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Can the Leafs be the best offense since the 2004 lockout?

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Probably not. But maybe. But probably not. Maybe though.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

We know the Leafs are offensively potent. That’s been their calling card over the last two seasons. They may not defend well (or at all), but by God, this team can score. In 2017/18, the Leafs ranked 2nd in goals scored. The year before, they were 5th league wide.

This year, they can project to be even better. You may have heard that they added John Tavares*. The Leafs also can expect to benefit from a year’s growth from Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. The Leafs have a few players who are unlikely to repeat prior seasons offensively, but by and large, they’re a young team and can expect modest internal growth.

Here at PPP, we like to be pretty measured and not get carried away. However, all of this leads to the question... can the Leafs be the best offense since the NHL lockout? Lets find out.

* You may not have heard that the Montreal Canadiens didn’t even get an interview with Tavares. It’s true! He didn’t even want a free meal on their behalf.

Defining Offense

The first step we need to take is defining what we mean by ‘best offense’. The obvious answer is goals. However, using raw goals isn’t a great idea. Some years are more conducive to offense than others. Is a team that scores 250 goals in the 1980s a better offensive team than one that scores 250 now? I would argue no, they just exist in an environment that is more favourable to them.

In my opinion, the mark of a team or player is where they stand relative to their peers. If we assume that the overall talent level in the NHL is roughly constant over the course of the last 13 seasons (since the 2004 lockout), then it’s logical that the best offense is the one that outperforms other teams in goal scoring by the largest margin over that time span. This way, we iron out year-to-year idiosyncrasies in officiating, rule sets, and tactics, by only comparing teams to others who were in the same goal-scoring environment as them.

The next question to address is, how do we judge where teams stand relative to their peers? Again, the obvious answer is to look at their goal scoring ranking against other teams that season. That’s what we’ll do, but we need to be a little careful here. We want to compare a given team to all other teams that year. The natural way to do that is to look at the goals they scored relative to the goals scored average of all teams. However, this neglects the spread of data. It is more impressive to outscore the average when teams are tightly clustered around that average than when teams are wildly spread apart; it means that a team blows away the competition despite existing in an environment with a high degree of parity.

For this reason, we will use a metric known as standard score. Standard score tells us the number of standard deviations (a measure of the dispersion of the data) away from the mean a given quantity is. The higher the number, the further away from the mean you are, accounting for the level of variance in the data set. We’ll apply that to every team post-lockout, to see which teams stood out the most in terms of scoring goals.

The Results

Based on the decisions we outlined above, lets see who the best offensive teams post-lockout are. The full data is here. Below is a box plot of the standard scores for every team since the 2004 lockout. The blue line is the 2017-2018 Leafs, and the red line is the 2016-2017 Leafs.

From this, we can see that the Leafs were well above average over the last couple seasons, but not on the same level as the truly historic offenses we’ve seen in recent years. They ranked 23rd in 2017/18 and 77th in 2016/17. By the way, the dot at the top is the 2009/10 Washington Capitals, who blow away every other team by this measure. The rest of the top 10 is in the table below.

Top 10 NHL Offenses Since 2004 Lockout

Team Season G W L T OL Pts. TPA G PP SH Average Goals Standard deviation Z score
Team Season G W L T OL Pts. TPA G PP SH Average Goals Standard deviation Z score
Washington Capitals 2009-10 82 54 15 0 13 121 188 314 79 4 226.53 22.99 3.80
Buffalo Sabres 2006-07 82 53 22 0 7 113 186 300 71 8 232.60 25.62 2.63
Pittsburgh Penguins 2012-13 48 36 12 0 0 72 101 163 42 2 127.53 13.73 2.58
Detroit Red Wings 2008-9 82 51 21 0 10 112 183 289 90 6 231.00 23.43 2.48
Dallas Stars 2015-16 82 50 23 0 9 109 181 257 58 10 216.07 17.26 2.37
Pittsburgh Penguins 2011-12 82 51 25 0 6 108 181 271 57 11 218.03 22.87 2.32
Detroit Red Wings 2005-06 82 58 16 0 8 124 179 298 102 7 242.33 24.09 2.31
Pittsburgh Penguins 2016-17 82 50 21 0 11 111 185 277 60 5 220.63 25.92 2.17
Tampa Bay Lightning 2017-18 82 54 23 0 5 113 181 287 66 9 236.81 23.17 2.17
Washington Capitals 2015-16 82 56 18 0 8 120 183 250 55 2 216.07 17.26 1.97

So this tells us the Leafs weren’t a historically good offense last year, but we knew that. The question is whether the Leafs can get there next season. If we assume that the average and standard deviation of goals is the same next year as it was this year, the Leafs would need to score about 325 goals to equal the 2009/10 Capitals as the best post-lockout offense. Last year they scored 273, so that’s a 19% increase in goal scoring.

As bullish as I am about John Tavares, I don’t think he’ll improve the Leafs to that degree. But as mentioned, the Capitals were on another level to every other team. If the Leafs wanted to be the 2nd-best offense since the 2004 lockout, they’d only need to score 298 goals, which is just a 9% increase over last season.

Even that is a somewhat ambitious goal, but it’s doable. If they stay healthy and draw more power plays, it’s within the realm of possibility. To get to the top 10, they need to be right around 283 goals. That seems very achievable, as long as the Leafs stay healthy and players like Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen partially fill the void left by the departed James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak.

I wouldn’t say it’s incredibly likely - a lot did go well for the Leafs last season, and teams at this level always have more downside risk than upside (injuries are always the big concern). The Leafs also shot at an incredibly high percentage last year, and while they have the shot profile and finishing talent of a team that may be better positioned to sustain that sort of shooting percentage, it is highly variable nonetheless. If the Leafs became a more dominant shot share team, this would be less of a concern.

That said, the Leafs have a real shot. They took a team that was a top 25 offense without their best player for a quarter of the season, and added an all-world centre to the mix. Their best offensive players can all reasonably be expected to improve. Their shot metrics can reasonably be expected to improve. Their coaching staff has a history of setting up strong power plays. The Leafs are as strong a bet to be an elite offense as any team this side of Tampa Bay. They won’t catch the 2009-10 Capitals, but they can hang with just about anyone else.