There is no such thing as “deserve” in hockey. This is the thing about a sport that’s random, that has big fluctuations in the performance of most goalies and is about failure not success. Most shots aren’t goals, and the margin for that is so big, that just the ordinary way the world works means a team can fail to score and an opposing goalie can make a seemingly huge amount of saves at just the wrong time and the wrong team wins.
I don’t think the Leafs are bad, and if you’re one of those people who like to imagine that a team that has been near the top of the league for years is somehow specially terrible in a unique way that other teams don’t experience and the standings and other metrics are wrong just in this one case, well — that’s a conspiracy theory. And they’re about fear and anxiety not reality.
But they sure do look bad at the moment. And I wanted to know why exactly that is. Although watching the games can certainly give you an idea, beginning with: Dear Leafs, have you heard of passing to your own teammates? With the puck on the ice not bouncing?
Alas, any interesting passing data the league has from their tracking technology is locked in a vault while they tell you on-screen how fast Mitch Marner is skating while the team is busy looking terrible. The only surprise was they converted it to km/h.
Okay, the Leafs. To judge their performance in four games this season, I’m using only last year as the base. The reason for that is not laziness this time, it’s because Bunting on the top line, JT/Nylander/Guy second line and Kerfoot and Engvall on the third line is the fundamental structure of this team since last year. The defence is more or less the same as well, and the systems are the same.
What defines the Leafs, what got them all those points last season while their goalies were truly terrible and just barely landed on average by year end? Offensive pace and possession time. We don’t have time (also locked in the vault) so we use shot differential and that’s where I’ll begin. All numbers are 5on5 unless otherwise stated and are score adjusted from Evolving Hockey.
Shotshare: Last year the Leafs had a Corsi differential (all shots, including blocks and misses) of 54.5% for fifth in the NHL.
This year: 55.4% which is 10th because small samples of games can produce dramatically strange results. The Hurricanes won’t be at 67.5% all year.
The Leafs shot differential is incredibly normal, and is not why they look bad. They aren’t getting hemmed in or playing without the puck more than they normally would, even if it seems like they have been.
Offensive pace: Last year the Leafs Corsi For per 60 min was 61.8 or fifth in the NHL. All the top 10 teams were at 59 and above, with the Wild, a lower-event team, sitting at 11th. No one below the top 10 in offensive pace had an effective playoffs except the Lightning.
This year: 61.5 which is only 13th in the NHL for the same reasons as the shotshare ranking.
The Leafs offensive pace is totally normal for them. They aren’t passing more and shooting less, and the Hurricanes (them again) won’t be at 85.66 all year either.
If the problem isn’t that the offence and possession are out of whack, maybe it’s in the details, and we’ve all seen a lot of missed shots.
Fenwick vs Corsi: Fenwick, or unblocked shots still includes all the misses. Shots on Goal is just the shots a goalie has to make a save on (or not). The Leafs went from 61.8 CF/60 last year to 46.4 Fenwick per 60 (sixth place in the NHL) and 33.8 Shots on Goal per 60 (seventh place)
This year: 61.5 to 44.66 to 33.65. Both the Fenwick and Shots on Goal rate is 12th in the league, better than the Corsi.
The misses are hidden in the difference between Fenwick and Shots on Goal, and they aren’t actually missing more than is normal. There’s a bit more shot blocking, reducing the Fenwick, but it’s not actually costing them in volume of what gets to the net.
Now we have to look at type of shots, and see if they are getting really poor Expected Goals. If you remember the famous early games before Mike Babcock was fired, and why would you, no one is mentioning that lately. But in those games the Leafs were demonstrably shooting a lot from the points (except Auston Matthews’ line).
Expected Goals: Their xG percentage last year was 56.1, or third in the NHL, showing that when you weight their excellent shotshare for type and location of shots for and against, they looked like an elite team and actually surpassed the Hurricanes and Avalanche. Their xG For per 60 was 2.25 or third in the NHL.
This year: The xG% is 52.3 or 12th and the xG per 60 is 2.89 or 9th.
This is a mixed result, with a percentage that’s too low for the Corsi % of 55.4 and a weighting of just the offence that is really good, but just not the wildly unsustainable numbers like the Penguins have at 4.57.
Is it just shooting luck?
Goals For vs xG For: Last year the Leafs had a Goals For per 60 of 3.14 for a differential over the xG per 60 of .89
This year: The Leafs are at 2.26 for a differential of -.63.
To sum up this side of the equation, the Leafs have a normal shot share, they are producing offence at their average rate, shooting their average amount, not missing more than is usual and having a very slight increase in shots blocked. They just aren’t converting on their shots.
The other side of the equation is defence, of course, and there was a hint up there in the xG% number that all might not be well.
