In case you missed it, the Toronto Maple Leafs season starts on Wednesday. And unlike last season, they won’t be surprising anyone. The team is widely predicted to repeat their appearance in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Atlantic division has no clear leader to start the season. The Lightning are trying to bounce back from a down year. Despite having Carey Price, the Habs are impossible to trust because they keep trying to do things like bring in Chris Neil. The Senators are primed for a textbook case of extremely satisfying regression. The Leafs have the talent to compete with all of those teams and have a chance to finish near the top of the division.
But all of the above is just circumstantial guesswork. Instead of more of that, let’s check to see what the smart people’s models are projecting so that we can add some science to our wild speculation. The smart people in question for the purposes of this article are Micah Blake McCurdy, Dom Luszczyszyn, and Emmanuel Perry. Their models are named “Edgar”, “Game Score”, and “Salad” respectively.
In the dashboard below, the bar charts show the points projections according to each model and the table shows where the model has the Leafs ranked in the division and the conference. In the bar charts, the orange bar is the projection while the gray bars show the low and high end of where each model thinks the team might reasonably fall.
The first thing worth noting is that the three models do show some similarity in where they have the Leafs positioned. Micah’s model has them lowest both in points and in position in the Eastern Conference but highest in the Atlantic. The other two models have the Leafs in the same spot in terms of playoff positioning. Based on these results, the Leafs appear to be a fringe playoff team in the East, which seems about right given how strong the Metro Division is and how wide open the Atlantic is.
You can read more about Micah’s model Edgar and his projections here. He simulates each game many times and accounts for lots of different inputs including shots, shot locations, goaltending, shooting skill, etc. His results are not kind to the Atlantic Division. Edgar has the Habs winning the division but as just the fifth best team in the East. Clearly, Edgar thinks the Metro will be the much stronger division again this year.
Dom’s model is based on his Game Score stat, which accounts for individual player impact on a game by game basis. The model heavily rewards offensive contributions and star players have a big impact on the predicted results. In his writeup on the Leafs, Dom discusses that while his model recognizes the exceptional talent at forward, the lack of a high end number one defender brings the team back to the rest of the conference a bit.
Finally, Emmanuel Perry’s “Salad” model has the Leafs projected in a similar place to Dom’s. While Manny hasn’t written up his methodology yet, his expected goals model is one of the best stats currently available in hockey so I trust his work and I’ve included it here for comparison.
For the first time in years, Leafs fans will be headed into a season expecting to make the playoffs and hoping to win a series when they get there. Using the projections above, the team does look like it will be in the playoffs but not by a comfortable margin. Any number of things could happen during the season that could change these outcomes for better or for worse.
The biggest asset the Leafs have in terms of over performing expectations is youth. All of the models above know that Auston Matthews and William Nylander are great players after the numbers they put up last season. But those two might have even more to show this year. If they take another step forward, Toronto could easily grab a few moe points, which would push them further up the standings.
Sussing out the depth portion of the forward lines is another area where optimization could earn the Leafs another couple of points. Like many teams, the Leafs face the challenge of how to position their bottom six. They have experienced players like Ben Smith, Dominic Moore, Matt Martin, and Eric Fehr who fit the traditional conception of the role of a fourth line. But they also have high-skill youth options in Josh Leivo and Kasperi Kapanen who are fighting for minutes.
Maximizing the production they get from their bottom six is another way the team could improve on last season. They have plenty of combinations with all of the names above and a little experimentation might be in order to land on the best possible deployment and usage.
With the season nearly here, the time for preseason projections is over. We know what the expectations are. Now comes the fun part.