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The optimist and pessimist take on the Leafs’ early season

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Five games, two angles.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Chicago Blackhawks Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, I used the terrible science of PPP Industries to split my brain in two and look at the upcoming season from two perspectives. After the roller coaster ride of the first five games, I brought back my split personality to look over the early going.

The Forwards

Optimist: I think I’ll let you go first on this one.

Pessimist: Oh, you don’t have to do that.

Optimist: No, really, I insist.

Pessimist: No, no, not at all. You just go right ahead and I’ll go after you.

Optimist: Tell me a problem with the forwards, friend.

Pessimist: ...uh...[rubs temples]...well...Auston Matthews’ shooting percentage will regress...

Optimist: Oh, no, really? :( I thought he was going to score 82 goals. I guess I’d better halve his shooting percentage, and—oh, hmm, you know, 41 goals would have been third in the NHL last year. I can live with that. From a teenager. I guess.

Pessimist: [sighs] well....well Nylander will regress too!

Optimist: You sure? How much? Between the end of last year and the start of this one, he’s been sustaining quite something for what’s been quite a while. And that chemistry with Matthews, well, I think that’s going to sustain itself just fine.

Pessimist: They’ve had some defensive struggles!

Optimist: Every forward on the team is at least 49% in score-adjusted Corsi, though. In a forward lineup with five Calder-eligible players. They’ve scored 18 goals in five games. That would have been the best scoring rate in the NHL last year running away. And sure, they’ve had a high shooting percentage at 5v5, but not so high it’s obscuring the real level of talent. Even if you balance out all those percentages—by the way, they’re not even overachieving on the powerplay, and they’re still scoring bunches—this is a really good forward lineup. Both skilled and deep. And it’s only going to get better.

Pessimist: I—well-—SOMETIMES I DON’T LIKE TYLER BOZAK

Optimist: [sympathetically] Sometimes we all don’t like Tyler Bozak. He’s still on pace for 49 points again, though.

Pessimist: You have to admit, they get stuck in their own zone a lot.

Optimist: Sure. On the other hand, the puck gets stuck in the opposing net a lot.

Pessimist: FINE. Let’s move on.

The Defence

Pessimist: Not so rosy now, is it? I think every Leaf defenceman has now blown at least two coverages leading to hideous goals. If you strung tape of all their third periods together, the resulting footage would qualify as a horror film.

Nikita Zaitsev can’t break out worth a damn. Gardiner and Rielly have been playing kamikaze-aggressive coverage and have gone down in predictable flames. Martin Marincin continues to be the NHL’s best argument for the eye test over the spreadsheets. Connor Carrick just ain’t ready for prime time. If he were a left-hand shot, he’d be down with the Marlies, like Nielsen and Dermott; instead he’s up in the NHL, and—no, Connor, don’t clear it directly to Nikolaj Ehlers!

Optimist: Look, this is a young, mobile, offensive-minded defence group. We knew that before the season, and we know it now. Sure, they’re going to give up some chances, but they’re also going to help generate a ton of them. Of the top eight defenders in the NHL in CF60, four play for the L.A. Kings, and four for the Leafs (Gardiner, Rielly, Marincin, Carrick.) All four Leafs are excellent in CF%—on balance, they’re solidly net positives for the team. And before you say that doesn’t account for shot quality—all four of those Leafs are also in the top 45 defenders (min. 50 minutes played) in scoring chance %. No, it’s not easy outscoring all your problems, but the Leafs are an offensively potent lineup, and these defenders are, on net, putting the team in a position to win. Mistakes get made, but the early numbers are good for the key players.

Pessimist: Hmm, you know, I counted the defencemen you listed there, and you seem to have forgotten a couple.

Optimist: Wait—

Pessimist: Messrs. Hunwick and Polak would like a word with you.

Optimist: I knew this was coming.

Pessimist: Polak has been, well, Polak; he’s slow and he throws hits that get penalized. You’d think the Leafs would have noticed when they traded him to the Sharks he got absolutely shredded in the playoffs. But he’s tough and masculine, so I guess it’s fine he’s not able to keep up with the NHL game.

Matt Hunwick has been terrible. In his prime Hunwick was a sixth defenceman; his prime is long past, and he’s submarining Zaitsev’s numbers as well as his own—as well as the whole team’s. Despite playing for a good possession team, he’s in the bottom five defencemen in the NHL in CF%. Is that good? I feel like that’s not good.

Optimist: Hunwick hasn’t played well. No question. But there’s more to the long-term plan for the franchise than immediate wins and losses, and Hunwick is a great example. He’s a leader and he knows how Mike Babcock wants the position played, and he’s there to help Zaitsev work out the transition to the North American game. Sure, Hunwick may not be as great himself, but he’s almost a player-coach now on an otherwise very young defence core. He’ll guide these kids forward. This is the ugly defensive chrysalis; after some time under Hunwick’s tutelage (and Hunwick gets replaced), the squad will emerge as a beautiful defensive butterfly.

Pessimist: That just sounds like rationalization for why the Leafs are playing Brett Lebda 2.0 every night.

Optimist: Some of it’s based on things Mike Babcock has said. Some of it’s—well, what else could it be?

Pessimist: Oh, we’ll get to what else it could be. But first—

The Goaltending

Optimist: Five games. Four for Andersen, one for Enroth. That’s all it is. Andersen is not an .876 goalie, and if you’re taking the four games he’s played so far this season over the 125 he’s played before it, you’re willfully using bad samples to scare yourself. He’s better than this. Give him time, and he’ll show that.

