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Maple Leafs vs the defending Stanley Cup Champs — what could possibly go wrong?

What if it all goes right, though, that’s even more distressing to consider.

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five
The Leafs have to take that cup away from him eventually. Might as well start there.
Photo by Scott Iskowitz /NHLI via Getty Images

Leafy: Adjective — refers to the essential state of “never having nice things” due to a cosmic misalignment, a curse, or the ire of a particularly capricious god. Leafiness manifests as particularly absurd negative outcomes that make people laugh at the Toronto Maple Leafs on social media.

1967: It was a very good year.

2021: The most bitter lesson.

There’s no curse, no capricious god, no cosmic justice keeping the Leafs down and providing you with an excuse in advance to have no hope. There are no excuses left, you’ve used them all up. The bitter lesson in 2021 wasn’t for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner:

Toronto Maple Leafs fall to the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in game seven in the first round of the NHL play-offs Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

It was for us.

Even when it looks like the stars are aligned, and the gods have gifted the Leafs with an easy path, they can lose. Not because that’s “Leafy” but because the playoffs are hard to win. On purpose. There is no special right to a rose-strewn path, there is only a huge mountain to climb.

The ultimate goal of every hockey season, for those teams that choose to play hockey not the draft lottery, is to win the Cup. Step one in 2022 is to wrench that Cup violently out of Steven Stamkos’ hands. The Leafs have to get there eventually, and May or June makes no difference. It’s not so, so unfair that the NHL is arranged in a way that all the good teams can end up in one half of the continent. It is what it is this year, just like that seemingly easy ride was what it was last year.

No whining is allowed. If the Leafs lose it’s because they didn’t have what it takes to win or they didn’t give every drop when they needed to, or fortune favoured the other team. Which means you get to decide right now if you’ll hope, and believe, have faith and dare to want the Leafs to take that Cup, one painful epic step at a time. Give your heart to fortune to play with. There’s no “it’s so Leafy” on this ride. You can’t hedge your bets in the playoffs because prophets of catastrophe get this award not the cup:

Are you in or out? Do you dare to hope that this can be a very good year?

Us vs Them

There’s barely a difference between those shades of blue, and this series will be all about fine-grained distinctions between two of the best teams in the NHL this year.

Goalies

This series pits the Vezina winner against the nicest man in hockey. But Jack Campbell has been both really bad and really good, while Andrei Vasilevskiy is not winning the Vezina again this year.

If you look at raw Goals Saved Above Expected, Vasilevskiy is second with 28.4 to Igor Shesterkin (who is going to win the Vezina) at 34.1. Third is Frederik Andersen with 27.8. Vasilevskiy needed 62 games played to get his number while the other two are at 53 and 52. (All numbers are a few days old.)

Vasilevskiy has two strengths, he’s more consistently good than almost any goalie in the NHL, and he achieves that playing most of the time. When you account for minutes played, and restrict the list to goalies with 20 games or more, Vasilevskiy is third, and essentially tied with Sergei Bobrovsky who is just behind him.

Jack Campbell is 31 out of 60 goalies, with a -0.049 or so close to average, it can be called that without being wrong.

For a more sophisticated look at the differences in starters that accounts for shots against, this HockeyViz graph is useful:

minimum 640 shots faced
HockeyViz

Campbell is right on the zero line, but Vasilevskiy shows more separation from Shesterkin and Andersen here.

Every top team in the Eastern Conference has hot goaltending this year except the Leafs. But every goaltender in the NHL performs every night with something within their career norms. That’s why you can look at those season averages and not have any idea what you’re going to get in the playoffs.

Advantage on the balance of probabilities goes to the Lightning, though. And likely everyone else the Leafs will face once they get through this first test.

Defence

If goaltending is hard to predict, defence is hard to define. Is it having the puck more, allowing fewer shots, allowing lower quality of shots, exiting the zone quickly, controlling the puck in the offensive zone more, or just not being the guy in the highlight video looking stupid when the puck goes in?

Yes is my answer, it’s all of those things.

Who has the puck more? (CF%) Leafs at 54%, Lightning at 52%

Who allows fewer shots? (CA/60) Lightning at 51.6, Leafs at 51.7

Who allows the lower quality of shots? (since the CA is equal, we can just use xGA/60) Leafs at 2.25, Lightning at 2.33

Who exits the zone better? I’m going to take the easy way out and say that’s embedded in the CF%. It’s also got a lot of forward behaviour in it, so is only defensive-ish in the same way defencemen are often offence-ish.

Who controls the puck offensively the best? (CF/60) Leafs at 61.9, Lightning at 55.3

Who has the better overall defensive corps at execution?

RelTMxGA/60
Evolving Hockey
RelTMxGA/60
Evolving Hockey

So what is this? Evolving Hockey does a Rel TM version of their standard on-ice stats. This is not nearly as sophisticated as looking up everyone’s RAPM or GAR numbers, but it shows who is, relative to the strength of their linemates, experiencing the good and bad Expected Goals Against numbers.

This is not adjusted for all usage, that’s something else entirely, and remember that negative numbers are good here. So Mark Giordano (that’s just his minutes on the Leafs) is getting very gentle third-pair easytime minutes and looks like a star.

You pick. Do you want your worst defenceman playing big minutes because of all the rest he does, or do you want a group of guys producing okay, but not spectacular results? Does Giordano make up for Rielly, and the rest all amount to meh, not bad? Is Victor Hedman really a bit Leaf-like in his just okay defensive results this year?

I don’t think either team has the best defence corps, nor a bad one. I think they come by their very similar defensive numbers honestly, and neither team is built to defend their way to wins. Tampa just gets that rep because of their goalie.

Offence

I think this contest is no contest, but I’ll run the numbers. Here’s a hint, though: do you want the guy who scored 60 this year, or the one who did it a decade ago?

The Leafs xGF/60 is 2.88, third in the NHL, and the Lightning are ninth with 2.62. That seems like a small difference, but it’s the difference between domination of the Expected Goals % and merely being good.

Tampa’s highest individual Expected Goals producer is Ross Colton and their second guy is Corey Perry. That might make you fear their fourth line — and you have to watch those guys — but the Leafs have five top nine forwards ahead of the Lightning’s best forward, Brayden Point.

I think it’s valid to say the middle six of the Lightning can score more goals than the Leafs’ nullification third line, but they aren’t necessarily contributing more to game outcomes. The Lightning, even Point plus Kucherov, are not in the same class as a line built around Auston Matthews, though. That’s just how it is. Ironically (or not, depending on how things go) the only line in the NHL that touches the Matthews line is centred by old man Patrice Bergeron.

The Leafs just are better than the Lightning at offence. I don’t think there’s a valid argument that says different.

Special Teams

The Leafs have the best PP and PK. Again, like with their general offence, the Lightning are very good. They’re a top 10 team in everything. The biggest difference is penalties called and drawn. The Lightning are second in the NHL in time on the power play with 415 minutes, and the Leafs are 29th with 348. The Lightning are eighth in the NHL shorthanded with 410 minutes and the Leafs are 12th with 381.

If that holds, and there’s no reason to think it won’t, the Leafs will get a lot less time to use their much better power play. The Lightning can easily make up for their less that great PK with a great goalie. I think this is not where you differentiate the shades of blue.

Conclusion

So that’s us vs them. Their goalie, our offence, their playoff experience, our superstar hot like burning top line. It shouldn’t be easy to snatch that Cup from Steven Stamkos hands. This is supposed to be the hardest thing this team has ever done, and it will be.

Win or lose, the Leafs are not in the wrong fight, they’re punching right in their weight class.

Go Leafs Go, and may fortune favour the right shade of blue.