We are 10 games into the 2019-20 Toronto Marlies season, and we have some developing storylines and trends already starting. The Maple Leafs’ AHL squad has started their season 7-0-3 and are the only team to not lose a game in regulation so far. Things are going well, but there are still some obvious areas of improvement that can be taken care of. Let’s go through how the season’s gone thus far, starting with the numbers.
This season, the AHL has made shot location data public around the league. For years the AHL has only provided the public with the most basic of numbers, despite the off ice officials counting everything from shot attempts to ice time and making that data available to the teams.
Now that we have team shot maps, we have the opportunity to create better predictive models — such as expected goals — in the coming years. Since I don’t have time to come up with a code during the season, I thought I would manually track scoring chances for the Marlies and their opponent on a given night and record them in an excel document.
I considered scoring chances to be shots within the “Home Plate Area” that was widely used in hockey analytics a few years ago. The people on the cutting edge have since found better ways to weight shots for quality, but I chose this because of its simplicity and repeatability for my brain as I do it manually. Here is what I have for the Marlies so far this season after 10 games.
Right off the bat, we can see that the Marlies are below water when it comes to their shot rate. This is not shot attempts, so we are excluding all 500 of Pierre Engvall’s missed shots, so it’s not the best sample, but we’ll use it since it’s the best we got.
Last season, the team sat at a 47% shots for rate and are so far 48% this season. These aren’t great numbers, especially for a team whose NHL companion is top-five in their league in the same stat. You would think the Marlies would be better at winning the Corsi war, but they have arguably only had three good periods all season. They had seven more shots than Belleville in the first game of the season, 10 more than Manitoba in the second of game three, and 18 more in the third against Belleville in game nine. Beyond those, the Marlies have only marginally out-shot their opponents in a period eight times. The other 19 times they were tied or outshot.
In the AHL, everyone has a bad schedule. Back-to-backs every weekend and often with travel in between. The Marlies really don’t have an excuse to not show up against their opponents, and yet, they often find themselves chasing the game; in a perpetual cycle of surviving a bad shift in their own zone, dumping the puck out, and bracing for another attack within seconds. As a result, the Marlies often have to rely on a counter attacking style to get their offense going, scoring with some combination of talent and speed, or drawing a penalty.
Building on that information on the offense, we see there is a gap between shot share and scoring chance share of about 3 points in the above data, indicating the Marlies take worse quality shots than their opponent, on top of shooting less on a given night. It’s not a large difference, but combining these results with what I’ve seen within games, it’s significant enough to at least note.
In terms of shot quality, the Marlies have been quite bad compared to their opponents, a 45% scoring chance ratio is not encouraging at all. However, I don’t think it’s because the defencemen are doing all the shooting. They account for 26% of the Marlies shots. Evidence in the NHL suggests this is on the lower side, as does in the AHL. From my 2018-19 data, 30% of the league’s shots came from defensemen and the Marlies were exactly league average then. The issue the Marlies are having with their shot quality is coming from what they’re giving up at the other side of the rink and what their forwards are producing.
The Marlies have a relatively young and inexperienced defense group this season. There is a lot of offensive firepower, especially when you look at the Swedes and the Finns, but the likes of Teemu Kivihalme and Jesper Lindgren have some work to do before they can keep up with an AHL opponent. You can tell with both that they want to carry the puck and create offense — Lindgren loves to shoot the puck — but there is still a timing and instinct issue with both as they get their feet planted in North America. Egor Korshkov experienced this last season and after the first couple rounds of the playoffs, he seemed to really get the style of game here.
Ben Harpur has also struggled to keep up defensively. He’s often seen chasing in the defensive zone, often failing to use his size to do more than slow the offense against him. Jordan Schmaltz — who was his partner to start the season but has since moved to his own pair — often had to do the heavy lifting in the neutral zone and getting the puck out.
On the whole, 60% of the shots Toronto gives up are scoring chances, while only being able to turn their shots into scoring chances 53% of the time.
Offensively, the Marlies have some pretty good scorers and playmakers that have been able to prop up a less than mediocre offense in terms of shot generation for the better part of a year now. Simply put, the Marlies have more often than not relied on some combination of goaltending, power play quality, shooting skill and luck to win them games, and it has been a big part of their success so far this season.
As a team, the Marlies are shooting 13.7% so far this season. Last year, the best shooting team was the Syracuse Crunch, while the Marlies were in the bottom third of the league at 8.7%. This is not going to last, so the Marlies are going to need to find ways to improve their quantity and quality of shots if they want to keep up the production they are having.
Over the last four games, the Marlies have started to regress and lose a bit of the luck that has made the start so successful. Before, they would escape periods where they got out-shot and be able to make adjustments for the next one. Recently, the Marlies have found themselves tagged for a few goals and forced to play from behind. The Syracuse Crunch game was a prime example of a quality team taking advantage of the opportunities the Marlies gave them.
One thing that has really surprised me and has kept the Marlies afloat this far into the season has been the goaltending. Kasimir Kaskisuo has performed like a capable starter, posting a .924 save percentage through his first six games. He’s had to face a heavy dose of scoring chances against every night, but has mostly found a way to keep the puck out. His shot stopping from medium and long-range shots has improved, as has his his positioning at his posts during scrums. He’s still prone to giving up the odd weak goal, but for the most part he’s been a very pleasant surprise. That said, I’m not saying book his ticket to the NHL. That would be quite premature.
Speaking of premature, Joseph Woll has been great so far this season. I know he’s got a .897 save percentage through four games, but his underlying numbers and his play between the pipes has been much better than his results show. Woll has been given the second leg of all four back-to-backs this season. On average, he’s had to face four more shots per game than Kaskisuo and two more scoring chances. Against some tough opponents, Woll has been able to push his otherwise out-played team into overtime, gaining a point in all four appearances he’s made. While the Marlies shot rates are down in games with Woll in net, they’ve found ways to give him run support of four goals per game. His best game was the Marlies best game, a 4-0 win over the Manitoba Moose where the Marlies out-shot the Moose by 10, had nine more scoring chances, and Woll finished the night with a shutout.
After 10 games, the Marlies must be both glad to be where they are and frustrated to no end because it could’ve very easily gone much worse. There is lots to fix with the Marlies, starting at the front and moving back. Offensive sustainability, defensive fundamentals. Give these goalies a break once in a while please. The next set of 10 games starts today at 11:30am in Rockford. The Marlies and Ice Hogs are playing a school day game!