[sawing brain in half] Alright, let’s do this.
Optimist: The Leafs have won six of eight. They’re first in the division at time of writing. They are rolling. Why are we even doing a bit about this? Do you not like wins?
Pessimist: How many times does the rug have to get pulled out from under you before you stop looking at the record in a short stretch and getting smug? Seriously. Every damn year the Leafs have a stretch where they go on a hot streak, and a bunch of people point out that hey, they’re not playing that well, and then a whole wave of Twitter accounts sarcastically ask whether the first group would rather win or have good fancy stats. The whole point is whether the Leafs are going to keep winning long enough for it to amount to anything worth anything as opposed to the millionth consecutive disappointing season.
Optimist: It still seems a bit relevant that they won games, rather than lost them? You know. Since winning is the point.
Pessimist: Yes, the point is to win games in January, when it matters. I wonder why Leaf fans always end the year in a state of shock because the team inevitably flamed out. I’m sure this time is different than 2013 and 2014 and 2015 and 2018 and 2019 and 2020. Maybe instead of whining all offseason about how cursed the franchise is due to the ghost of Harold Ballard, we can try to look a little deeper than just screaming LOOK AT THE POINTS every time the team ekes out a few regular season victories.
Optimist: [conspicuously rolling eyes] Fine. Fine. Go on.
Pessimist: Let’s start with this: how good are the Leafs supposed to be? Are they supposed to be a modestly above-average team that never seriously contends? Because if so, they’ve done that four years in a row. Mission accomplished. Hang a banner.
If they’re supposed to be really good, and gosh I sure hear that a lot, they don’t look like it. Quick survey: 6th in Corsi (cool, I guess), 11th in scoring chances, 15th in expected goals. If you don’t like fancy stats (scoring chances have been a thing since Roger Neilson was a coach in the 1970s, but whatever), the Leafs are 13th in goals percentage. They aren’t even outscoring their competition at 5v5 (13 goals for, 13 against.) Great. I don’t want to alarm anybody, but at 5v5 the best team in the Scotia (tm) North Division, by any measure, is very clearly Montreal.
Optimist: So, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a pandemic on. There was no real preseason. There was barely a training camp. The Leafs acquired plenty of new players, and there’s going to be an adjustment curve, and even in those first two weeks, with a few bumps, the Leafs are clearly one of the best teams in the division—despite injuries costing them Joe Thornton, Nick Robertson, and Jack Campbell.
Pessimist: When are we going to realize: these excuses apply to everybody. Listening to Leaf fans you’d think COVID and injuries were invented and applied to them and no one else. Tyler Toffoli seems to have heroically adapted in Montreal. Jacob Markstrom seems fine in Calgary. Tyson Barrie hahaha no I’m just kidding, he’s still bad.
Optimist: lol good times
Pessimist: But the point is: there will always be excuses, and rarely have the excuses ever been as hollow as they are this season. If you want to complain about all the crazy changes, you have to ignore that the Leafs got dropped into a cupcake division where their usual obstacles of Tampa Bay and Boston were removed. This is as easy as this is ever going to get.
Aren’t you tired of making up reasons for why the team is never as good as it’s supposed to be? Or are we going to hang a banner because the Leafs had two good months of xG last year after Keefe came on and ignore everything else?
Optimist: Stats aren’t everything. Have we considered that the Leafs might, with all that fancy shooting talent, be able to outperform their possession stats?
Pessimist: NO. NO ONE HAS EVER SUGGESTED THAT. I AM HEARING THIS CONCEPT FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME. I WAS BORN LAST WEEK. I HAVE ONLY EVER KNOWN THE REIGN OF PRESIDENT BIDEN
Optimist: But isn’t it valid, though?
Pessimist: No! Because as noted, they’re not outscoring their opposition at 5v5! It’s not working. Putting aside that this was the excuse for long stretches under Mike Babcock.
What’s different now that’s going to fix things? Where is the evidence that this team is really, actually good?
Optimist: Wins. Sorry, but if they’re so middling, how are they winning three-quarters of their games?
Pessimist: I am glad you asked!
Pessimist: The Leafs powerplay is converting at 42%, which would be by an enormous margin the best powerplay in the history of the NHL if they did it all year. Their goals rate is 15.86, which is half again better than the best powerplay over a full season in the fancy stat era. They are shooting the lights out and there is absolutely, positively, no way whatsoever they’re going to keep doing it.
Optimist: We have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. Four of the best offensive players in the league. We’ve had the best or near-best powerplay in the NHL before in recent years. We can do it again.
