Don’t look now, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are knocking on the playoffs door. Just a year after selecting first overall, and finishing with the second-worst record in the league, the Maple Leafs have shown signs of life again, becoming one of the most exciting teams to watch.
Whether that is a good or bad thing on any given night, the fact remains that Toronto has competed in cases where last year they would have been lost. There is still work to be done, their last two games prime examples of that, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
The difference has been the organization’s complete and utter youth movement. On the ice, the Maple Leafs haven’t been shy about putting rookies on the ice and placing them in positions where they can let their natural talents show.
That has led to a total of six to be ranked in the top-20 in rookie scoring this year, three in the top four. Led by first overall pick Auston Matthews and top five pick from two years ago Mitch Marner, Toronto’s run-and-gun style has been a joy to watch as they fight for the final Wild Card spot. Currently, they sit three points out of the final playoff spot but have three games in hand on the Philadelphia Flyers, the current owner.
It hasn’t just been the offense getting things done, but Frederik Andersen has started to come along after a rough start, as well as some of the defensemen have taken that next step forward in their development.
Being the top pairing for a team as bad as the Maple Leafs were last year isn’t easy, and your numbers suffer because of it. Morgan Reilly and Nikita Zaitsev own that title this year and are starting to carve a nice little niche in the league for themselves, but a progression of the next player in line – Jake Gardiner – has helped sparked the team’s offense.
The former first-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks, Gardiner was a part of the deal that brought Joffrey Lupul to Toronto in exchange for Francois Beauchemin. Before Reilly got his six-year extension this past offseason, Gardiner got a five-year deal of his own in 2014, becoming a core member of the Leafs.
Always known for his skating and offensive ability, Gardiner has come into his own this year and has become one of the best puck driving defensemen in the entire league.
Among defensemen with at least 600 minutes at 5v5, Gardiner ranks in the top ten in both shot attempt percentage (CF%) and unblocked shot attempts percentage (FF%), as well as having the highest scoring chances for per 60 (SCF/60) with a 12.53 mark.
He has also posted the fifth highest on ice goals for per 60 (GF/60) with a 3.18 mark. His individual numbers, while not as highly ranked as his other numbers, puts him in the top 30, good enough to register as a de facto number one defenseman.
With 20 total points in 37 games, Gardiner is on pace to break the 40 point barrier for the first time in his career. His previous career high was 31 points, a total he has registered three times.
The difference? Besides the obvious increase in talent around him, has been playing Gardiner to his strengths. The 26-year old Gardiner has the tenth highest offensive zone start percentage (OZS) among the group. Getting him in the offensive zone more where he can do his damage has allowed him to break out and hide some defensive problems he has had over the years.
Gardiner has seen a steady increase in almost each of his offensive metrics over the last four seasons, and seeing as his expected goals for per 60 (xGF/60) is higher than his actual GF/60, there is actually the potential for increased scoring while he is on the ice.
His on-ice shooting percentage saw a dip the last two seasons but is up over his career average by a point so far in 2016. For as bad as the Maple Leafs were those season it shouldn’t bee too much of a surprise his numbers looked that bad, though.
Looking at Gardiners’ overall numbers, it has been easy to pinpoint just why the Leafs’ have been such a fun team to watch. While he has been on the ice, there has been an average of over 68 shots per 60 minutes of action, with Gardiner and the Leafs owning just over half of them (53%). More shots equal more scoring chances (over 20 per 60 minutes with Gardiner on the ice) which finally results in higher goal totals. Even if there aren’t goals being scored, the pace needed to register all those shots on goal creates for instant entertainment.
Toronto has had problems the last couple of games holding significant leads. They have blown two multi-goal leads in each of the last two games, losing their latest contest against the Washington Capitals.
While that is an obvious cause for concern when it comes to stretch time, the Maple Leafs have shown an ability to continually give more than they take, and Gardiner has been one of the key contributors to that.