As you may have heard, the Leafs are in first place in the NHL, at least for a while. We can’t stop Nashville and Tampa from playing more games, so that’s not going to last, but the Leafs can take the top spot back by continuing to put up points at the pace they are on now.
Points to date
They have 28 points in 20 games, which is exactly 1.4 points per game:
You can see that the points have bounced between a 1.3 and 1.4 pace all season so far. And it’s still possible to switch from one target line to the other in a single game. This is why it’s a bit disingenuous to talk about points pace so early in the season.
Last year at the 20-game mark, the Leafs had 26 points. And while the October and November goaltending issues in that year are visible in this graph, so is something else:
This is last year’s cummulative points compared to this year’s and set against a pace of 1.3 points per game. Last year, as I’ve mentioned before, the real trouble came in January through to the trade deadline when the Leafs really struggled with both goaltending and their overall performance. They didn’t drop off the pace very much, but the downturn lasted a long time and included only four points from games 31 - 35.
Beneath the points
After game 15, Mike Babcock did an interview scrum where he talked about the scoring chances against in the previous five games. We have known for a long time that the Leafs track scoring chances internally, but we do not know their method. This isn’t the most robust way to measure team shot performance, but it beats just looking at points, goals or shots on goal.
Toronto’s last five games have been okay at five-on-five, but not spectacular. Their Corsi For percentage (share of all shots) is 53 (score adjusted, and all stats are from Offside Review). Their Expected Goals percentage is also 51, which is a little worrying as the Leafs usually need to outperform their shot share when you weight for location and type.
They won so many games, aside from the glory of the powerplay, because they actually scored two and a half goals over expected and prevented two goals over expected. That’s okay, but not great shooting in the last five games, and on a game by game basis, I noticed their shooting locations were not their usual net-front high danger dominance.
I picked November 7, to yesterday to compare the Leafs to all the other teams, and they were third in Corsi For per 60 over that period and 18th in Corsi Against per 60. The Leafs simply do not limit shots well, and if you think that is defence, or the bulk of the defensive value of a team, the Leafs are not good. They aren’t bad either.
In addition to the poor shot volume against, the Leafs were actually 19th in Expected Goals Against per 60 over this period, and only ninth in Expected Goals For per 60. Guess who usually leads the team by a large margin in individual Expected goals for? The minor weakness on the offensive side will fix itself in a few days. Over this period the team was led by ... Zach Hyman, and it wasn’t close. And to be clear, I mean individual expected goals on individual shots. But it is fair to say, that while the Leafs gave their goalies an easier time than the opponents’ goalies had, they were relying heavily on their netminders to mop up their defensive shortcomings.
Now, that five-game average is not true in each individual game. The Expected Goals against in the LA and Anaheim games were very low, and the New Jersey and Boston games were okay. Only in San Jose, did the Leafs really do badly by that measure, and they got away with it by using their incredible offence to outscore a bad day in the defensive zone.
On to the next five games, where the goal should be to keep doing what they’ve been doing for the most part:
The next five games are packed into 8 days again. The series begins at home on Monday to Columbus. This is not an easy team to come home to after a weekend at the beach (I mean, I hope they’re getting that). Columbus is playing fairly well, and their goaltending is coming back online as well.
Next is a road trip to Carolina, the Corsi kings who have some questionable defensive and offensive quality. The only thing I care about here is that Nylander is signed before this game. It’s on Wednesday the 21, so come on guys, save us from the trade talk.
Next weekend is another back-to-back, beginning with a road game in Columbus and then the HNIC game at home to the Flyers. We have to assume that will be a Garret Sparks start, and the way the Flyers run through goalies, it might actually be Calvin Pickard in net for them if he’s still healthy.
Game five of this set is at home to the Boooo-ins on Monday the 26th, which is about the first game we should consider hoping for Auston Matthews to return.
This is not an easy section of the schedule in terms of rest, travel or opponents. But the first-place team is supposed to be able to handle that. This is now our expectation level, that Carolina’s Corsi means nothing, and the Blue Jackets are not a threat. Okay, the Flyers actually aren’t a threat, likely, but beating the Bruins to round this set of games out would be nice.
I’ll check in after the Boston game and see where they are in their process of putting up points and winning most of their games.