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What’s the feeling across Leafs land?

Are the Leafs on track for greatness, or are you uneasy about their future?

Buffalo Sabres v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NHLI via Getty Images

I’m going to talk about vibes without using the word vibes. To avoid it, I can be fancy and call it the zeitgeist of Leafs fandom, or just be plain-spoken and call it feelings. No matter what you call it, judging the Leafs by how you feel watching the games — I’ve looked very little at any meaningful stats early on — is like trying to catch a fish in your bare hands. Are they good or not? Does it just depend on the day? Who are these people anyway?

Are the Leafs good?

Yes.

I could leave it at that, but the implication in the question is not are the Leafs top 16, and a playoff team at or near Wrong Thanksgiving, it’s are they good enough to contend.

But the literal answer is yes by the standings. For the whole league by points %, the Leafs are 10th before today’s games. That’s fifth in the east and third in the Atlantic. Tampa, who started badly have leapt over the Leafs into second, and the Detroit Red Wings are right on the heels of the Leafs, and those three teams all have points % above .600, which is what counts as good these days.

Are they a contender though?

The Leafs and the Red Wings do share something in common: four points gained by losing a game in overtime. Also in this category, leading the Eastern Conference are the Rangers and the Flyers. I don’t think we think any of those three other teams are the comparator we want. But on points, sure, the Leafs are at the edge of a contending playoff slot right now in a division where everyone looks pedestrian next to the unsustainable Bruins and Devils performances. (Dearest Bruins and Devils fans, unsustainable doesn’t mean actually bad, it’s not an insult, and I’m not just jealous and out to get you.)

The reality of the Bruins’ start is that if they played at .500, as in one point per game played, the entire rest of the season, they’d be in playoff range with 96 points. They’ve clinched. We can ignore them and recognize now the race is on for second and third.

The jury is out on this contender thing for the Leafs, though.

It’s just a bad start, though

The view that the Leafs have improved is fairly widespread, so is that real or is it outcome-based. Winning gives you different, er, zeitgeistness than losing does.

To compare reality to feelings, I took a sensible five-game rolling average graph from Moneypuck and doodled the Win/Loss record on it:

This is a rolling average, so each point is the prior 5 games xg differential.
moneypuck.com

With large amounts of game results, five-on-five expected goals differential is going to correlate to winning. In 18 games it might not. In an individual game, expecting it to drive the outcome misses the point of why you’re watching the game.

What actually happened so far this season is that, when the Leafs lost out west, they deserved it pretty hard. But in the recent run of games, the only ones our brains really remember, there are losses in amongst the wins in a set of results almost identical to the first six games of the season. The Leafs were up, down and up again, and there’s nothing here to tell us where that line is going next.

This is the slippery fish feel of the team.

Also for reference, you can look at last season on Moneypuck, and see that when the team was cooking, the high points were often well above .6, and they only dipped below zero for four points in the season in February. To match last year’s team, this crew need to be better the entire rest of the season. This has to be their worst 18 games. How do you feel about that becoming true?

The power play and Matt Murray will save us!

Ilya Samsonov wants in on this quest, too.

First the power play, and for reasons I don’t really get, fans are deeply dissatisfied with the Leafs power play. A five game moving average of the five-on-four expected goals shows a lull lately, which is likely where the strength of the feels are coming from, but overall, it’s a power play that sometimes hits over 1 xG per game, just like last year’s.

Old school success % has the Leafs seventh in the league and more sophisticated measures (xG per 60) have them at eighth.

It seems unfair to be deeply dissatisfied, but it doesn’t seem like the power play on its own can lift the team up if they don’t improve at five-on-five.

Samsonov is the 9th best goalie in the NHL who has played at least 3 games. The measure is Goals Saved Above Expected per 60. Murray is 18th. Will that continue? Who knows, eh? If the team is a slippery fish right now, goalies are that by nature. So what these two do today tomorrow or next week is anyone’s guess. If they stay off IR (and the zeitgeist on that is a LOL) they probably can be average.

Our saviours are probably average goalies and a good but not great power play.

Why are they like this?

I am sick to death of this “play down to their opponents” business. It’s reductive, and it outright erases the other team. If you believe this is a thing, then you must believe bad teams will play up to the Leafs.

The Leafs are, to remind us here, a very good team. If we’re spending our time asking if they’re good enough, we can’t take a no as an answer — if that is your answer — and convert that in our minds to “they’re bad, though”. They aren’t! That means that most of the time they are playing a team they “should” beat, but hockey doesn’t work on shoulds and if most of your games are should-win, then most of your losses are against teams you shoulda coulda but didn’t beat.

Playing down again, big sigh.

Going the other direction, the Leafs beat the Bruins and took the Devils to OT. Is that playing up or is that just a reflection of the probability that the teams that will beat the Bruins and Devils are more likely to be the good teams, even allowing for the bad teams that will get them sometimes because that’s how hockey works.

The playing down memescuse is complaints about work ethic of spoiled overpaid hockey players dressed up in a more palatable package for the modern fan. It’s understandable, because watching a good team fail will feel like they aren’t bothering often enough, and it can even be true on occasion — everyone gets frustrated on long fruitless road trips. But it’s not the true nature of the team exposed.

Truly describing the slippery fish that is the Leafs, down to the speckles on its belly will wait for another day, but the short story looks like this to me:

hockeyviz.com
hockeyviz.com

The defence is very similar, just a hair not as good, which is reasonable in a league where offence is up at this stage. I measured it as a 5.5% increase year-over-year using Evolving Hockey’s Expected Goals per 60 for each team.

Offence is up overall, but not in Toronto — that’s the simple picture. Leaping to conclusions about the goal-scoring ability of individual players is missing the mark though. That Hockey Viz heat map is an xG model. It’s saying therefore, that before any goalie on any team saves or does not save a shot the Leafs make, the chances of it going in are less this year than last by a pretty big amount. If your idea was to add a hot shooting player to that quest to save the Leafs, he’s likely not the hero we need either. Assuming he’s not the worst player on the team in all other ways, he likely won’t make the problem worse, though.

I think a regular game watcher can see that difference in Leafs offence without being told numbers. I think just the number of goals scored overall tells you this at this point in the season. It’s not surprising that there’s a zeitgeist of unease. And chanting the win/loss record at people feeling uneasy is not going to sway them.

How do you feel?

Poll

How full is your glass of Leafy optimism?

  • 10%
    They’ll go on a tear and take over first from the Bruins.
    (38 votes)
  • 53%
    They aren’t as bad as they seem sometimes, and they will get to be as good as last year.
    (200 votes)
  • 29%
    This will not be the worst 18 games of the season.
    (110 votes)
  • 7%
    Erik Källgren is going to play the most games of any goalie.
    (28 votes)
376 votes total Vote Now