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The Leafs at the mid-point of the season; half-full or half-empty?

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The Leafs are almost in a playoff spot halfway through the season. Is there cause for optimism or pessimism about the second half?

Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Leafs have finished 39 games, so they are behind most of the league who already have half their games played. But since it is the bye week, the half-term report is out now. Remember this is a look at the five-on-five numbers, so improvements or problems in special teams aren’t shown here.

All data used is score and venue adjusted five-on-five, from Natural Stat Trick. Shots always means all shots, or Corsi, unless otherwise stated.

Luck

Shooting percentage has stayed in the normal range, so the Leafs are neither lucky nor unlucky there. I’ll save the look at save percentage for farther down, but the year to date save percentage is now also in the league average neighbourhood.

Shooting and Goals

The big picture look at shooting and goals in this season versus the past two years shows nearly the same levels of improvement we saw at the first quarter.

The Corsi For percentage is still over 50. The Scoring Chances and High Danger Scoring Chances (the part of the Corsi For that are considered higher quality shots) are both proportionally high. The Goals For percentage is over 50.

This progression is bad in all ways in the year Randy Carlyle was fired to okay but not scoring last year to okay with goals and better shot quality this year.

The biggest change is obviously the Goals For percentage. As we learned last year, a mediocre team with good underlying shot differentials is still a bad team if they can’t outscore their opponents.

The Leafs are 11th best in the league right now in Goals For percentage, so they are doing okay at the outscoring thing, but their 51.88 percent is a long, long way from the top four teams in the league who are around 60 percent.

Separating the Shots into Component Parts

This shows the Corsi, Scoring Chances and High Danger Scoring Chances broken down into for and against.

The only notable thing here is how high the Scoring Chances are. Both for and against are very high relative to the total shots. So while the Leafs might be producing a lot of quality shots, they are also allowing a lot too, at about the same proportion.

At the quarter mark, I discussed the high pace of play the Leafs are employing. This has been the most dramatic change from prior years, and the pace has cooled a little. The Leafs are now only sixth worst in the league in Corsi Against while still third best in Corsi For.

First Quarter to Second Quarter Changes in Shots

I did a chart that shows the first to second quarter changes in shots for and against, but I’m not posting it. It is too easy to infer a lot of meaning in some very small differences. The Corsi For and Against per 60 minutes both dropped from the first quarter to the second. And it has been clear for a while that the Leafs have a very high shots against, so decline there is good.

But, the overall Corsi percentage is nearly identical at just over 50 and the real effect of the decline is about two fewer shots against per game and one or two fewer shots for. Remember, this is Corsi, not Shots on Goal, so this change is essentially meaningless to game outcomes, and the goalies would never notice the difference.

The gap between the Leafs modestly improved Corsi Against per 60 minutes and the league-leaders in limiting shots, the Los Angeles Kings, is close to 10 shots per hour, so seven or eight per game. That is a meaningful difference.

The bottom line on shooting differentials is that the Leafs are in the middle of the league overall, with a high rate of play both for and against. Nothing meaningful has changed there, and there is no sign of improved offensive play from the first quarter to the second in any of the underlying numbers beyond that strange spike in scoring chances. However, the Leafs share of the high-danger chances over these games has dropped by a small amount.

The Big Change

One thing has changed, and changed dramatically. It can be represented in two ways: Save Percentage and Goals Against.

That is the sum total of the meaningful change from the Leafs first quarter to the second. The Goals For has dropped a small amount, less than half a goal per hour, but the Goals Against has dropped by one full goal per hour. However, the resulting year to date result of 2.49 GA/60 is the fourth worst in the league.

The team Save Percentage went from one of the worst in the league to one of the best, but it all averages out to the low side of league average for the first 39 games, very close to the middle of the pack.

Some people believe save percentage is all the goaltender. I don’t. I think the Leafs got a very hot run from Frederik Andersen in the second quarter, but I also think they improved their overall quality of play in the defensive zone. It’s still not great, and there is no reason to believe that second quarter goals against rate or save percentage will continue on. The first quarter’s poor performance didn’t remain unchanged, and there will be more peaks and valleys between now and the end of the season.

Conclusion

The Leafs turned their goals against around in a big way, got better goaltending, and got slightly better in a few areas of five-on-five play.

But they aren’t in the top ten in the league—-which is where the contenders come from—-in anything except their rate of shots for. That high rate is so mitigated by equally high shots against as well as very high scoring chances against that, overall, the Leafs are mired in the muddy middle in this year’s NHL. They have, just barely, a positive goal differential, and their regulation and overtime wins are middle of the league—in the same neighbourhood as division rivals for that last playoff spot: Florida, Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

The Leafs biggest weakness is their lack of depth, and they have not been challenged much in that area. They have 14 players who have played in more than 90 percent of the games. Tampa has only 10 players who have played 90 percent of their games, and one of those is currently on IR. Florida also only has 10 players who have met that mark.

The Leafs are now about to try backup goaltender number three on the year, and the depth at centre is so poor that an injury to Ben Smith genuinely hurts the team. Even a small uptick in injury rate could hobble this team completely.

The chances of Andersen playing as many games in the second half of the season as he did in the first is unlikely—he has appeared in 33 games so far. And the chances of the Leafs save percentage hitting .935 for 43 more games is even more unlikely. But it doesn’t really need to be that amazing; it just needs to stay somewhere around average.

Everything about the Leafs is a high wire act, and that doesn’t mean they can’t stay up there for another half a season. They may keep on doing just well enough at everything other than shots for to support that diamond-sharp offensive pace, and if they do, they could take one of the playoff spots that half the division is in range of right now.

A normal team usually has injuries and fatigue pile up in the second half. But the Leafs aren’t normal, and they may not merely survive their compressed second half with a team full of youth, they may thrive in it. A reasonable person could say they might get perceptively better within the season; they already have at defensive play.

But one slip, and they crash off the high wire and sink to the bottom of the muddy middle instead of rising to the top where they are right now.

The Leafs earned 22 points in the first 21 games. In what I’m calling the second quarter, which is three games fewer at 18, they earned 22 points. They seem to be heading for somewhere around 90-94 points on the year. And they might get there, but there’s too much fortune, good and bad, behind a team’s place in the standings to know for sure.

One thing hasn’t changed from the very first game of the season until now, however; the Leafs are a lot of fun to watch.