The Toronto Maple Leafs are not known for their strong defensive play, but maybe they should be.
Although they still have a reputation as one of the league’s most offense-first teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a surprisingly high number of forwards who are excellent defensively.
For years, the complaint about the Leafs was that they were too skilled, and that they concentrated too much on offense, while being poor defensively, not to mention weak and easy to play against.
This caricature was in no way accurate. The Leafs have dominated their playoff games, playing tight defense, and allowing nothing. They haven’t been pushed around, they have never been “shutdown” and they always defended their opposition well.
For three straight years, the Leafs lost to teams because they couldn’t score. It was ironic, it was unlucky, and it was unexpected. They generated as many chances as they did in the regular season, but they didn’t score. Weirdly, it did not really change how people talked about the team.
Their caricature-like reputation is now completely inaccurate and has been for years. Will an article about how many defensive forwards the Leafs have change the hearts and minds of the critics?
Well it can’t hurt!
The Toronto Maple Leafs Have the NHL’s Best Group of Defensive Forwards
If you look around the NHL, there isn’t another team that is even close to what the Leafs have in total number of strong defensive forwards.
The Leafs have two of the best defensive forwards in the world. If you are talking about Elite Defensive Forwards, there is Patrice Bergeron, Sean Couturier, Alex Barkov, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Elias Lindholm and Sidney Crosby.
None of those guys score like Matthews or Marner, at least not anymore, whose defensive rankings on any charts you look at, whether Jfresh, Dom from the Athletic, or one of the five or six other ones floating around, they are all right around 90-100 for 5v5 defense.
Along with having two of the best five or so defensive forwards in the NHL, the Leafs also have one of the best shut-down lines, and it features three completely different players.
David Kampf started an extreme number of his shifts in the defensive zone last season, playing by far the hardest defensive minutes in the NHL, along with his most usual partner, Pierre Engvall.
Despite starting constantly in bad position, these two had some of the strongest on-ice numbers in hockey, positing positive expected goals rating despite playing top players and starting in their own ends.
Here is a chart where Kampf’s defense gets to 99 rating.
The third member of this line was Ilya Mikheyev, and he has been replaced with Jarnkrok Street, who ranks above 71% of NHL forwards at defense over the last three seasons, but the year before last was ranked 100.
In addition to Marner, Matthews, Jarnkrok, Engvall and Kampf, the Toronto Maple Leafs still employ Alex Kerfoot who is a very good defensive player, and has at least one season (his last in Colorado) where he was statistically the NHL’s best defensive forward (evolvinghockey.com).
With six of their 12 forwards ranking among the best defensive forwards in the NHL, perhaps it’s time that the Toronto Maple Leafs got credit for having a much more balanced team than their reputation suggests.
With 2 of the best of the best, and another shut-down line that is among the league’s best, and Kerfoot as a bonus, what other team is even coming close to their level of defensive forwards?
As stranger as it sounds, the Toronto Maple Leafs probably have the best group of defensive forwards in the NHL.