Maple Leafs enter Marleau reunion in a tense state

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“Sometimes you gotta yell at your family,” is something you’d expect from Archie Bunker or some other disheveled sitcom dad, not Auston Matthews when he’s talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet that’s how Matthews explains his approach as the Maple Leafs have been soul-searching (and maybe screaming) amidst a troubling 5-4-2 start.

It feels a bit like the sort of mess that would get a teenager in trouble, so maybe it’s only fitting that Friday represents the return of “dad,” as Patrick Marleau and the San Jose Sharks will face the Maple Leafs in Toronto.

Marleau’s first game against the Maple Leafs since taking a circuitous route back to San Jose seems like as good a time as ever to dig deeper on Toronto’s troubles, and ponder Marleau’s hot start.

How dysfunctional is this Leafs family?

If the playoffs began before Friday’s games, the Maple Leafs would be on the outside looking in. It’s almost as troubling that other teams in the bubble could pass Toronto thanks to games in hand:

The Maple Leafs’ goals for (40) vs. against (39) categories segue smoothly into an explanation of how Toronto’s played so far in 2019-20: they’s scored a lot of goals, yet unfortunately have allowed almost as many.

Indeed, you can trot out a positive sign, and then quickly “Yeah, but …” away most points of optimism.

They’ve controlled the higher number of events by Corsi, Fenwick, and scoring chance measures at even-strength, but Natural Stat Trick’s measures indicate that they’ve allowed more high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 (80) than they’ve generated (72).

The Maple Leafs have, essentially, been what many people thought they were: a team trying to outscore its problems.

Where things can change

To some extent, the Maple Leafs might just need to live by the sword, and die by the sword. The key, then, is to stay sharp in areas where they can.

Most obviously, the Maple Leafs need to avoid the penalty box. While their power play hums along (25-percent success rate, eight PPG), they’ve allowed just as many power-play goals (eight), thanks to going on the PK 38 times versus only getting 32 power-play chances. Such discipline troubles are especially confounding being that the Maple Leafs have only played four of their first 11 games on the road (it’s human nature for home teams to get at least moderately favorable officiating, after all).

While every season is different, there’s justification to believe that the Maple Leafs can be smarter with their sticks. They were only shorthanded 204 times in 2018-19, the second-lowest total in the NHL.

Being on the PK less often should help their goalies to a degree, but either way, the Maple Leafs need more out of the likes of Frederik Andersen, Michael Hutchinson, and possibly others.

Honestly, the Leafs might not have a ton of hope getting more out of Hutchinson, yet Andersen’s capable of much better. To remind you of the warping effects of small sample sizes, consider the strange quirk that, so far this season, Andersen’s PK save percentage (.881) is slightly higher than his even-strength mark (.879). Considering that Andersen’s career even-strength save percentage is .923, you can expect improvement, even if this ends up being an off year.

Ultimately, the Maple Leafs need to optimize, even if they might see flaws. While Hockey Viz’s heat maps show promise on offense:

It’s clear that the defense needs tidying up:

Marleau riding high

The hacky instinct would be to look at Marleau’s hot scoring start (two goals, four assists for six points in six games), plus Toronto’s bumpy beginning, and argue that Toronto made a big mistake … or they miss his leadership, and so on.

It’s great to see Marleau back in teal, but the numbers are less flattering when you dig deeper. His possession stats are troubling, despite playing almost all of his even-strength shifts with strong linemates in Timo Meier and Logan Couture. You’d like not be that surprised that his shooting percentage (20, vs. 9.9 last season) and on-ice shooting percentage (17.9, vs. 8.5 for his career) both rank as unsustainable.

That’s not meant to degrade Marleau’s inspiring start, because it’s extremely cool. Frankly, the Sharks are weak enough on the wings that it makes perfect sense to bring back their old chum.

Just don’t buy in to potential narratives about the Maple Leafs being lost without Marleau.

Now, arguments about Toronto needing to find answers from a bigger picture sense? That’s a more compelling conversation, although I’d argue that it’s more about how deep the Maple Leafs can go in the playoffs, rather than whether or not they can make it at all.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.