A Few Thoughts On The Leafs' Possession Numbers And Playoff Hopes

Mike Carlson

As the 60-game mark approaches, the Leafs' record has yet to drop off the way so many of us suspected it would.

If you've ever made even the slightest attempt at understanding advanced stats, you'll know that just looking at one or two numbers doesn't tell the whole story of a hockey team's success or failure. Actually, advanced stats as a whole tell only one part of a story. No serious proponent of "fancy stats" has ever eschewed watching games over having the numbers - they're complementary parts to what is, hopefully, a larger, more thorough understanding of hockey.

The Leafs, of course, have been prime candidates for all sorts of regression since the beginning of last season, and so have been a very high-profile case study in the power of Sabremetrics.

As most readers at this site are already well aware, the Leafs' team Corsi and Fenwick numbers are awful. Lo, they have sunk past the wretched Buffalo Sabres to occupy the last spot in the league in terms of Fenwick 5v5 score close differential. In the wake of this fact, several thoughts occur to me:

1) This is not the worst group of players in the league.

2) Goaltending aside, they have often played like one of the worst teams in the league.

3) This should probably be a bubble playoff team (or maybe a playoff team in a weak East), and I would expect the team's possession numbers to reflect that. Randy Carlyle seems like the main reason for the team's depressed possession numbers at this point, but more on that later.

4) I still believe that the Leafs have been getting inflated shooting and save percentages - even if this team's "true talent" is slightly above the 1000 PDO mark - this season's Leafs probably still have some regressing to do.

What I feel we as Leafs fans are witnessing this season is a group of individuals winning at a slightly elevated rate from what we should expect them to, but not by that much. The team, however, is performing poorly, and winning at a rate that has to be unsustainable. Forget all the advanced stats - how long can a goalie - or two, for that matter - withstand barrages of 40+ shots a night?

In the Leafs' case it would be wrong to interpret the worst possession numbers as belonging to the least talented hockey team in the NHL this season. A top six of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, and say, Mason Raymond is a good group. Maybe they're not in the top 10 of the league, but they aren't awful, that's for sure. As for depth, a third line of Kulemin-Bolland-Clarkson is pretty darn good. The 4th line is... well, let's not talk about that.

On D, the Leafs have some issues, but there is certainly skill there. Phaneuf may be over-used, but he's still a solid defender. Gunnarsson is solid. Gardiner and Rielly are young and accident prone, but they bring a lot of skill to the table, too. As third-pairing defecemen, you couldn't complain much about either Tim Gleason or Cody Franson, either. Without looking at a single advanced stat, would you guess that this is the worst defence corps in the league? Probably not.

So why can't this group of talented individuals be a talented team? Why are they hemmed in their own end so often? Why can't they prevent shots? Why can't their forwards fight for pucks down low in the offensive zone? It seems like the people responsible for motivating a group of players to become a cohesive group has to be the head coach and his assistants, and instituting effective systems to make sure it happens is a part of that.

Make no mistake, there is still time for this season to go off the rails, and it's not out of the question that all of our advanced stat-based predictions come true, though that is looking increasingly less likely as the season approaches three quarters completion.

I guess what I'm getting at here is that if the Leafs make the playoffs, it seems like they're doing it in spite of their coaches' decisions, not because of it.

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