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Know Your Maple Leafs

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It’s yet to be determined if they will be a friend or an enemy this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Four Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Now that we’ve looked at the other six teams in the Sponsored by a Bank North Division, it’s worth a look at the Leafs themselves. By 5 p.m. today, they need to have their Taxi Squad and salary-cap-compliant roster set, and then we’ll know exactly who will be playing the games, but there doesn’t seem to be any surprises expected.

Last year was not fun a lot of the time for Leafs fans. The season was marked by turmoil, and it all started when the team didn’t have the courage of Kyle Dubas’s convictions to change the coach in the offseason. Playing this “wait until you go on a losing streak to fire the coach” game is always a mistake, and yet there the Leafs were, making the classic, traditional call instead of the hard decision. It was a disappointing exercise that made everyone from Brendan Shanahan on down look weak.

Toronto’s 2020

After the coaching change, the Leafs enjoyed a run of games, largely on the road, against very weak opponents. It’s almost like that was timed to make the life of the new coach a little easier by showcasing the team in the best light. What came after didn’t make anyone look good most of the time, and the post mortem on the season from Dubas acknowledged that you can’t just look at the good games, you have to factor in all the bad ones too. The average of which was an under-performance by any measure.

At the time of the suspension of play in March, the Leafs were very likely to take a playoff spot and keep the Florida Panthers out, but they hadn’t nailed it down. They were supposed to be contending for the top of the division with Tampa and Boston and they never did. They were:

  • 11th in 5on5 Expected Goals % (behind Boston and Tampa)
  • 4th in Expected Goals for per 60
  • 18th in Expected Goals against per 60
  • 17th in Expected Goals for per 60 on the power play
  • 12th in Expected Goals against per 60 on the penalty kill

The Leafs were their usual one-trick pony selves. Very, very good at that one trick, the most important trick in hockey, mind you. But without a special teams boost and only a mediocre defensive performance they had no way to withstand goalie performance issues and a see-saw of team performance that saw them become their own worst enemy. And ours.

All teams lose. All teams lose in disappointing fashion. But the Leafs lose in widescreen technicolour. They lose sideways and upside down and in dimensions hitherto unknown to physics. The Leafs lose with the creativity of a great artist, in ways mere mortals can’t even think of, at a cost no other team pays. And no matter what, we—maybe you and definitely I—never quite learn that Lucy isn’t just going to pull the football away from Charlie Brown, she’s going to dig a pit full of snakes and he’ll tumble into it prematurely bald head first. This team will ruin you, baby.

That was three weeks before the suspension of the season.

When the Leafs returned to play in the summer, they showed up early to training camp, worked extra hard, talked a real good game about how good it was to have everyone healthy, and they went out against the Columbus Blue Jackets and lost. Very convincingly.

The trouble with a one-trick pony is that when the trick fails, there’s nothing else there. The goaltending was very good in the playoffs, and the defending only had to clear a very low bar of one of the worst offensive teams in the NHL. It did that easily. But William Nylander, Mitch Marner, the entire third line, and even Auston Matthews and John Tavares were varying levels of terrible. No one saw the net-front except Kyle Clifford and the ease with which the Blue Jackets parlayed their one trick — stellar defending — into a victory was only made more painful when the injury-plagued Tampa Bay Lightning had some troubles with that defending, but adjusted and then stomped them into dust.

Stealing a line from Friend of the Blog, Loserpoints regarding Kyle Dubas’s team for 2019-2020: Is it a good idea to lean in this hard to offence first and never sign anyone with defensive skills?

Kyle Dubas seems to have answered that and adjusted his own approach after having his nose rubbed hard in why that isn’t a good idea.

Toronto’s Offseason

Dubas got very busy in the offseason. He offloaded the two wingers least important to the cause of offence who were disappointing in the postseason by trading Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. The move was not just a cap dump, but it was mostly that. With the extensions to Jack Campbell (inherited from the Kings), Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl and Pierre Engvall there had to be some reduction in total salary spent outside the core of the team.

Very good, decently cheap deals were signed for Ilya Mikheyev and Travis Dermott, and then a pile of unexpected free agents arrived with an average age well in excess of Auston Matthews’ 23 years.

Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian all showed up with a trunk full of character each and a long (in Jumbo’s case, extraordinarily long) history of hard work and dedication to the game. It’s hard not to assume that Dubas thought that was necessary, and Toronto being Toronto, that’s pretty much all anyone has talked about since, even though Dubas did one other thing.

A fairly significant thing. One might even say game-breaking.

Evolving Hockey’s new Player Card
Evolving Hockey, subscriber content, one of the new features at the site this season.

The signing of TJ Brodie, which gives the Leafs three legitimate top-four defenders for the first time since — I’m just going to say ever and assume it’s likely more true than not — doesn’t seem to have inspired a lot of excitement.

