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Third quarter report: Why have the Maple Leafs been winning so much lately?

With more than three quarters of the season over for the Leafs, what do their numbers tell us about why they keep winning?

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Maple Leafs have an odd schedule, and they’ve played more games (as of February 28 when the data was compiled) than anyone else in the NHL. They’re 66 games in, slightly beyond three quarters of the season, while most of the rest of the league is at 63 or 64 games played. In their last 24 games, since the mid-point of the season, they have won 15, lost four and have five overtime losses. 12 of the wins were regulation or overtime wins. That is a lot of winning.

How’d they do that?

Shooting

I’ll start where I always start, with the basic Corsi percentage, and see what looking at all the shots tells us.

Score and Venue Adjusted from Natural Stat Trick

Start with the blue Corsi For percentage. It really does not change. The third quarter is up a little, but it’s only one percentage point that just corrects the second quarter dip. The season to date is exactly 50%. The Leafs are mediocre at shot share as a way of life, and they’re 16th in a 31-team league right now.

They did not rack up wins because they dominated the shots on a regular basis.

If you look at shots for and against, you will see that they both reverted from the poor second quarter in the right direction, but the overall difference is meaningless. They aren’t getting any worse at allowing a lot of shots against.

The third quarter unblocked shot percentage (Fenwick), which has always lagged behind the CF%, is higher than it’s been since last year. Most of the improvement is in a greater number of unblocked shots for. This could be some sort of change in playing style or it could be random chance in opponents or just luck.

Goals

Expected Goals: A shot quality measure calculated by weighting Fenwick by shot location and type as well as other factors, depending on the model used. I am using Corsica’s model. xGF/60, for example, is the number of goals per 60 minutes you should expect with average shooters and goalies from shots of the type and location taken.

All Expected Goal Data is unadjusted and from Corsica.

Oh, hello. Could that green bar that is very happy to see us be the answer we seek? It is at least the clue to why the Leafs are winning, and that is a 57 percent Goals For, which has dragged the season to date number to almost 55 percent.

But what is this unexpected drop in Expected Goals For in the third quarter? I have no answer for you, but can only surmise it might be injuries, new rookie defenders, lineup changes or, perhaps, strength of schedule and luck again.

That monster Goals For percentage is not the highest in the league for this quarter. The Leafs are only fifth behind Nashville, Pittsburgh, Boston and Minnesota.

You get a nice goal differential in two ways — by shooting goals or by saving them.

Shooting

Note: both the shooting and saving section use Fenwick shooting or save percentage. That’s just the percentage of all unblocked shots that go in or don’t. They are compared to the Expected version of the same stat.

All Expected Goal Data is unadjusted and from Corsica

That’s good shooting in the third quarter, but not like that wild first set of games where people thought the Leafs had become the best team in history and would score six goals every night.

The correction from the second quarter’s results below expected has left the season to date at just over expectations. So that’s good. You can plausibly believe that’s overall skill shining through the ups and downs in variance in a season. Even in the last 24 games the Leafs have shot well, scored well, but they weren’t just a bit lucky, they were also good.

Saving

All Expected Goal Data is unadjusted and from Corsica.

Oh! Oh, there it is. The big orange happy bar that is helping make the big green happy 57 percent Goals For.

You really have to use caution looking at save percentages here. They vary over just a bit below 94 percent up to 95.5. This is not huge differences, despite how this chart looks, but these are the fine tolerances in goaltending performance that gives you win streaks or losing streaks. That first quarter being the latter, the third, the former.

Note, however, the drop in Expected Fenwick Save Percentage from the very high mark set in the second quarter. You can consider that a kind of measure of defensive execution. We know the Leafs allow a lot of shots, but xFSV% shows how hard it really is to be their goalie. They sank right back to their season average in this third quarter. And the goalies outperformed expected save percentage by a lot.

Overall on the season, the Leafs have very good goaltending, not elite-level. But very good is still good enough to go on a streak like this one.

Conclusion

Some good shooting and better goaltending on top of some typically mediocre quality of shot share got the Leafs the fourth best Goals For per 60 this quarter, and the ninth best Goals Against per 60. Add in their excellent special teams and they win games much more often than they lose them.

So is this all luck? People (not me) like to talk about PDO as if that measures luck. The Leafs on the season are second in PDO with 1.021. But do you know who’s first? Tampa at 1.024. Oh, and the Bruins? Sixth at 1.013. So if some of our results are luck, so are some of theirs.

We cooked up a tortured metaphor amongst the masthead for the Leafs. They are a serviceable Toyota with a Ferrari engine, a back right tire that’s always flat, and a wizard in the trunk who makes all the lights turn green. Pedal down! Just keep driving!

Why were they winning so much? Because over the last 24 games, Mitch Marner shot 17 percent after having a terrible shooting percentage for most of the year. Auston Matthews shot 22 percent. There were some other players who were horrible though, so the team average didn’t rise all that much. Patrick Marleau, Leo Komarov and Kasperi Kapanen were all various shades of unlucky or bad.

The right people were hot for the Leafs. Early in the year when Connor Brown and Dominic Moore were shooting at 30 percent, that didn’t really help all that much because they weren’t on the ice all that much. If Matthews and Marner get cooking, then you win. Oh, and William Nylander? He doesn’t shoot enough and a lot of his shots are blocked, but he had so many primary assists (12) in this period, that I think every other time he passed the puck to someone they scored. Meanwhile, there’s Andersen in net, making the red lights turn green.

Is this sustainable? Always the question, since what the Leafs have is not built on high CF% like Boston, Tampa, Nashville, Vegas and Pittsburgh. But don’t mistake the Leafs for the hopelessly outshot New York Rangers. They’re just meh, not horrible. So far, the Leafs have just kept on scoring a lot more goals than the other guys all year long. I can’t tell you when it will stop. We’ll have to play the playoffs in a few weeks to find out.