With Sunday’s win over the Flyers, the Maple Leafs have played their 41st game, and are half done. As of Sunday night, they are third in the NHL in points (tied with Carolina at 57), and third by points percentage, with New Jersey as the only eastern team close to them from below.
There is a serious risk the Leafs could overtake Carolina and be second to the Boston Bruins, and that might be hard to take for Leafs fans certain the team is going to lose every game, plays down to their opponent, can’t win when it counts, needs toughness and size and more goals and a fourth line centre and several other things or they’ll lose in the first round again, and Dubas will be fired, he should be fired now and Keefe is the worst, the absolute worst, and my god the fourth line, and... sorry, channeled the entire fanbase there, and almost hyperventilated.
Of all the methods to measure team strength, the standings are the most imperfect, and yet they are the only way that matters in the end. One reason for the imperfection is that goal scoring is not a thing that happens because a team out-tried or out-deserved their opponents. It’s nearly a completely random result that comes out of chances to score, and random is not synonymous with regular intervals. This causes a phenomenon where a team can have a big goal differential without a lot of wins. Dallas is second in the NHL in goal differential, for example — they’ve been a bit unlucky about when they scored. No one exemplifies this better than the Buffalo Sabres. They are seventh in goal differential, but fourth in the race for the wild card spots in the east by points. Do not be surprised if they overtake the other challengers and are deep in the fight for a spot come spring.
Both Tampa and Toronto need to be aware that while the Atlantic appears to be a three-horse race that’s already decided — it really isn’t. Anything can happen in half a season. Just a few weeks ago, Florida looked pretty strong, with just some troubles in net. They’ve now played their way out of playoff contention and are in the “need a miracle run” camp to make it.
The Leafs, I’m sorry to tell you, are third by goal differential as well as points %. There’s just no escaping it — they are really good, and they win a lot. But it’s simply how it works that teams at the very top with the very best records are the most likely to fall back in the second half. You don’t need to think up a story about effort or create imaginary injuries to explain it, it’s just this: the closer you are to perfect, the more likely you are to get worse not better. This means you, Boston. It would be a modern NHL miracle if they sustain that .850 points % or something even close to it. The chance that they only fail to win eight times in the second half is not large. But they are on top, and seem impossible to topple off the podium.
For the most pessimistic fanbase in the history of sport, here we are again just like last year. The Leafs are playing very well, scoring a lot of goals and getting good goaltending (no wait, we didn’t have that last year). The Leafs are very good, and the reason you think they are fatally flawed is probably because you don’t watch any other team with even a 10th of the attention you do the Leafs, and when you do, you aren’t personally affronted by every mistake.
“It’s unacceptable!!” said all the 50s dads when Jimmy took the Studebaker out and dented the fender. Or when the Leafs got beat by the Kraken. Or was that the Yotes? One of those, anyway, was totally the last straw and this team is terrible.
It clearly isn’t. So what are the best things about the Leafs. The glass more than half full that gets all these points that at least half the fans think they don’t deserve.
At five-on-five, the Maple Leafs are fifth in the NHL at goals saved over expected goals against. Counting all goalies in all games. The Islanders are first, which is why they are flirting with a playoff spot while playing bad hockey. The Bruins are fourth, which is not the only reason they lead the NHL.
The concept of a true tandem, which the Leafs have managed to find the cap space to pull off, shows its value when a goalie hot streak ends, as it inevitably does, and there’s another guy to take the crease. The Leafs are getting very good goaltending. They won’t be great in every game, but they have twice the chance of dealing with a long season than they had last year.
If you get used to looking at the tables of results for things like five-on-five Corsi (all shots) and Expected Goals (all unblocked shots weighted for likelihood to be a goal) you get the feel for how the league works as a whole. In every season there is a large block of teams around 50% in shotshare or xG, and this season, as in most recent seasons, it’s a big group. You’ve likely noticed that so-called bad teams are harder to beat. This is the parity no one likes because it partially erases the wealth advantage of teams like the Leafs, and what is wealth for if not to put you in a class above where you’re problems go away?
This season the Leafs are above that muddy middle group by an amount you can call significant.
- GF% - 3rd
- xGF% - 5th
- FF% (unblocked shots) - 7th
- CF% - 8th/
The Leafs at 52.4% in shotshare (CF%) don’t have many stinker games or overwhelming domination games — about six of each. But what they do have is consistency in hitting over 50% in shotshare 23 games out of 41. That’s the foundation on which you build wins.
The power play is very good “on paper” and good in goal results. A great deal of that difference is the poor shooting % Matthews has been “enjoying” and the second unit. The Leafs power play without Matthews on the ice is below league average. With Matthews, it’s so above average, I’m always a little shocked when even the most diehard complainer complains about it. Like the goalies, the power play isn’t perfect in every iteration.
The Leafs PK is very good, fun, and limits the chances against extremely well.
This glass is at least 3⁄4 full.
The goaltending while shorthanded has not been very good all season. This is often just randomness since there’s very few minutes in half a season. Interestingly, the Leafs have been spending a lot more time on the PK than they used to and are in the top half of the league (just) by TOI shorthanded.
The systems might be good and above average, but the top five teams in every measure are a pretty meaningful jump above them. This is also how the league just works. A few teams at the top of every stat are really excellent, and then there’s a bunch of very good teams that drift into the muddy middle fairly quickly. The Leafs aren’t hitting excellence in anything.
The Full Picture
This visual is really what I just spent too many words talking about:
This is a breakdown of what underlies each team’s goals for and against. How they got to where they are. So the Islanders are all pink. The Jets nearly so. These are the “fake” teams, that win without skater quality. Boston, damn them, are good at absolutely everything. And minus the shooting (finishing skill and luck), so are the Leafs. We expect that green bar to gradually move to the positive, and it has been.
For the Leafs, it’s a question of scale. If they had the finishing talent that Boston has — and to be clear, they aren’t likely to, since most of the Leafs historically score at or under expected — the Leafs would still be Boston-lite.
The glass is likely more than 3⁄4 full, since nothing the Leafs are winning with is likely to just vanish. And the only weakness is shooting %. Auston Matthews carries a lot of the load of the Leafs. He is the top line, he is the power play, he is the shooting skill on the team. The only thing wrong with the Leafs is that they have often failed to score in games when they are playing very well. If they were just popping them in the net at will, like last year, those games where they get sloppy and do dumb things like pass right to the other team would just fade into normality and not feel so meaningful.
The short version of reading that chart is this: If you’re very good at blue, and you have some yellow, you can ride out the vagaries of pink and green, and you’re good to go. The trouble is, as you may have noticed, the vagaries of pink and green really matter in the playoffs, and almost no one knows in advance what they’re getting there. Pink and green are not moral signifiers, they aren’t even measures of worth, they’re the universe rolling on unconcerned with how we feel, and you should never believe in them.
Blue, you’re supposed to be able to rely on, and I have to admit that the numbers are good, the track record is solid, and yet is feels a little shaky to me, but I honestly think that might just be the dichotomy between inputs and results because the goals weren’t there. My glas is more than half full, for sure, but I’m not yet convinced it’s full enough.
How full is your glass?
How full is your glass?
|7/8 at least
|Less than half
|Was I not supposed to drink this?