A lot of Leafs fans seem to be awfully disappointed with the team's performance over the past month or two. I think most people knew that the fast start which saw the Leafs leading the Northeast division early in the sesason was a bit of a mirage, but we were all hoping that maybe that fast start would hold up somewhat and give the team a bit of an edge as the season wore on against other teams battling it out in the Eastern Conference for the final few berths. As of this moment, the Leafs have given up that early advantage and are currently one game back of the final playoff spot in the East. Lots of people are bummed out about this, and I can't say that I entirely blame them. At the same time, I wonder if a lot of the fanbase is being kind of impatient right now.
I think people should keep in mind that this is a young, rebuilding team, and that Brian Burke completely gutted the roster a couple of years ago. At the end of Brian Burke's first full season here, with the rebuild in full swing, the Leafs finished 2nd last in the NHL. Only a year and a half later, the Leafs are in a tight battle for the last couple of playoff spots in the conference. That seemed like pretty decent progress to me, but I wanted to know if there was any way to see whether or not that was actually true. So I decided to compare the Leafs to the other bottom-dwellers in the NHL the year they bottomed out and see if their progression was any better than that of other teams that weren't all that good. After the jump, a whole bunch of tables and charts!
A year and a half ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs completely bottomed out, finishing 2nd last in the NHL after Brian Burke shipped out a huge chunk of the roster for players and picks. The rebuild continued the next season, as Burke sent out even more veterans (and Kris Versteeg) for picks and prospects as the team began to improve. This season, the Leafs have spent most of the year in a playoff spot. Sounds like progress to me. But is it, in comparison to other teams that performed poorly in 2009-10? To find out, I gathered a few statistics for the teams that finished in the bottom 10 in the NHL standings that year, and compared their progress to the Leafs over the past couple of seasons. Here are some fancy tables to illustrate how the teams fared. The main columns indicate each team's rank in the NHL that season out of the 30 clubs, and the CHANGE column indicates how many ranks each team moved up or down in comparison to the previous season:
The Leafs come off looking pretty good here. They have the 2nd best improvement in increasing their PTS% after Florida, they have by far the best offensive improvement (though I would argue they're out-performing their skill level a bit this season), and even in goals allowed, where the Leafs continue to not be great, they've improved more than five of the ten teams here. What should be more heartening for Leafs fans though, I think, is the fact that Toronto is one of only two teams here that has consistently improved without any significant setbacks.
You could argue that the Leafs and that other team, the Florida Panthers, had an easier time improving than the other teams listed here, given how low those two started out, but I think it's worth noting that both teams have surpassed most of the teams that were ahead of them just a year and a half ago, and neither is more than a game back from being at the top of these 10 teams right now.
The Leafs still have problems keeping the puck out of the net, and that needs to improve, but on the whole the team has performed much better than most of the other teams here, with the 2nd best overall improvement after the Florida Panthers, who are currently only one game ahead of the Leafs with a game in hand. It's also worth noting how the two teams improved. Florida added a number of over-priced free agents who have likely hit a plateau in terms of development, while Toronto has improved primarily by adding young players while also stocking the cupboard with some prospect depth.
Assuming that Brian Burke can continue building the team, and I don't see any reason to believe he won't, I think the Leafs look like the most likely team in this group to continue improving long-term. The others have mostly bounced around in terms of their performance, while the Leafs are on a path of continued improvement. This is why I've been trying to preach some patience all season - in comparison to the other teams that bottomed-out around the same time Toronto did, the rebuild is well on its way to paying dividends. Slow, consistent improvement is better than a big jump and then a drop or stagnation. And slow, consistent improvement is exactly the path the Leafs are on.
And now, because everyone loves them - charts!