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What to expect from the Leafs in a shortened season

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They have 56 games to save the world.

Edmonton Oilers v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s been 7 years since the NHL was forced to plan a shortened season and move away from the 82-game structure we have been accustomed to. Back in 2013, the NHL campaign kicked off without a preseason seeing some of the most sporadic, messy, high-octane, yet intense hockey we’ve seen in years. There was no “slow middle” or free games for players to write off. Every single game mattered.

The Leafs found themselves in the playoffs for the first time in 9 years, finishing with a 26-17-5 record good for 57 points on the season. That campaign has been talked about at length, so I’m not going to bore you with the dark tale.

Our heart-wrenching club proved that there are three things you need all the time, but the demand is multiplied by a factor of 100 in a shortened season:

  1. Goal Scoring
  2. Goaltending

The Leafs were 6th in Goals-For that season with 145. Four of the five teams ahead of them won their respective divisions (Pittsburgh - 165, Chicago - 155, Montreal - 149 and Washington - 149). And then we move on to the real reason the Leafs qualified: James Reimer.

The original 34 finished the season with a .924 Sv% and a record of 19-8-5 in 33 games. That was good for 7th in the league amongst goaltenders who had at least 30 games played. As far as value to their team, again, the credit is all Reimer’s.

The Leafs had a 5v5 PDO of 103, showing clear signs of puck luck given the goaltending they were getting. And there’s Reimer’s Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA). This stat looks at a particular goalie’s save percentage and number of shots faced in comparison to a league average goalie and provides an actual number of goals stopped because they specifically were in net. I like to call it the “Hero or Villain” stat. Reimer was in the hero company rocking a 12.44 GSAA (seventh highest amongst netminders that season).

The relationship between goal scoring and goaltending isn’t exactly a direct correlation, but it can explain why things did or didn’t go a team’s way.

For example, the Montreal Canadiens were a top-five scoring team while Carey Price had a below league average Sv% of .905. In fact, Price is an example of the villainous nature of GSAA as he his was -7.34.

On the other hand, Sergei Bobrovsky was an absolute god for the Columbus Blue Jackets leading all goaltenders in Sv% (.932). The most eye-opening aspect of his performance was his GSAA of 21.48! Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets were 25th in league scoring (120) and missed the playoffs by one point.

55 points (a 0.573 points percentage) got the job done and purchased you a ticket to the playoffs in 2013. Applying that to a 56-game campaign would have the magic number set at 64.

We do have to consider the nature of the games being played. The league has always had “parity” as one of its buzz words, but the scheduling of the games could make the min-point requirement different. The Leafs will be in the All-Canadian Division while teams in the United States may be able travel such that they can face other teams in their division and others.

That could create a scenario where the minimum amount of points needed to make the playoffs in the Canadian Division is different from the American Divisions. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll make it 64.

Along with goaltending and goal scoring, there was one critical thing I noticed about the 2012-13 season: It’s more about how you finish than how you started.

There are a few exceptions to this rule but I went back at the standings paying attention to the number of wins each team got in the first 24 games vs. the last 24 games. Several teams who made the playoffs didn’t have a dominating start, in fact, a number of them lost more early on and kicked it into high-gear later.

Of course, there is a limit to this. If you win a significant amount of games to start, it doesn’t matter as much how you finish. At the same time, there was a minimum number of games teams needed to win to stay in the thick of things. That number was 10 based from my observations.

Another thing teams needed to keep in check was the number, magnitude and quality of their losing streaks. Teams really bit themselves in the foot by having many losing streaks of at least 5 games. However, some teams were able to combat this by having those losses occur in overtime or the shootout giving them the extra point boost ahead of the playoffs.

I put together a chart mapping this out, we’ll call this, “The Shortened Law” which states:

  1. Teams who win a SIGNIFICANT amount of games (approximately 58%) in the first half qualify for the playoffs as long as they win at least 42% of their games in the second half.
  2. Teams who have more wins in the second half than the first qualify for the playoffs
  3. Teams must win at least 42% of their games in the first half to have a chance at qualifying for the playoffs
  4. Teams who have at least 1 significant losing streak (SLS) need to add points via OT or SO losses to have a chance at qualifying for the playoffs.

