doesn’t make itself smack-you-in-the-lips apparent, does not mean that the trouble isn’t there.
Let’s start with Montreal, where the problem IS smack-you-in-the-lips apparent: the Habs can’t score. They’ve generated four goals (aside from a Jonathan Drouin shootout winner) in four games — good for last in the NHL. For a short time, they shared that mark with San Jose; perhaps the worst thing about that being that San Jose had only played two games at the time. They would have needed to be shut out in back-to-back games for those numbers to remain the way they were.
Carey Price — in seasons past, playing well enough to mostly mask the Canadiens’ offensive struggles — has played more than a few steps behind by the numbers. In facing around 27 shots per game, Price has allowed 11 goals, sporting a 3.30 GAA and a save percentage of sub-.900. A markedly slow start for an all-world goaltender with a career GAA nearly a full point below where it currently sits.
What is painfully clear to Habs fans is this: when Price doesn’t play perfect hockey, the offense has not only not been able to bail them out. The offensive output thusfar has DEMANDED that Price play perfect hockey, which he has not done. As a result, Montreal is off to a 1-3 start and sit near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
On the other side, there are the young, run-and-gun Toronto Maple Leafs: 3-1, out to the early Atlantic division lead, and scoring at an incredible pace.
How can this team also be in trouble?
“Run-and-gun” was not a randomly-chosen phrase; the Leafs are nearly atop the league in goal-scoring, having netted 22 in four games (four more than the nearest Eastern Conference opponent). They are also tied for fourth place in terms of most goals allowed. It adds up to an AVERAGE of four goals allowed per game; indeed, the Leafs have played only one game where they have allowed fewer than three. On an offense that has already generated games of 8- and 7-goals, this may seem like less of a problem than Montreal’s inability to score. But what happens when the goals *aren’t* there?
When they aren’t there, the New Jersey game happens: a 6-3 loss to a team that they should beat, where they allowed twice as many goals as they scored, despite nearly doubling their opponent in shots.
Since the lockout-shortened 2012/13 season, teams that lead the league in goal scoring have averaged 3.29 goals per game. The 16/17 Penguins were the outlier, having averaged 3.43 last season. Toronto is currently averaging a ridiculous 5.5 goals per game — a pace that we know from empirical evidence is not sustainable. Not since the 2009/10 Capitals has a team even topped 3.5 over an entire season, and even that team did not come close to even a full 4.
If we are overly-friendly to this year’s Leafs, and meet in the middle between their current pace of 5.5 and the 2009/10 Capitals pace of 3.87, the Leafs would average 4.69 goals per game. If we reduce that number to the scoring leader’s average since the Lockout, it still sits at 4.4. Those paces would meet or exceed the highest in modern history — again, paces which we know are not sustainable in the modern NHL. While that may put a smile on the faces of Leafs Nation, don’t forget: Toronto is ALLOWING four per game. Therein lies the problem: the Leafs can’t keep the puck out of their own net; a persistent problem dating back well beyond this season.
Freddie Andersen has been, in a word, awful this season. Facing 31 shots a game (therefore getting little help from the team in front of him), Andersen has allowed all 16 of Toronto’s goals against, sitting with a GAA just under 4 and a save percentage barely north of .870. While the offensive players have enjoyed a banner year to this point, the defense has at times looked completely lost and hung their goaltender out to dry. By the same token, at times, the defense has mostly done their job, and Andersen has simply not been able to come up with saves. The Leafs are allowing far too many shots on their goaltender, and their goaltender is allowing far too many to light the lamp behind him.
So, the question is begged: which problem would you rather have?
Would you rather struggle to score goals, or score plenty and struggle to keep other teams from scoring as well?
More to the point: would you rather be Montreal or Toronto, RIGHT NOW?
My answer came in digging a little deeper.
As we have mentioned, Andersen (who has played every second of the Leafs season so far) has faced just over 31 shots per game, where Price has faced 27 (and if you add in the short amount of work for Montoya, the team allows 29 shots per game total so far). That’s not a big difference — but any good armchair GM would take the lesser of those two numbers.
Three of Toronto’s four games have seen them allow 30 shots — two of those, allowing at least 35. After allowing a ridiculous 45 shots in their opening game, Montreal has yet to allow another opponent to get to 26.
It may seem foolish to compare the two teams on any level offensively, but would it surprise you to learn that Toronto is only outshooting Montreal by less than three shots per game? While the Leafs average 41.5 shots per game, Montreal is within striking distance at 38.8. In this light, Montreal’s problem is less about generating offense, and more about finishing their opportunities. Montreal is shooting at a ridiculously-low 2.58% — lower than any roster player to score a goal for them last season aside from one (Alexei Emelin). Bringing their shooting percentage up to last season’s 9%, a pace of 38.8 shots/game results in 3.5 goals/game. Even halving that percentage would be an upgrade that could be worked with.
There are a few points to be made here. Neither team is as good or as bad as they seem, as we’ve traversed less than 5% of the regular season. The Leafs are not going to finish with 60 wins any more than the Habs will finish with 60 losses. And both teams have significant reason to be concerned, no matter what the early standings say.
As far as which problem I would rather have and which team I would rather be? I can say a few things for sure. Having a +6 goal differential after four games would be nice to have — except if it took me 22 goals to get there. I’d rather have to focus on finishing my own chances, than to worry about whether my goaltender is going to make the next save. I’d rather give up the fewest shots against that I possibly can, and I’d rather have nowhere but up to go, than nowhere but down.