October 09 2012 12:50PM
He's playing with a relatively newfound commitment and dedication in all three zones – the 200-foot player as Brian Burke likes to describe it. Winning battles along the boards, chipping pucks out in the defensive zone, back-checking with vigour, [He] is dedicating himself to the finer elements of the game.
Which Toronto Maple Leaf is Jonas Siegel writing about in this paragraph from October 16, 2011? Click past the jump to find out.
"When guys see [him] going as hard as he can and playing the way he is, it definitely puts a spark in all the other guys. He's a leader on the ice and guys follow him. When he's playing well it makes everyone work extra hard."
That is the way a teammate has described Phil "Philip J." Kessel. I've seen a lot of online discussion, and tried to talk people down from ledges, that while Kessel may not be the perfect player to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs, it has nothing to do with lack of leadership or heart or anything that we like to think makes hockey players hockey players.
It's an issue with perception, and not predictable by any means.
On the leadership front, Damien Cox wrote a column October 17 on the improved Leafs, and how they can avoid the mistakes of the season before, when they "received huge headlines for their team speed and improved depth and started believing it was a good team":
Colorado has lots of kids everywhere, but particularly up front. This is the kind of game in which a quick, hard start by the Leafs could pay huge dividends, get the crowd going and persuade the Avs they'd accomplished enough on this road trip and could head home to face Chicago on Thursday with heads held high.
The Leafs wouldn't win that game against the Avalanche, but they would explode and win six of their next nine games and were a strong 14-9-2 record through November, well ahead of their pace last year after 25 games when they were 9-12-4.
So, lessons learned? Leadership, not improved team speed or improved depth, was the buzzword.
Then what happened? Why did the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4th in the Eastern Conference, fall so suddenly in the second half of the season? After all, "the Toronto Maple Leafs no longer seem like the Charlie Browns of the NHL" wrote Michael Traikos in the National Post on November 28:
give the Leafs credit for winning these so-called easy games. As a result, the Leafs stand above five teams — the New York Rangers, Buffalo, Washington, Tampa Bay and Montreal — that made the playoffs last year. And they have been doing it with a shorthanded lineup.
But for the time being, you can confidently say that they look like they should make the playoffs and not hear snickering.
I like Traikos, so I'm not going to harp on him for writing things that I was at the start of December. There was a renewed confidence about the Maple Leafs, despite the bubble being about to burst.
Old readers of The Leafs Nation know the effect shooting and save percentages can have on our perception of a hockey team. I recognize that we have lots of newish readers in the last little while so I'd like to explain my favourite hockey concept:
PDO doesn't stand for anything. PDO is the simple addition of team shooting and save percentages at even strength. On February 8th on this blog, I wrote "should the shooting falter, I'm not convinced the team has the defence or goaltending to stay in a playoff spot" while a commenter noted "when the Leafs, with excessive PDO and way too low Fenwick, make the playoff - then finally people will come to realize that advanced stats are a complete fraud."
Fenwick is a shot metric that includes missed shots, but for now, we'll just use shots for and shots against. After November, when the Leafs were 14-9-2, they had outscored their opponents 53-51. However, they were being outshot by their opponents 563-609. At the time, their shooting percentage was a very high 9.4 per cent and they had a .916 save percentage from their goaltenders—below league average, but better than the guys at the other end.
The Leafs PDO at this point stood at 1010, and unlikely to stay that high. The idea is that the amount of quality shots taken by a player or team balance out over the course of the season. While individual shots may differ, team shots equal out, and every team will wind up with a PDO very close to 1000 (the Leafs finished with a 998).
Basically, it's not that the Leafs were improved through November. They were just a hockey team coasting with "high percentages" and the bubble was about to burst, and burst it did:
Shot % is the rate of shots the Leafs took as opposed to their opponents. Goal % is the amount of goals they scored. Hockey is a game of ratios, and when you get more than 50% of the goals, you win the game. The best way to get more than 50% of the goals is to get more than 50% of the shots, and that's something the Leafs haven't been doing in a while.
Behind the Net has an excellent graphic representing the Leafs rise and fall in PDO over the course of the season. But it isn't just the Leafs who went through that, so did Boston. So did Minnesota. So did the New York Rangers. Percentages can fool us at any point during the season, but it's more likely to happen at the beginning of a campaign where there are fewer games played and the potential for variance is higher.
So, while we ask ourselves what the Leafs can do differently to avoid a similar collapse, we ought to remind ourselves it may not have as much to do with leadership as it seems. If we step back and analyze the data and put the Leafs' opening months into context, we'll see the problem is not that the Leafs had trouble down the stretch, but a team that needs more good hockey players to help them out-shoot their opponents more routinely.
Kessel is one of those players. But he needs more of 'em.
[Chart data pulled from Timeonice.com scripts]