2013 Season Stats

Team # of Wins (1st 24) # of Wins (2nd 24) SLS Points during SLS Playoffs?
Team # of Wins (1st 24) # of Wins (2nd 24) SLS Points during SLS Playoffs?
Capitals 10 17 0 N/A Yes
Jets 12 12 1 5-Game 0 No
Hurricanes 14 5 2 7-Game 1 No
Lightning 10 8 2 6-Game 3 No
Panthers 7 8 2 5-Game and 2 6-Game 4 No
Ducks 18 12 0 N/A Yes
Kings 14 13 0 N/A Yes
Sharks 11 14 0 N/A Yes
Coyotes 11 10 1 7-Game 2 No
Stars 12 10 1 5-Game 1 No
Blackhawks 21 15 0 N/A Yes
Blues 13 16 1 5-Game 1 Yes
Red Wings 12 12 1 5-Game 2 Yes
Blue Jackets 8 16 0 N/A No
Predators 10 6 1 8-Game 1 No
Canucks 11 15 0 N/A Yes
Wild 13 13 0 N/A Yes
Oilers 8 11 2 5-Game and 1 6-Game 4 No
Flames 9 10 1 5-Game 0 No
Avalanche 10 6 0 N/A No
Penguins 16 20 0 N/A Yes
Rangers 13 13 0 N/A Yes
Islanders 10 14 1 5-Game 0 Yes
Flyers 11 12 0 N/A No
Devils 11 8 1 10-Game 4 No
Canadiens 15 14 0 N/A Yes
Bruins 17 11 0 N/A Yes
Leafs 15 11 1 5-Game 1 Yes
Senators 12 13 1 5-Game 0 No
Sabres 9 12 0 N/A No

As you can see, it’s that second half that makes the difference. Let’s take the Washington Capitals, for example, who only won 10 games in the first half. However, because they met the minimum win requirement, they gave themselves a chance to do so by winning 17 games in the second half to make the playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes, on the other hand, had a great start winning 14 games, which turned to only 5 in the second half including two seven-game losing streaks earning only a single point in the process.

The impact of getting points even when you lose is revealed when looking at Detroit, Winnipeg, Ottawa and our very own Maple Leafs.

The Jets split their season, winning 12 games in both halves but had a five-game slump of regulation losses. The Red Wings had a similar spread of wins and losing streaks, however, they were able to add 2 points through it to soften the blow.

The Leafs and Sens had nearly an identical record. Both teams gave themselves a chance to make the playoffs by eclipsing the requirement of needing to win at least 42% of their games in the first half (TOR - 63% OTT - 50%). Both teams also had a SLS via a five-game losing streak. The difference was the Leafs were able to earn a point during it while the Senators didn’t. The boys in blue finished the season with 57 points while Ottawa missed at 56.

By no means is “The Shortened Law” iron-clad. The Philadelphia Flyers are the only exception as they should’ve made it based on the criteria but didn’t. That could be chalked up to being in a tough situation with Pittsburgh, the Rangers and the Islanders.

Taking the rules from the 2013 Shortened Law and applying it to 2020, we arrive at this understanding: The Leafs need to win at least 12 games in the first half to give themselves a chance at qualifying for the playoffs. They don’t necessarily need to have a blinding white-hot start, but hitting that number should be the goal. If the Leafs do have a hot first half, it will be important to win at least 12 games in the second half to stay in the running for the playoffs.

SLS should be avoided at all costs, especially in the second half of the season. If they occur, it’ll be a lot better to have them occur in overtime or the cursed shootout to limit the damage.

Scoring goals and goaltending is going to be critical, especially in the first half. Without a preseason to get some of the cobwebs out, there are going to be a lot of barn burners taking place regardless of the new personnel the team added. It will take time for new faces to get used to each other’s tendencies.

Auston Matthews has earned the title of being Mr. October with how productive his starts to the season are, and hopefully that doesn’t change just because it’s January.

Speaking of October, the idea of October Freddie needs to be destroyed. He needs to go right into November mode from the jump. Fortunately there’s some internal competition via Jack Campbell that may keep him dialled in. That and the fact that it’s a contract year should do the trick.

It’s important to keep in mind that we still don’t know what the expectations are going to be for the 2020/21 season. Is this realignment going to occur all season where the Leafs only play the other six Canadian teams? Will the US-based teams only face teams in their division? Will they travel to other divisions and play games?

Those questions are still up in the air and will impact the minimum amount of points to qualify for the playoffs. But one thing that won’t change is the importance of getting to 12 wins in the first half and not slowing down in the second. If the Leafs do that, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be one of the 16 teams in the postseason in May.