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The 5-Game Process: Recently at Chez Leafs, things seem dismal

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The trend is down, the end is nigh. Or is it?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Arizona Coyotes Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Game 60 was last night, that deeply annoying loss to the Washington Capitals. And that means it’s time to take a look at the downward spiral of the Leafs.

Slap a trend line on that. Except you can’t. Nor should you on a graph that bins up the games into five-game segments. This graph really nicely indicates how fans are feeling however, because emotions seem to work on about a five-game or two-week cycle. Although, at the moment, because the NHL has chosen a very odd schedule, five games takes ten days or less to play.

The Leafs have 76 points in 60 games, and instead of the usual where they sit relative to last year graphs, I want to look at something different this time. Last time, I showed the fact that there are fewer points shared around this NHL season, which means teams are in playoff contention with much lower point totals than we think are normal. The unbalanced divisions only makes that more obvious. The Leafs are one point behind the Metro-leading New York Islanders this morning. Comparing this season to any other seems more and more invalid as we race to the end.

This graph shows the concept of consistency, or lack of it, in the Leafs points pace this season:

For the first 20 games, the Leafs bounced between 1.3 and 1.4 points per game. That’s easy to do early in the season, since one win or loss can move the average by a huge amount. The next 20 games, the Leafs played so well they sat at 1.4 points per game most of the time. The 20 games since then, they’ve been at 1.3 in a steady holding pattern. It’s really hard to see this big spiralling slide I keep hearing about on this graph.

All of this reminds me of Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Do you recall last season when they both did a tour of the fourth line when they were slumping? There was much consternation over this, but it happened to Marner early in the season, and then he steadily improved his results. It happened to Nylander late, and the belief was so strong that he was bad, was in a downward spiral and was really kind of horrible that it affected how some people saw his stellar playoff performance. As in they couldn’t see it at all.

The order of the peaks and valleys in performance affects perception dramatically. I have yet to hear a convincing argument in favour of taking one set of 20 games as more meaningful than any other, however. The most recent are just that, the most recent. They are not more indicative of team ability. The games since Nylander joined the team are an interesting set to look at, but even then, I am not convinced there’s much depth of meaning in it. Teams gain and lose players, so the whole season is what matters most. It’s interesting to look at how a team’s results (not in points which are way too volatile) change over a season, but — let’s look at an example of that before I get to the but:

Moneypuck

So, that line is “trending up” right? It would be natural to feel that way as a fan of this team, even looking at a line that has bounced all over the damn place like this one has. Back in early January, they had hit the skids, but in November they were soaring to ever greater heights! Except all of that is just storytelling and emotion, and action verbs have no place in the discussion on any line graph. It’s just up and down. And if you can see a predictable pattern there, congratulations, I can’t.

With the Leafs loss last night, they dropped three in a row for the first time all season. Although, we can asterisk that, because they didn’t go pointless in three straight. Only one team in the NHL, the most consistent winner in the NHL this season, has never lost more than two in a row. Guess who? The up and down Tampa Bay Lightning.

Are the Leafs going to go up or down next? My free prediction is the following: up. The going gets easier after the trade deadline, and the Leafs will be a team that wins more as they end the season than they have been in the last few games.

The Future Looks Busy

The Leafs have no time to do anything put play, play, play over the next eight days, which is all it will take to play five more games.

Saturday night is another visit from the Montréal Canadiens, which should be a hell of a game. Then on deadline day, the Leafs host the Buffalo Sabres, which should also be a great contest.

Two days later, the Oilers come for a visit in the first of a back-to-back. The second half is an away game to see the Islanders. What will we talk about for that game? Imagine the signs in the crowd, though?

This epic set of games finishes on the next Saturday, March 2, with the Sabres coming to visit in Toronto again. The schedule eases up a little after that, but it’s by no means light.

The Leafs, with questions about how best to deploy their imperfect corps of defencemen, will likely continue to tinker as they play because they don’t have more than two days off at a time the entire rest of the season, and that only happens four more times. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

I’ll be back to check in on things after game 65, though, which is just around the corner!