Pessimist: Bzzzzt. Wrong answer. Because you walked right past the point there. It doesn’t matter how good the Leafs are because no NHL team is this good. Period. This is the team-scale version of when, after Matthews’ first game, we all joked that he was on pace for 328 goals on the season. This is not going to continue. It does not have any chance of continuing. And because the Leafs are just decent at 5v5, the powerplay is what’s elevating their record from “okay” to “six wins in eight games.” That’s seriously all there is to it.
Optimist: Okay, so the powerplay will cool off a bit. As noted, though, there’s an obvious amount of tried-and-tested powerplay talent there that can easily make this the best unit in the NHL or close to it, and we’ve seen different looks be successful in different ways in the early going, which is encouraging in that we should expect it to avoid becoming stale. And this powerplay surge has bought the team time to settle in. If they clean up their act 5v5, that can balance out the decline 5v4, and the Leafs wind up where they are—at the top of the division.
Pessimist: No, because you’re misstating the chances of that. The powerplay decline is inevitable because their numbers are an absurd historical outlier. There’s no special reason the 5v5 game has to improve.
Optimist: Isn’t there? This team has had a great offence every year. Under Sheldon Keefe last year they were top three in expected goals for. This year they’re 16th, but they’ve also improved defensively. You’re missing the most obvious change here: the Leafs are fully implementing Sheldon Keefe’s system and the defensive impacts are clear. Yes, there are some bumps along the way, but do you really expect that those core four players—who are all near the top of the league in scoring, by the way, even as it is—won’t figure it out? And that’s another point—
The Eye Test
Optimist: Auston Matthews is playing like a Hart Trophy winner. He has been outstanding except for one game where he was shaking off a sore hand (he still scored, because he’s incredible.) Having one of the undeniably best players in the league seems like a good start.
Pessimist: What about everyone else?
Optimist: Some good, some bad. It’s an adjustment.
Pessimist: Or, maybe the whole team is “some good, some bad.” Are we ever going to stop grading on a curve? Are we going to end every year wondering why an obviously second-class team lost in the playoffs, or are we going to acknowledge the obvious: Toronto has never seriously looked like a top-tier team for any long stretch, and the only reason for thinking they are one is a lot of priors about building teams around stars. Maybe everyone is right: maybe paying a small group of players a huge amount of money doesn’t work that well.
Hell, maybe when injuries strike the 900-year-old forward you signed and you don’t have a lot of depth, that’s an inevitable and foreseeable consequence of being top-heavier than an upside-down pyramid. Maybe when Jimmy Vesey goes games doing basically nothing, or Pierre Engvall doesn’t score for a month, that’s what happens when you fill out the roster with bargain-bin calibre players instead of the mid-tier guys other teams have.
Optimist: This seems like a have-it-both-ways thing. The Leafs roster is determined by their stars. Fine, the Leafs’ star players are mostly playing very well. That’s the point; that’s how the roster is designed, and that’s why they’re outscoring their competition.
Pessimist: Don’t look at Mitch’s numbers beyond the points column, if you want to maintain that thought. But more importantly: does this team look like anything? They got suffocated by the Ottawa fucking Senators in their second game of the season. They struggled to break through against Edmonton, whose defence is paper mache. They had one good period against Calgary on Tuesday night and apparently decided that was enough hard work before collapsing for two periods and winning on a Mitch Marner one-timer (I’m sure that’ll be a regular thing, from a guy whose shot is generously described as a muffin.)
Optimist: If you’re looking for a good team that never has bad games or periods, you will never, ever find them. Tampa Bay lost 5-2 to the Blue Jackets a few days ago and lost big in xG. The Avalanche got smoked their first game out. The Golden Knights lost to Arizona.
Pessimist: The difference is all those teams have earned the benefit of the doubt. The Leafs have been definitively the better team twice this year: against Ottawa once, and against Winnipeg. That’s it. They didn’t do a damn thing last year that really ought to impress us.
Here’s the bottom line: if this profile were described to you about any other team, you would immediately pick them to regress to mediocrity. You would not be impressed with them at all. You wouldn’t bend over backwards to make excuses for their, generously put, uneven performances. You would say, hey, that team probably isn’t actually that good, I bet they lose a bunch soon.
So: hey, that team probably isn’t actually that good. I bet they’ll lose a bunch soon.
Optimist: The Leafs have three good lines and two good pairings for the first time in eons, and as long as Freddie hangs in they have competent goaltending. When I look at this roster, I see a group of players that absolutely belongs in the top tier, and overreacting to some iffy periods in the first eight games is silly. They will figure it out.
Pessimist: [whispering] Michael Hutchinson is coming.
Optimist: SHUT UP
How good do you think the Leafs really are?
This poll is closed
Good, not excellent