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Why did the Maple Leafs shoot 2% against Columbus

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Calling out the number is easy. The explanation is more complicated.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs had a Shooting Percentage of 2% in the five-game series against Columbus. We’ve all seen that number bandied about. First question: Is that correct?

Sort of. That is the even-strength Shooting Percentage, and is the lowest of any team so far in the playoffs. Worse than the Rangers, the Wild, the Penguins (who got goalied by Carey Price). And worse than the Blue Jackets who shot at very average 7.38% on their way to a victory. Toronto’s ability to do anything even remotely like score a goal at evens was severely limited.

If you look at all-situations, the Leafs are at 5.54%, which is still terrible, third worst and not what a team built around offensive skill can produce and expect to win. The Blue Jackets stayed at exactly their average even-strength shooting of 7.3%, when you make it all-situations, which makes their power play bad (don’t know if you noticed), and also makes them a below average team in terms of converting shots to goals.

Team Shooting

Only the Hurricanes and Predators had a higher rate of Corsi For per 60 minutes than the Leafs, who had better results than their season average. The Blue Jackets were also better than their average, and were high up on the list of Qualifying-Round teams in terms of pace. Having a healthy team made them much less low-event.

But the Leafs were terrible at allowing shots right? They always are. No. The Leafs allowed less than the Blue Jackets, and just like in the regular season, Columbus had a Corsi % below 50. Unlike in the regular season, they didn’t convert defensively to make that bad Corsi into a good Expected Goals %. The Leafs improved by a hair, and had results very similar to their regular season in both percentages, but Columbus got worse.

So the Leafs got goalied? Ah, the tempting simple answer. In part yes, but there’s more to it.

In the regular season, the Leafs were fourth in the NHL in Expected Goals For per 60 minutes of 2.67.

Expected Goals is a number calculated by applying a weighting to every unblocked shot according to location, shot type, and some other factors producing the probability that the shot becomes a goal when a league average shooter is aiming at an average goalie. Not included is all those mitigating factors you see when you watch, but aren’t tracked. Also not included is shooter or goalie skill. Probability is not destiny.

In the series against Columbus, the Leafs were mediocre at 2.06 Expected Goals For per 60 minutes. The Maple Leafs kept to their regular season percentages by defending better than they usually did on average. That is: They allowed much lower Expected Goals Against per the amount of overall shots allowed than their average performance in the regular season..

None of this should be unexpected. Columbus is a weak team offensively, the Leafs are average defensively, and for all that many observers just know in their hearts that the Leafs defenders cost them this series, the reality is that part of the explanation for a Shooting Percentage on the bottom of the list of 24 teams is that the Leafs shot quality was poor overall.

Columbus defends well, and the elite Maple Leafs offence was rendered mediocre right along with their defending.

Korpisalo

There is no question that Joonas Korpisalo is on a hot streak like he’s never known before. He finished the Qualifying Round with 3.2 Goals Saved over Expected (all-situations) in four games, which is not quite Price territory of 5.72, but is second best. Elvis Merzlikins was merely an average goalie, making these two the reverse of their regular season selves.

Kopisalo’s performances were: 1.63 Goals Saved Above Expected, 1.18, -1 (in 29 minutes), 1.91.

In the regular season, he topped that 1.18 mark four times. He topped 1.62 and 1.91 three times. Only 17 of his 37 games were above zero and most of them hovered around average.

No one ever expects the Joonas Korpisalo.

Individual Shooting

Now that we know that the Leafs managed to produce to their average quantity of shots against Columbus, but not the quality, it’s time to look at who shot how much and how well.

First everyone who played at least 30 minutes:

All charts are Evolving Hockey data at Even Strength.

What you get here is the actual number of all shots (iCF), how many got through unblocked (iFF) and how many of those were considered Shots on Goal (iSF). This is unadjusted raw numbers, not rated for time on ice.

Most defenceman shot very little compared to forwards, all but Morgan Rielly, and this is our first clue about why we’re hearing grumblings about Rielly having the puck and making Auston Matthews cover for him. I am amused that a thing Tyson Barrie and Justin Holl got a pass for all year gets brought up now and laid at Rielly’s door.

