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Third quarter report: the deep dive into the Leafs’ performance so far

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What has changed and what hasn’t? What do you see when you dig deeper than the standings and the Corsi For percentage?

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the newest Maple Leafs, added mainly for his defensive abilities.

With 61 games of data to look at, we have a very good impression now of who these Maple Leafs are.

But before we look at the charts and think about what it all means, let’s take a moment to remember the annoying thing about forecasting from Corsi data: you cannot apply it to the last few games of the season. You cannot say, oh look the Leafs’ Corsi percentage is good, so they should win more games than they lose. Uh-uh. There are too many random factors cluttering up the probabilities, particularly when the number of games remaining dips even lower.

This is the mathy way of saying you have to play the games and win them, not just say you could or should. It is also why the phrase “on pace for” is the most meaningless thing in hockey late in the season. Any fluctuation can happen: wining streaks, losing streaks, bad bounces, puck luck, bad ice, tough opponents, easy roadies, tough back-to-backs.

But being good is better than just counting on luck to run your way, so how good are the Leafs?

Shots and Goals

Remember that this and all other charts show five-on-five data only. I included last year, so we can see how the Leafs are faring with Babcock and good players vs just Babcock. I included 2014-2015 for the fun of it. The fact that one of those was a last place team and it wasn’t the first one still surprises me. But at the same time it reinforces that Corsi is not the guarantee of future goals scored we sometimes pretend it is.

That said, Corsi is a predictor of success, so you want to see over 50 percent, which we do. The third quarter is just about bang on the year to date number, and it is tempting to see that as the team settling into their average state, but that feels like narrativizing the numbers to me.

The Scoring Chances and High-Danger Scoring Chances are included because last year that’s all there was, so I kept it up, and also because we know that the Leafs look at some measure of scoring chances in lieu of all shots. We don’t know their definition, but this might give us some insight into their thinking. Expected goals is likely a better way to view this, but I don’t have the breakdowns of that by quarter—next year, we’ll get with the times.

The year to date scoring chances are above 50 percent, which is good, but that was largely driven by the first quarter’s extreme performance. That feels like a sign that teams play the Leafs tougher than they did, don’t get shocked by the speed anymore, and the hill the Leafs are climbing got steeper. Or maybe I’m narrativizing the numbers; it is hard not to.

The Goals For percentage in the most recent set of games was good, not as fantastic as the second quarter, and we’ll dig into that in a bit. First, let’s look closer at shots.

Shots For and Against

This is the above information broken out into for and against. We see very small changes in Corsi in the second quarter to the third. The shots against are higher, and the spread is about on the average year to date. The only change is that the second quarter’s strange high proportion of Scoring Chances has gone leaving the third quarter about average. That seems to have been a blip of no significance.

Again we can see, comparing the third quarter to the first, that the Leafs are not getting the High-Danger Chances For that they were at the start of the year. The against level is fairly consistent but much higher than Babcock’s bad team produced.

But gaze upon 2014-2015 and see all the splits in the wrong direction and remember that those days are gone.

It’s All Freddie’s Fault!

Did you know that since the All-Star break, Frederik Andersen’s all-situations save percentage—I’m not even going to look it up to mock it. The team Save Percentage has gone up and down. We know the first quarter was hideous and the second was amazing, and we knew enough then to expect it to go back down. The question was always how much.

The answer is, much like the Corsi, right on the average year to date:

That’s not a bad overall save percentage. We might enjoy ourselves more if it were a little higher, but in more robust markers of individual goaltender performance, Andersen is doing fine. He’s not Carey Price. He’s at least top 15 in the league, and likely higher.

I expect his save percentage to rise as the team gets better systems in the defensive zones and executes them with more skill. But I don’t think that’s going to happen next week. Save percentage in this form, like goals against, is at least somewhat controlled by the kinds of chances the team leaves for the goalie to save or not, depending on his skill.

Goals

The goal of any team is to score more than they let in. And the Leafs have struggled all year with what they let in.

This was the punch line chart last quarter. The only change, I said then, between the first and the second was the goals for and against. The first quarter is now, more clearly, the outlier. That Goals For has not been reached again, but thankfully, the Goals Against hasn’t either.

And just as the Save Percentage didn’t stay low in the third quarter, the Goals Against increased as well. The year to date is not quite as good in Goals For as the recent set of games, but the Against was nearly at year to date levels.

Now, the danger in looking at a chart like this is that you are comparing the spread between blue and red, and from segment to segment, and if you aren’t careful, you will assign more value to small changes than you should.

Here’s the bottom line: the year to date shows less than half a goal per 60 minutes between for and against. You play less than 60 minutes of five-on-five in a game. So to win more than you lose with that ratio, you had better have very good special teams, and you had better get a lot of chances on the power play to run up the points. And playoff teams can’t count on the latter. Whistles get put in pockets.

The Leafs, and stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, give up too many goals. The only time they’ve put up a decent Goals Against was when they were briefly getting elite-level goaltending. And even then, the offense had suffered to the point the percentage was too low.

The Future

The future is a murky blur. The Leafs are not lucky, nor are they unlucky. Except in terms of injuries where their luck is the only reason they are still in playoff contention. They may win enough to make it, they may not.

The team needs to improve at some basic skills, and given the age of the team, they will do that just by playing more games. That improvement goes without saying. What I am saying is that I don’t think just waiting for growth through maturity is enough. The Leafs need personnel improvements at many places in the lineup as well as depth all over. That is a longer term problem, not something you can solve instantly.

From now until the end of the season, whenever that comes, there are jobs to be won and lost on this team, primarily the depth wingers and defenders. The Leafs suddenly have an excess of good depth centres which they had none of a few days ago. This next stretch of games might well decide who stays and who goes. But it won’t be a surprise to me if defensive skill is a deciding factor in who stays and who is acquired. The goal scoring jobs all seem to be filled.

As for the playoffs? I’d say it’s a 50/50 chance, and that’s a lot better than I gave the Leafs before the season started. A few depth additions are not going to dramatically improve this team over what they were.

We’ll know the fate of the team in a few weeks, but until then, every game will be fun and meaningful hockey in the spring. Can’t ask for more than that.