Winning Games At Even-Strength

Jonathan Willis
November 07 2011 12:20PM

Only one team in the league – Dallas – has more wins than the Toronto Maple Leafs do right now. The Leafs’ 9-4-1 start has been powered by a few things, including strong starts from Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupl, who have almost as many goals as the rest of the team’s forwards combined (18 vs. 23).

There has also been a marked contrast between the Leafs’ performance at even-strength compared to their work on special teams.

With a 15.2% conversion rate on the power play, the Maple Leafs rank 19th in the NHL. Last year, they finished 22nd overall in the league with a 16.0% conversion rate. Leafs’ fans are getting used to watching a bad power play – after a brilliant performance in 2005-06 (2nd overall in the NHL) the power play has not finished higher than 15th overall in the league, and in 2009-10 finished dead last. In the early going, the Leafs are on pace to finish in the same range that they finish in every year.

The much-maligned penalty kill is also emulating the failures of previous seasons. The Maple Leafs have been one of the worst clubs in the NHL at killing penalties for years now, and they’re off to a typically bad start: with a 70.9% kill rate, the Leafs are the worst team in the NHL at killing off penalties.

With all the special teams struggles the Leafs have had this season, the source of their success is obvious: at even-strength. This is a notable departure from previous seasons; since the NHL lockout, the Leafs have only outscored their opponents at even-strength once, back in 2006-07. In five-on-five situations this year, however, the Leafs have held a notable advantage, outscoring their adversaries 33-to-26.

Since the Leafs’ record is based primarily on their work five-on-five situations, it makes sense to look a little deeper at the club’s performance at even-strength, to see how they’re creating a positive goal differential.

They aren’t doing it by preventing goals against. The 26 goals scored on the Leafs in five-on-five situations ties them for 18th in the NHL, and it isn’t like the goaltenders are helping – the injured James Reimer has a very good even-strength save percentage (0.943) but both Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens have been atrocious at even-strength, allowing 21 goals on less than 200 shots. In fact, with decent goaltending we might even expect the Leafs to improve a little in this area – their shots-against rates at even-strength are the 11th-best in the NHL, and if that continues we should see their goals against totals improve as the goaltending stabilizes.

Instead, the Leafs’ big advantage has been an offensive one – 33 goals in five-on-five situations is the second best total in the entirely league, behind only the Philadelphia Flyers. We can further break down that goal-scoring into two abilities: shot volume and shot efficiency. Teams only score at above average rates by either putting a high volume of shots on net or seeing a high percentage of them go in. Which is it for Toronto?

The table below shows four different categories going back to 2007-08 (data courtesy of Behind the Net). The first two are for the Maple Leafs – shots/60 at even-strength, and shooting percentage. The last two show the results of the league’s best team in each year, for the sake of comparison.

Season Toronto SF/60 Toronto SH% League-best SF/60 League-best SH%
2007-08 30.7 8.3 32.8 9.5
2008-09 30.5 8.7 34.8 10.2
2009-10 32.1 7.6 33.2 11.0
2010-11 27.9 8.5 32.7 9.2
Avg. 2007-11 30.3 8.3 33.4 10.0
2011-12 27.0 11.3 36.0 11.7

Looking at the first column, we see the Leafs haven’t been shooting the puck more than in previous years – in fact, they’ve been shooting it less. Their current rate of 27 shots for every 60 minutes of five-on-five ice-time is more than three shots less than their average over the past four seasons, and well back of the league leaders the past few years.

Rather, they’ve been winning with shooting percentage. In the early going, Toronto has an 11.3% shooting percentage rate at even-strength, three full percentage points higher than their number last season. Three percentage points doesn’t sound like a lot, but consider it this way: last year, a three percent bump in five-on-five shooting percentage would have netted the Leafs 52 more goals than they actually scored. Given the number of shots we’re talking about, a jump from the mid-8% range to over 11% is massive.

That shows too when we look at the league leaders the last few years. The 2009-10 Washington Capitals are the only team to hit the 11.0% plateau over a full season; typically, the best shooting team in the league sits around the 10% mark.

Given that the Leafs have typically been a team that scores on 8.3% of their even-strength shots, and given that the best team in the league typically only scores on 10% of their even-strength shots, does it make sense to assume that a) the Leafs are the most accurate shooters we’ve seen since the NHL lockout or that b) pucks are going in for the team right now, and won’t be going in at nearly the same rate in the near future?

My money would be on the latter outcome – I expect the Leafs to increase their shot rates a little bit, but for that to be more than compensated for by a big drop in the percentage of shots that go in the net. In other words, this team had better hope James Reimer comes back at 100% and that the special teams can pick up their socks, or it’s going to be an unpleasant drop down the standings.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 JP Nikota
November 07 2011, 04:54PM
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One issue that hasn't been mentioned yet is that teams that trail on the scoreboard tend to out-shoot their opponents. If Toronto has, for the most part, been in the lead, this may partially explain their poor-looking Fenwick numbers.

Hopefully this softens the effects of the impending regression.

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#2 MathMan
November 08 2011, 09:09AM
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JP Nikota wrote:

One issue that hasn't been mentioned yet is that teams that trail on the scoreboard tend to out-shoot their opponents. If Toronto has, for the most part, been in the lead, this may partially explain their poor-looking Fenwick numbers.

Hopefully this softens the effects of the impending regression.

This is correct, but Toronto has a pedestrian 50.3% scored-tied Fenwick and a less-than-desirable 48.6% score-tied Corsi; they have shot an impressive 11.4% in these circumstances.

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