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First Quarter Report: Is this the same old Leafs?

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There have been a lot of roster changes since last year, so has the team changed or are they still Leafy at heart?

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs

For the last few years, I’ve done a report at the first, second and third quarter of each season that looks deeper into the team results than what the standings tell us. Over the years, this has gotten easier because Expected Goals models make discovering the path the team takes to their never-changing shot share very simple. This time I’m comparing the Leafs this season to the past two years. There’s not much to be gained by digging back into the tank season, so this is about the playoff team the Leafs have become.

Glossary

The word shot in this post will always refer to Corsi, or all shots, unless otherwise indicated. It’s never about shots on goal.

Expected Goals is calculated by weighting shots for quality by adjusting for location and type. It is not adjusted for shooter talent or goaltender or defending ability. Imagine a grey, unexciting, league-average shooter. Expected Goals are his results.

Fenwick is all unblocked shots, and these are the shots that Expected Goals are based on.

All data is five-on-five and score adjusted and is from Offside Review.

Big Picture

This chart shows that the Leafs shot share (CF%) never changes much. That number is always between 50 and 51. This doesn’t excite people and make them exclaim that the Leafs are great, but it also isn’t bad. The team consistently sits in the middle of the league by this measure. I don’t expect this to change.

The Expected Goals (xGF%), or the shot share adjusted for quality, has crept up by tiny increments, and it rounds up to 51 per cent in all but 2016-2017.

The Goals For percentage (GF%) is the only thing that really changes. It has gone from 51 to 54 to 57.65 so far this year.

For and Against

The offensive pace (CF60) cooled a tiny bit last year compared to Auston Matthews’ debut year, but so far this year, the team is playing like their pants are on fire. That’s true of the against pace as well. This pattern showed up early last year, too. The first quarter can be a bit hectic, and the pace comes back to something a little less chaotic over a whole season. The overall percentage never changed last year in any meaningful way, though.

The Expected Goals For (xGF60) has taken a curious step down, and now back up, while the actual goals (GF60) have just risen. The Expected Goals Against were bad, improved last year, and this year so far is nearly the same. The actual goals have just fallen. Note that the gap between actual goals and expected this season is greater on the against side.

Shot share plus team offensive systems and player execution produces Expected Goals. Expected Goals plus luck and shooter skill produces real goals. So where is the skill, where is it lacking and what’s just luck?

Shooting and Save Percentages

These calculations are all done on Fenwick, so if you’re used to seeing much larger numbers for shooting and save percentage, remember that the base of shots used here is bigger than in traditional versions of these statistics that are based on Shots on Goal.

You must remember, when looking at these graphs, that the range of results any NHL team produces is very narrow. These are tiny differences, and if you graph this all from zero to 100, you’d have to make the chart as big as your TV to see the differences from expected to actual. But this narrow variance is where the difference between a good team and a contending team lie. Also, a lot of it is random and sorting out the random chance from the skill is very difficult.

On the shooting side, the Expected Shooting percentage (xFSh%), which can be seen as a single number measure of overall shot quality, has taken the same drop then rebound as the overall offensive pace. The actual shooting percentage (FSh%) has just climbed, but it’s well within the normal range. The Leafs are not lucking their way to goals for. They really are just shooting enough, and well enough, with skilled enough shooters to score like this.

On the save side, we see a bit of evidence of improvement in the Leafs defence. The rise in Expected Save percentage (xSv%) basically says it keeps getting easier to be the goalie for the Leafs. Note that this is happening at the same time as a much worse pace of shots against up there as shown in the Corsi graph.

The actual Save percentage (FSv%) keeps rising, and the gap over expected this season is large, and this is what is driving most of the big Goals For percentage (Also known as the thing that wins games). This is not, however, out of the range of Frederik Andersen’s normal performance. But all goalies vary up and down over the year, and banking on consistency is rarely rewarded with anything but heartbreak.

Leafs ranks in the league

  • CF% - 14th
  • xGF% - 16th
  • GF% - 2nd
  • CF60 - 6th
  • xGF60 - 8th
  • xGA60 - 20th
  • CA60 - 26th

Conclusion

The Leafs are largely the same team, playing exactly the same way they’ve been since they finished tanking. The tank year itself wasn’t terribly different, either; they’re simply better at what they do now, with better players.

There’s no reason to expect them to change. People generally don’t, and teams that win a lot rarely try to alter the formula much. But it’s normal to see some regression of early results to various means.

The overall pace of play might scale back a little. The surprisingly low ranking in Corsi For per 60 minutes is testimony to how many teams now play the same high-octane style as the Leafs, not that the Leafs have cooled down.

The shooting above expected is likely to get better as there are a few individual players in slumps and Auston Matthews missed half this segment of games. The Expected Shooting percentage will go up too, since Matthews’ impact on offensive quality is profound. The goaltending will go up and down within the normal range, as it always does.

There’s no evidence here that Mike Babcock is trying to throttle the offensive creativity of the players, rather the opposite. There is a whiff of very high-risk hockey all over these numbers, but that risk taking is being offset with a small improvement in defensive execution and excellence in the net. Finding the perfect balance of risk vs reward takes more than twenty-some games, generally, and this might be where we see the biggest impact of the roster changes — it will take more time for new players to settle into the pace of play.

The evidence that the Leafs are much better defensively, something people keep telling me, just isn’t here. Yes, the Expected Save percentage has gone up a little, but the overall pace of shots allowed is basement of the league bad. The good old “keeping the shots to the outside” is true to some extent, and yet that only goes so far in mitigating that much shooting volume. Andersen is doing most of the mitigating.

So is this sustainable? Most of it is. Some of it is improvable, and I do expect the shots against to settle back some. The Leafs are superficially exactly who they were last year, a half out of control race car with a hell of a set of brakes. I think they’ve juiced the engine though, and it’s better tuned than it was.

But remember, this is just the five-on-five play. Once you get a decent goal differential during the basic game play, you then ladle on all that rich, dark, gravy of the most dangerous power play in the NHL backed up by a unit that would beat the top setup on most teams. Add in a very good penalty-killing crew, the league-lowest in penalties taken, and the Leafs have come by their league-topping* goal differential honestly. *empty net and shootout goals removed

Are they the best in the league? I don’t know, but they aren’t far off with Andersen in net and most of the forwards healthy. Let’s see where things sit after 41 games.