Both Matthews and John Tavares carried the offence along with Marner, who shot the puck a lot. Notably not shooting much are the entire third line and William Nylander. The eye-test said Nylander largely passed the puck to the centres on his lines, and these number really bear that out. He was nothing like his regular season self against Columbus. Neither was Marner. He shot much, much more than he normally does.

On the power play, by the way, Marner, who seemed to be boxed into shooting all the time, was actually at his normal rate. The problem was Matthews wasn’t.

Just looking at the forwards makes it easier to see the stratification by lines:

Accounting for ice time is extremely revealing:

That fourth line really did bring the offensive pressure. And facing a goalie not on the hottest streak of his life, they might well have added some goals. The third line had nothing going on. Alex Kerfoot might be a passing centre, but the players he passed to didn’t do anything with it. Neither Kasperi Kapanen nor Nick Robertson added much at even-strength, for all Robertson has one of the three goals scored at that game state. Robertson made the second power play unit into something less of a joke however.

The really interesting pair of players to contemplate are Nylander and Ilya Mikheyev. Particularly since a lot of people think trading Nylander for a defenceman is “the answer”, and that it’s now plausible because Mikheyev is right there.

Nylander did not play to his usual profile, and Mikheyev did, but look beyond the length of his green line, and notice the rapid erosion of all shots to unblocked shots and then off a cliff to a low Shots on Goal rate. If you want a personification of big Corsi, small xG, it’s Mikheyev. Mithch Marner, who had a poor performance as well, got to the same poor rate of Shots on Gaol while letting his linemates also have the puck occasionally.

And now just the Expected Goals individually, rated by time on ice. Who had quality chances they could add their skill to?

John Tavares. I’ve heard several people say Matthews carried the team, and he sure did in quantity of shooting and total ice time which people care about so much, but it was Tavares who had the chances. Looking at Rielly’s Expected Goals makes all his shooting easier to take, and this is what Rielly is: he does jump up in the play, he does bring all the dynamism of an offensive defender, and he does shoot from the point as well. He does all of that better than almost any other defender in the NHL. Notice, however, that in a lot less ice time, Jake Muzzin picked his moments and came to a similar rate of Expected Goals.

Looking at the rest of the defence, you can see why it’s more irksome to me to see Holl or Barrie with the puck, than Rielly. Enough about defencemen, they aren’t the issue here.

Again that fourth line looks very good, and was a good formation to use in the way Sheldon Keefe did against Columbus. The third line was a black hole, and William Nylander really was terrible at anything but playmaking. Here you also see Mikheyev’s value dropping from an impressive looking amount of Corsi to an Expected Goals rate worse than the fourth line.

Mikheyev was playing against the better defensive pair of David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov as was the fourth line, so this is not really the time a quality of competition argument explains things away.

As for Nylander, he passed more than he shot, but the guy he passed to was John Tavares, who was the team offence. His time on ice with Tavares was very similar to Marner’s, the real issue with Nylander’s game was how he played with Matthews and against the Columbus top lines — badly.

That doesn’t answer the question, though, why did the Leafs only shoot 2%? Because as this chart shows, once you get past the top two centres, and ignoring the low-minute fourth line, the quality shots were being taken by some of the weakest individual shooters. Marner, Rielly, Mikheyev, and not Nylander or any third line wingers. Zach Hyman is a special case because generally, he is shooting from positions where skill is less telling than ability to be in that position. He’s a fourth liner who can play top line.

Conclusion

There’s two teams on the ice, and in a playoff series, the matchups matter. So the Leafs shot 2% because:

  • Joonas Korpisalo was on a tear, and...
  • Toronto shot with less shot quality than average against an effective defence, and...
  • A lot more of their shooting than average came from players with less shooting talent, and...
  • Random variance fills in around the edges to make is a more dismal-looking effort than it likely really was.

The end result was an elite offence that didn’t look elite, because it only topped out at good to very good, going up against a goalie who was almost Carey Price.

Shift any of those factors around a little, including the randomness, and the Leafs win the series. But you can’t control randomness, so you either become a trap team to make it matter less or you fix the execution issues on that list.

All data is from Evolving Hockey or Natural Stat Trick. Support your local statistical suppliers if you are able.