Pessimist: Oh, sure, maybe it’s just a bad few games. It’s been a really bad few games—Bernier was run out of town for having a few more like these ones—but I mean, maybe it’s just all been bad luck. Unless—well, come look over here for a moment.

Optimist: [suspiciously] Why?

Pessimist: Oh, just a few Tweets from a goalie commentator.

Optimist: I...okay, wait—

Pessimist: Remember how Bernier was a good goalie? For—hmm, over a hundred games, wasn’t it? And then...very mysteriously...he went bad. Comically bad. For an extended period, to the point where we gave him away as a throw-in in the Andersen transactions. What if he didn’t just break? What if someone broke him?

Optimist: [in fear] No!

Pessimist: What if we just committed to years like Bernier’s 2015-16?

Optimist: [terror]

Pessimist: What if we committed to that—on a contract comparable to David Clarkson’s?

Optimist:

Pessimist: THE END IS NIGH. CANCEL THE REBUILD. BURN THE BOATS.

Optimist: Wait, wait, wait, wait. This is insane.

It’s four games, for a goalie still rehabbing an injury and adjusting to a new team and town. There’s no sound inference to be drawn from this, not even when you add a Tweeted rumour that no one has any real evidence for. Andersen’s made mistakes, sure, and a couple of times he’s overplayed the shooter, but he’s also gotten beaten that way because the Leafs have allowed a ton of east-west passing in the d-zone. That will improve. So will Andersen.

As much as we’re prone to panic over goaltending, the fact is, this is dressing up four starts in apocalyptic clothes. We’d never accept that this was predictive if Andersen were saving .976, and it doesn’t make sense with him saving .876—and by the way, if you try the newer measure of Fenwick save percentage, Andersen is just above the middle of the league in the early going. All this is about is a fear we have from times past. It has no substance.

I can remember a time a starting goalie opened the year with four bad games, actually. In 2013-14, one supposedly dependable starter put up .879 in his first four starts.

His name was Henrik Lundqvist, and he finished the year at his career average, .920.

It’s so, so early yet. Let’s put the paranoia away.

Pessimist: Pretend you’re not scared if you like. I have seen the darkness.

The Coaching

Pessimist: He keeps playing Hunwick and Polak!

Optimist: I know.

Pessimist: He put them out there to defend a lead on Saturday, and then twice to kill penalties in overtime!

Optimist: Yeah.

Pessimist: It doesn’t make sense!

Optimist: Well, I could tell you he wanted calm veterans with experience in a high pressure situation, rather than throwing the kids to the wolves—you remember how things ended for Carrick against Winnipeg. But the truth is, maybe it was just a mistake. Mike Babcock is human. He’s trying to figure out who he can rely on, and maybe in a particular situation, with an extremely young team, he made a conservative choice.

Pessimist: So he screwed up! He’s playing bad old players over good young ones, out of that same, short-sighted conservatism that impairs coaches everywhere.

Optimist: Maybe he did, in that case. At some point, though, you have to take the good with the bad. Mike Babcock has coached this team out of the depths of possession failure to be a shot-generating machine, one that’s been competitive in every game they’ve played, that already looks like the most sustainably good Leafs’ team since before Randy Carlyle darkened our door. And ultimately, he’s a man who knows more about hockey than we ever will, and who has shown a capacity to adapt. If the problem is him trusting his veterans too much, you also have to acknowledge he’s iced a roster with six rookies, chock full of players under 27. And despite some early struggles, he hasn’t scratched any of them except the maybe-injured Marincin. That shows trust too.

Nobody wants this team to win more than Mike Babcock, and nobody is more determined to build his players up. It doesn’t mean he’s immune to criticism, but this team is in excellent hands.

Five games, we all know, is too short to really draw any conclusions about anything. But if you want to look for something, look for the trends from last year that are continuing, look for the improvement, and look to the future. Every underlying number for this team is good except save percentage, and save percentage is among the noisiest of stats.

Even if you’re expecting the Leafs to make the playoffs—five points in five games does nothing to preclude that. They’ve left a couple on the table, and it happens. If they keep playing this way, they’re going to start racking them up in droves.

Pessimist: Don’t we have to call a spade a spade at some point? Sure, he does some things well, but there’s a bleeding wound on the defence that Babcock insists is a beauty mark. If we aren’t going to be content with mediocrity forever, we have to expect more than “you win some, you lose some.” Self-inflicted roster injuries are holding this team back. Hunwick didn’t just get bad; he was bad last year, too, by every conceivable measure, and Babcock insisted he was good. Maybe Babcock is just wrong about some very important things. #FreeFrankCorrado

Outlook

Optimist: Time. Give this team time. They’re not going to keep blowing 80% of their second-intermission leads, because no one ever does that long term. In the big picture, nothing that’s gone wrong so far outweighs what’s gone right. When you cut through all the noise, this looks like a playoff team, this year.

Pessimist: Only if Andersen can learn to stop a beach ball. Maybe you don’t believe things will be as bad in net, or in third periods, as they’ve been so far. But those things could improve quite a bit and still be crippling. And some of them may just be part and parcel of the super-offence style the Leafs are playing. This team still needs a ton of defensive work, because as they keep finding out—it’s hard to win games where you give up five goals.

Optimist: They’re closer to sustaining four goals a game for than they are to maintaining five goals against. And when they do, look out, league.