He has, by this measure, more defensive impact than offensive, and that’s not something many Maple Leafs have been able to claim recently unless they’re actually really, really bad at offence and played on the fourth line. It’s not true of Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl or any top-six forward. I don’t need to tell you it’s not true of Morgan Rielly.

Complaints about Brodie that he only rode the coattails of Marc Giordano seem less cautious analysis and more churlishness that he’s boring. I really hope he’s boring. The Leafs could use a big dose of boring.

With Dubas on the one hand adding character to the depth and on the hand adding defence to the core, this offseason looks like it improved the team meaningfully, and for once, not by adding more of the same.

Toronto’s 2021

A lot of predictions of the season to come agree that the Leafs are very good. It’s not like they were bad last year, so adjustments that tune the balance of skills but leave the core largely untouched can actually be enough. If they aren’t then that core is the problem. But what of these particular changes? Well, let me get my crystal ball, and see what the future holds.

I’m going to quick and dirty compare the players who left with the players who arrived. And the simplest way to do that is to use the GAR based analysis that the Player Card above is based on. I’m going to use the Standings Points Above Replacement version because it just makes more sense when talking about impact on a team. I think people forget GAR includes the reduction in goals against along with the increase in goals for. SPAR just multiplies GAR out by a factor that changes season-to-season when necessary, but reflects how goals for and against turn into wins and losses and therefore points.

The players that have left with their SPAR from last season are:

  • Cody Ceci: 0
  • Tyson Barrie: 0.4
  • Andreas Johnsson: 0.8
  • Kasperi Kapanen: -0.2
  • Frederik Gauthier: 0.1
  • Kyle Clifford: -0.4
  • Dmytro Timashov: 0.3
  • Nick Shore: -0.7
  • Trevor Moore: -0.5

I’d like to include Martin Marincin’s -0.3 in here too, but it is vaguely possible he plays in the NHL this year. Ditto Rasmus Sandin and his -0.9 and Timothy Liljegren and his -0.7.

The total SPAR last year that’s all the way gone is: -0.2 on well over 5,000 minutes of ice time in total.

This is not an exercise in saying all those players are bad now and forever. But they all hovered around replacement level last year on the Leafs. Maybe that’s because they were a bad fit, played with the wrong linemates or had a bad year. Maybe they were used too much, whatever, pick your excuse. Looking at who underperformed and was shown the door, it’s clear the Leafs of last year could be improved by adding one decent defender and filling the rest of the slots with cheap replacement-level players. Hey....

The particular additions are harder to judge because now we want their probable level of performance in the future. Last year’s is likely the wrong number, and a three-year average is a bit tricky too since it can depend on how much they played on their old team versus what they’ll get on the Leafs. Impact is a factor of ice time, after all.

I decided to do something a bit complex. I took their SPAR from the last three seasons and used the per 60 minutes version and then guessed on each player’s probable ice time over 56 games. Impact is a factor of how many games you play too. There is less time to add points this year.

I set the new forwards at high fourth-line to third-line minutes, Brodie to 20 and Bogosian to 13. It’s a stab in the dark without a real idea of special teams use, but the goal here is to give us the shape of the total improvement. As a benchmark of what an elite player looks like, this method gives me 4 SPAR for Auston Matthews, and his result last year was 5.4 in 70 games.

Projected SPAR on the Leafs:

  • Jimmy Vesey: 0.6
  • Joe Thornton: 1.8
  • TJ Brodie: 1.5
  • Wayne Simmonds: -0.6
  • Zach Bogosian: 0.2

That totals out to: 3.5 SPAR

I think we should be most cautious with the Thornton number. He is at an age where decline is very rapid and looking at three years ago for statistical measures is too far back. His season last year was no better than Timashov’s, and a very good 2018-2019 is driving his lovely result here. Next, we should be very cautious about assuming Simmonds won’t be any better this year. His injury and surgery history over the last three years is not pretty, and he might be “in the best shape of his (recent) life” for real. We’ll find out.

The bottom line of this exercise is that even if you’re very pessimistic about Brodie’s statistical profile, he’s still better than the big-minute players he’s replacing, and the team is better because of it. Of course, we can’t reasonably guess at what Mikko Lehtonen or Alex Barabanov will bring. But neither has a roster spot by default, so if it’s nothing good, they won’t get played.

The theory of the 2021 season is that the Leafs can’t get caught out putting Kasimir Kaskisuo in net out of desperation, they have enough legitimate NHLers to swap out those who underperform, and the skills they added were not, for once, more of the same. The division is easier with only one team approaching the quality Tampa or Boston can produce. The Canadiens, playing old-style Boston puck possession, will keep that team honest. Overall, the road to the playoffs is a lot less fraught with obstacles this year.

That’s the theory. In practice Auston Matthews and the core of the team need to do better than they did last year for 56 games and the entire playoffs. There’s only one way to know if they will and if the Maple Leafs will stop being our worst enemy. When theory meets practice, and the Leafs meet the Canadiens tomorrow, we’ll start to know what we have this year.