Corsi to Fenwick to Shots Against: Last year the Leafs went from 51.6 CA/60 to 39.7 FA/60 to 29.19 SA/60. In rankings that’s 6th to 7th to 10th.
This year: 46.5 to 36.6 to 25.7 or 7th to 8th to 6th.
Huh. That’s pretty dramatically above average considering the games of blame the defenceman Leafs fans have been playing. Is the quality against really bad then?
Expected Goals Against and Goals Against: Last year, the xGA/60 was 2.25, tied for third in the NHL with actual GA/60 at 2.69 with a differential of -.44, also known as, whoa that goalie sucks.
This year: It’s 2.64 and 2.62 for a differential you can see for yourself, also known as the average goalie performance we’ve all longed for. However that xGA/60 is 20th in the NHL and is therefore, pretty bad.
Another ah ha! While the goalies have been good enough, and the shots allowed have been really low, the quality of shots allowed is so high, we should consider ourselves lucky for that goaltending result. More on this in a bit, because the numbers aren’t everything.
Before I wrap this up, I just wanted to take a really quick and unfair look at which forwards are not scoring goals: At the bottom of the all-situations shooting % rankings sit most of the defencemen as expected. Leafs defenders don’t shoot much for all you see them “activated” a lot. Also goalless are Alex Kerfoot, Zach Aston-Reese and Pierre Engvall. I know I’m shocked. But the worst forward after them is Auston Matthews with a SH% of 4.76 and one goal on 1.83 individual Expected Goals. This is offset by some depth guys who have absurd numbers that won’t last.
Matthews leads the team in shot rate followed by William Nylander, Michael Bunting, Mitch Marner, and Jake Muzzin, who can be a fairly shot-happy defender. That’s all normal numbers in their normal range, and the only thing that’s abnormal is Matthews hasn’t scored at his average rate.
One other quick thing to note is that the power play has a very low shot rate for the Leafs and is pretty dreadful so far. Which you may have noticed.
So, why do they look bad? A few things are going on that are just the kinds of runs of results good or bad you get in any set of four games: Matthews isn’t scoring, Nylander is. The top line doesn’t look good because they’re not scoring, and they look really bad on the power play, which clearly needs some work. The defence looks bad when they are defending because they are a bit bad.
There’s no reason to think Matthews can’t shoot now or that the Leafs are suddenly really bad in the defensive zone, so all of that can absolutely be chalked up to “it’s four games”.
What is worrying about that xGA weighting the shots against into the terrible range, is that we’ve all been discussing the dangerous rush chances against which can produce shots against that don’t register at as high an xGA as they really are. No one’s expected goals model knows if there was a cross-crease pass preceding the goal or if it was a two or three on one rush as opposed to a three on three. The data the NHL lets out of its vault isn’t that sophisticated. Even allowing for how our eyes can’t count, we can see that the Leafs are getting dinged on rush chances against.
It’s a function of how much they have the puck to some extent. If you play a long cycle shift or shifts in the offensive zone, it has to end. And it will end either in a goal or with the opponents getting control. Most of the time, it’s not the goal that ends it, and for the Leafs, with their desire to keep the puck alive, and not have a lot of faceoffs (the Leafs have the fewest of any team that’s played 4 games), they are vulnerable to the other team getting that puck in an uncontrolled and chaotic way. It’s the price paid for the sheer quantity of shots the Leafs take. And when your shots don’t produce goals and the chaotic transition exposes every weakness of the defence, it all looks really bad even if it’s only a little bit blah.
But here’s the other thing, no one should be happy with the Leafs producing average levels of offence against Montréal, Ottawa, the injury-gutted Washington Capitals and Arizona. That’s the real reason why the fans went from an MVP chant one night to booing the bums off the ice the next. Your average selves, no matter how good, is not what we expect to see against dreadful teams. We want unsustainable froot loops percentages, dammit. We want Hall & Oates.
This leads inevitably to the narrative about effort and “playing down” and not caring, and they just make too much money and Muzzin is old and yadda dadda do.
The Matthews problem will fix itself, as soon as they start scoring, they’ll look better, and we’ll quit obsessing over every missed shot. The rush chances against will dry up as they tighten up their puck control, and the quality of the shots allowed will trend back toward the norm set by the low volume.
But the thorny questions around the risk calculations inherent in this system will remain. Are the Leafs too easy to beat if you are willing to sit back and “park the bus” in front of the net until they hand you a rush chance even the worst team can convert on? How often is that going to happen, and more importantly — is it a bigger risk in the first round of the playoffs when the chance of playing someone like the Islanders or Blue Jackets is higher than in later rounds? Is this “the thing” that’s off with the Leafs? Or do we just like making patterns out of the chaos and stories out of emotions, and the Leafs have a system that is going to score even through a busload of defenders enough of the time.
We’ll see, as the saying goes, where this team goes, and maybe we’ll know.