Dave Feschuk: Leafs are a hit-or-miss team, leading the league in wayward shots but fourth in goals per game

Dave Feschuk: Leafs are a hit-or-miss team, leading the league in wayward shots but fourth in goals per game
If you’re in the Maple Leafs dressing room and in the market for a point of view that goes beyond the usual clichés, there’s a go-to solution: You park yourself near the goaltenders and mostly listen.

When it comes to delivering kernels of truth about what’s right and what’s wrong at any given moment, the NHL’s masked men are better than most at explaining success or levelling gentle jabs. Maybe it’s something about absorbing rubber missiles for a living; netminders seem to need to find a way to give a few back somehow, either in the form of well-meaning shots in the arm or metaphorical kicks to the keister. So here’s an admission: There was an expectation that the Toronto tandem of Frederik Andersen and Garret Sparks would deliver the latter when I sidled up to announce a team-defining statistic in their vicinity the other day.

Nazem Kadri has been one of the Leafs’ hard-luck shooters, with four crossbars and six posts heading into Sunday.  (Dirk Shadd / TNS)

The Maple Leafs, it was pointed out to the goalies, lead the NHL in missing the net. Heading into Sunday’s game in New York against the Rangers, no NHL team had found a way to avoid hitting the other team’s goal more than the Leafs, who’ve averaged about 15 wayward shots a game.

This trend clearly doesn’t suit the tastes of head coach Mike Babcock, who has made repeated references to the fundamental need to direct pucks on net in the quest for ultimate success.

So even when William Nylander scored an undeniably timely marker in Saturday’s 4-3 overtime win in Montreal — beating Carey Price over his blocker-side shoulder to tie the game 3-3 in the third period — Babcock couldn’t resist critiquing Nylander’s game in his post-game assessment.

“We need (Nylander) to hit the net a little bit more and he’ll score a lot more,” Babcock insisted.

It’s not the first time the head coach has chastised a Maple Leaf for sins against shooting accuracy. And you can understand why. Pucks that don’t hit the net generally don’t go into the net — although there are plenty of cases of deflections and redirections that turn otherwise-off-the-mark shots into lines on a scoresheet.

Still, when it was mentioned to Sparks and Andersen that their teammates have somehow found a way to fling shots away from the net at a league-high rate, neither goaltender seemed alarmed or surprised.

“It’s a side effect of sniping,” said Sparks.

In other words, while the net is an unmistakably large rectangle measuring four feet by six, talented Leafs like Nylander are shooting at far smaller targets. They’re picking corners, in other words, which means they’re prone to a relatively large volume of misses. Still, it’s worth noting that when the Leafs do hit the net, they’re scoring at a high rate. Heading into Sunday, Toronto’s shots on goal had turned into goals 11.4% of the time, the second-highest percentage in the NHL behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Andersen, for his part, said missing the net is an occupational hazard in a league that prioritizes directing pucks toward the opposing blue paint in the quest to dominate possession.

“There’s lots to consider here,” he said. “You understand the people who say, ‘Hit the net.’ But if the goalie’s really good at cutting down the angle and there’s very little to shoot on, you force the shooter to pick a small spot. It’s a fast game where it’s hard to really be accurate every time.”

Which is to say, there’s an upside to the fact Toronto’s offence had produced the sixth-most shot attempts in the NHL heading into Sunday.

“If you shoot a lot, you’ll have a lot of misses,” Andersen said.

It brought to mind a point made by John Tavares, Toronto’s leading goal scorer this season, who spent a bit of Saturday discussing the same topic.

“When you’ve got guys who are confident in their ability to pick corners, you’re not going to hit it every time,” Tavares said. “But with how explosive we can be, teams want to take the middle of the ice away, keep our guys to the outside. It tends to give you a little more puck possession, but you don’t get inside a lot. And when you want to get pucks towards the net, you’ve got to get ’em by bodies. Which isn’t always a bad thing; if we can get underneath their coverage we can track some of those pucks down and create opportunities that way. But you’re not always going to hit the net in that case.”

Nazem Kadri leads the Maple Leafs in missing the net — including a team-high four crossbars and six posts heading into Sunday. Kadri pointed out that today’s NHL has seen “puck retrievals” become a premium commodity.

“Pucks can bounce anywhere and the important thing is you hop on top of ’em; we’re getting to be pretty good at that. So I never think throwing the puck in that direction is a bad thing,” Kadri said. “When you’ve got more time, you’re trying to hit the net, first and foremost. But you’re also trying to pick corners and find the white part of the net. And so you’re going to miss.”

Back in the goalie corner, Sparks shrugged his shoulders and continued unfurling his thesis.

“Are we up there for the number of goals?” Sparks wondered aloud.

Indeed, the Maple Leafs are the fourth-highest scoring team in the league, averaging 3.59 goals a game heading into Sunday.

While Sparks nodded as though he already knew the answer, Andersen expressed his gratitude: “We’re not complaining with the amount of goal support we’ve had.”

Sparks, who rarely finds himself at a loss for words, had one more question for his questioner.

“Do we lead the league in the number of times hitting the other goalie in the logo?” he asked.

He didn’t wait for the answer.

“Probably not.”

In other words, leave it to the teams with more middling talent to take the safe wristers that predictably land in the opposing goalie’s bread basket. Risking their coach’s occasional ire though they might, expect these Leafs to keep gunning for rarer daylight. And why wouldn’t they? The most prolific goal man of this generation would highly encourage the trend. Since the great Alex Ovechkin came into the league in 2005-06, he’s scored a league-high 644 goals — 210 more than his nearest competitor. Over that span Ovechkin has missed the net an astounding 2,252 times — 927 more misfires than anyone else in the league.

Coaches hate it and crowds bemoan it, but goaltenders understand this counterintuitive truism better than most.

Said Sparks: “Missing the net and scoring goals … they go hand in hand, for sure.”
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