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Just how bad are the Maple Leafs?

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The last-place Leafs are the worst team in the NHL. Right? Because the standing never lie, so they must be. Take a look under the hood at just how bad they really are.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the things I've written about hockey, the one I love the most is my piece done at the half-way point of the season where I said the Leafs were actually playing better than they had in years and they would totally start to win. And then they totally lost. A lot.

That's hockey! I was both right and wrong, and it amuses me whenever fans complain about how terrible the Leafs have been while celebrating the "tank". Because you're both right and wrong when you do that. The Leafs aren't terrible, and they are losing.

It's just past three-quarters of the way into the season, and I've updated the charts. Let's see what's going on.

Note: the original post has a slightly different second quarter with fewer than 21 games.

Edited to add: all data is 5-on-5 and score adjusted.

Leafs luck? Always bad.

Starting with shooting percentage and save percentage, one really obvious thing stands out here. That's the worst goaltending results in years in this third quarter.

The shooting percentage has gotten worse too. That's mostly luck, and so is 21 games of save percentage, but given the circumstances, I think we can say some of it is also lack of skill on the team.

I get knocked down...

The main set of percentages, which last time trended upward across the board, is showing some stumbles.

Look at that Goals For percentage! That's a lot of losing visualized in one red rectangle. But why has that cratered so dramatically? We already know one issue is the save percentage and by extension the goaltending, but that's not the whole story.

Look at that Corsi for percentage! Or shot differential as I like to call it. It's the best ever. We know that shot differential genuinely correlates to success, and it looks okay, so what's going on?

If you look at the Scoring Chances, you see they stayed at about 50%, but the High-danger Chances have shifted in favour of the opponents.

Now's the time where it pays to think for a minute. This is 21 games in each quarter, and there's two teams on the ice. Some of the fluctuation here is who the opponents were, how tough the schedule was, and some of it is the Leafs. A lot of it is normal variance through time. But the most meaningful number on the graph is showing the Leafs are playing better than they have in years. Even while they're losing.

Drilling down

A deeper look at the makeup of that encouraging CF% offers some answers.

The shots against have gone down a lot but unfortunately, so have the shots for. But they are both an improvement over the opening quarter of the year when nothing seemed to be working on the ice. Is the stumble the drop in shots for or was that zooming increase last quarter impossible to sustain?

The Scoring Chances and High-danger Chances are included here for context, and you can see a minor fluctuation in the chances against, while the drop in chances for is worth some thought.

Here's my thought: James van Riemsdyk. He is, in my opinion, the best forward on the Leafs. He shoots a tonne, and he shoots well. Having him out of the lineup since January 11 must be having an effect on much of what we're seeing here.

Pace of play

If you haven't already, do read this excellent analysis of how the Detroit Red Wings are playing under their new system versus how they played under Mike Babcock. It digs into the pace of play the Red Wings employed, and presents the theory that Babcock wanted a more conservative, slower-event game to mitigate weakness on defence.

That is a very big fluctuation in total shots for and against. The pace has cooled way down, and at this slower pace of play, the Leafs lost a lot. And at this slower pace of play, the Leafs had the best shot differentials in years.

Predictions

No, I haven't learned my lesson. Going into the last 21 games, and I'm cheating because we've already seen some of them, the Leafs lineup is full of rookies, new veterans, old veterans coming back off IR, and no James Reimer. The defence is all under 25, and most of them are very unseasoned.

I think we will see the pace of play stay low. I think we'll see the shots for go up because shooting a lot is how you get Babcock to keep you in the lineup. I think we might also see some abysmal goaltending and rookie mistakes and some struggles in the shots against.

But I also think that this is the best lineup that's been on the ice all year, even with the best Leafs forward still on IR. Could we see them get even better shot differentials as the season winds down?

Maybe they will improve. But I don't think you need to worry they'll win too much, not without a big change in goaltender performance.

Glossary

ZSO% Offensive zone faceoffs as a percentage of total faceoffs not including those in the neutral zone
HSCF% High-danger Scoring Chances For as a percentage of total
SCF% Scoring Chances For as a percentage of total
CF% Shots For as a percentage of total
GF% Goals For as a percentage of total
HSCF60 High-danger Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes
HSCA60 High-danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes
SCF60 Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes
SCA60 Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes
CF60 Shots For per 60 minutes
CA60 Shots Against per 60 minutes