While I’ve been doing quarterly reports on the Leafs for a few years, I’ve never found much value in looking just at the fourth quarter of the season. It’s too weird. The trade deadline and the aftermath create artificial scenarios where games aren’t just games, but something closer to training camp exhibitions. The deeper into the season, the more this is true.
I’d rather look at a full season of the Leafs as team, and the players on the team, something I don’t do on a quarterly basis because looking for truth in some player’s results in 20 games is as useful as deciding which cloud on a summer’s day looks most like a margarita.
Some things about the Leafs never change. We learned that well enough from those quarterly examinations that when I say the Leafs finished the season in 14th place in Score and Venue Adjusted Corsi For percentage at five-on-five, you won’t be shocked. The number is 50.55. They’ve been doing that for years. Not enough has changed to change that. In my likely unprovable opinion, the culprit is poor zone exits, and the fault is shared by so many people, beginning behind the bench, that I don’t believe it’s a problem with a single solution. I don’t believe in Sparky the Unicorn 1RD who will gallop in and save us all.
One note on this Corsi For percentage. I’ve been saying all year that there is more parity in the NHL, and there is and there isn’t. It’s not the age of the brutal tankers who barely played hockey, but there are still really bad teams. There is still the Boston Bruins and the Carolina Hurricanes at the top of the list, proving this season the old lesson that Corsi isn’t destiny like the Bruins and the Kings did last year. Having a goalie helps a lot. Special teams are a nice thing to have.
What is true is that the top tier in Corsi teams, the top five, who all shot over 53 per cent (I’m going to round this off from now on) matches pretty close to the results of last year’s top four. The second tier, who shot at 52 per cent, runs from six to 11. Last year they ran from five to six. The muddy middle, the teams that are all at 50 per cent plus or minus one percentage point are 12 to 22 this year and 7 to 21 last. The bad teams are about the same level of bad as last year too.
I don’t buy into this business that Corsi is dead — that’s silly stuff — but when you start to crush teams into a tighter group, as we have the last two years, you need finer grained measures to tell one from the other. Might it be true that the goalie, the special teams, and luck all play a bigger role? Maybe.
If I turn to Moneypuck’s Expected Goal percentage at even strength I see the Leafs are now 11th with 51.24 per cent. Corsica’s has Toronto 13th at 51.1 per cent. Expected Goals are just shots weighted by various things like location and type. So it’s still a volume measure.
The Leafs are not a team that’s going to win the game by shot volume very often. So that refinement didn’t help much to clarify the picture. The Corsica model at least, does seem to show the good teams as better than mere Corsi reveals and the bad teams as worse. The muddy middle is still mud. Corsica’s model at all-situations has the Leafs at just a hair over 51 per cent.
So how the hell do they keep winning then?
The Toronto Maple Leafs top the list in Expected Goals For in Corsica’s model any way you look at it — in all-situations, by gross numbers or rated out. At five-on-five, they land third behind Columbus and Edmonton. In actual goals scored at five-on-five, they are second only to Tampa.
To keep the mayhem in their own zone to a minimum, they have Frederik Andersen, who is top 15 for goalies with over 1,000 minutes at five-on-five measured by the difference between actual Save Percentage and Expected. He keeps the goals against below what an average goalie would allow. He does this by enough to get the Leafs where they are right now.
And that’s it.
The Leafs are top 10 in Expected Goals against. Measuring from worse to best. If you restrict it to five-on-five, they’re really horrible.
We learned this over and over all year. The Leafs can only win a game one way: outscoring the other team, continuously and relentlessly. Score early, score often.
The Leafs have shooting skill, and they have a mass of it. It’s spread out over three lines, and increasingly both power play units, and it’s spread out really well between defenders and forwards. The wrong defenders don’t shoot much. The wrong forwards don’t have the puck a lot.
I seem to have done my “The Leafs aren’t going to tighten up” speech by accident. Okay, well, go read the parable of the scorpion and the frog. The Leafs are, by nature, bad defensively in every measurable way. They execute better than they used to, but they’re swamping out that improvement with volume of chances offered. They aren’t going to change.
It’s funny to me that the end of the season becomes this time of sudden obsession over goals and points and rankings. This year’s Hart Trophy debate extravaganza is only that writ large. It’s funny, because way back when, one of the things that got hackles raised was Lou Lamoriello’s hoary old cliché about how a hockey team is like an orchestra, and it isn’t as important what each instrument does, it’s only the way they all work together that matters. I think I understand why fans of a certain sort get annoyed at that. They want stars. They want the best player in the league.
The Leafs don’t have the best player in the league. They likely won’t win any awards this year. And the only way you can illustrate the Leafs delightful shooting and offensive skill is with a group of group shots.
Matthews + Nylander = 52 goals
Bozak + van Riemsdyk = 39 goals
Kadri + Marleau = 35 goals
On the power play:
Kadri + Marner + van Riemsdyk et al = 34 goals
Matthews + Marleau + Nylander et al = 16 goals
Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner with 52 points each in all situations.
They just keep coming at you, wave after wave, layer after layer, all of them with one purpose, one goal. And it sure ain’t to play the neutral zone trap.
Score early, Leafs. Score often.