Why the Toronto Maple Leafs struggle to hold the lead

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ron Hainsey in action during an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ron Hainsey in action during an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Monday night’s loss against the Buffalo Sabres was another example why watching the Maple Leafs hold a lead is a gateway to stress. The team has now lost five games — in either regulation or OT — this season when leading after two periods, which places them 16th in the league with a .853 save percentage. A lot of pundits like to point at their defence, but that’s like saying the offence is the reason they score goals.

So what’s the common denominator in games the Leafs let slip away?

There is one player in particular who tends to stand out beyond his teammates in the five games they’ve blown: veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey.

Hainsey was brought in this off-season to provide a strong defensive presence, one that would be valuable in high-pressure situations on a club that features a wealth of youth. And while he’s been a valuable addition for a young crop of defencemen, Hainsey certainly has room for improvement.

In the five games the Maple Leafs have lost when leading through two periods this season, Hainsey’s 5v5 even strength Corsi is the lowest among the Maple Leafs’ blueliners.

What these numbers reveal is that when the Leafs are nursing a lead after two periods and Hainsey is on the ice, the puck tends to find its way to Toronto’s net at a greater frequency. And while the numbers have not been too kind for the American defender in these situations, the game footage backs up the statistical narrative around Hainsey.

In Toronto’s recent game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, with the score tied 3-3, Hainsey was located near the point and dropped his stick — an unfortunate event mostly out of his control. While the veteran defenseman was picking his stick back up, Alex Killorn had already moved into open ice unattended and fired a goal past Andersen.

Hainsey was also involved in the first goal that sparked the comeback as he failed to clear Chris Kunitz from in front of the net, allowing Victor Hedman’s shot to get by the screened netminder.

Although this game isn’t included in the Corsi numbers above, on Jan. 16 against the Blues Hainsey didn’t clear out or tie up Alexander Steen, who put home a rebound to tie the game 1-1 with less than a minute to go.

Prior to the goal, the Maple Leafs were under some severe pressure from the Blues, which included multiple defensive zone faceoffs. The first in a string of faceoffs was surrendered when Hainsey attempted to pinch in and stop the play in the neutral zone, but he was unable to do so and an opportunity was created by the Blues.

Hainsey is averaging the third-most minutes on the Maple Leafs defensive corps, but there’s an argument to be made a 14-year veteran with his skill set shouldn’t be playing that much. But that’s not on Hainsey, that’s more symptomatic of the depth the team has at the position.

That’s the overlying issue as to why the team is prone to giving up the lead: they simply don’t have enough talent on the blue line. In these situations, when opposing teams are relying heavily on their top lines late in games, the Leafs do not have the pieces at their disposal to match the attack. This forces a player such as Hainsey into situations that he really shouldn’t be in. With all this being said, the blame should not be placed entirely on the former first-round pick. Hockey has always been a team game, and while the numbers have not favoured Toronto’s most experienced defenceman, his teammates need to perform better in these situations as well.

With the playoffs looming, Hainsey will have to step up his performance like he did for the Penguins last spring as he will be expected to play an important role on the Maple Leafs blueline in crucial moments.

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