September 11 2013 07:07AM
"There hasn’t been a higher profile test case of hockey analytics condemnation of a team yet." - mc79hockey.com
Training camp for the Toronto Maple Leafs starts this morning, and for the first time in his nearly two-year long run as head coach of the team, Randy Carlyle is putting his own training camp together with a roster that's 58-strong. 59 once Cody Franson gets himself under contract.
New general manager Dave Nonis had one modus operandi this offseason, and that was to get the players under contract that Carlyle wanted to play with. Out are speedy and skilled players Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur. In are bruising tough guys David Bolland and David Clarkson. The Leafs made the playoffs last season with Grabovski and MacArthur in a reduced role—no matter how good they can be or were in the past for the team, it was proven that they weren't important to the team winning.
Carlyle, and Nonis, took a gamble this summer, going all in on the players they believed were the most important on the Leafs in the team's short playoff run. To Nonis' credit, he was able to, for the most part, lock up all the players he wanted and I have a hard time believing the training camp roster released last night diverges wildly from what the Leafs wanted back in May. Where I disagree with Nonis isn't the way he assembled his roster, but I disagree fundamentally with his philosophy, because him and Carlyle are going into the season rolling the dice on a style of play that may not have been as effective as it was on the outside last season.
As a team, the Toronto Maple Leafs shot 11.0% last season (subtract the number in the 5v5 Sh% number from 1000 and divide by 1000). No team since the start of the behindthenet.ca era has a larger single-season shooting percentage. The 2010 Washington Capitals tied them, but in the 2011 season, the Capitals dropped to 8.1%. Very few teams have been able to consistently repeat shooting percentage seasons outside one standard deviation from the mean, or approximately 9.2%. Of the 19 teams that shot over 9.2% in an 82-game season, just 4 repeated the feat in the next 82-game season.
Here's the thing. I, or any other analyst, can crunch the numbers however I want and talk about PDO in these grand, hypothetical terms. I expected the Leafs' PDO, the addition of shooting and save percentage (it doesn't stand for anything, but just pretend it stands for 'percentage-driven output') to fall after February 20 last year and force the Leafs out of the playoffs, citing that five of the seven teams with percentages that high during the first 17 games of the season crashed, falling by an average of about seven points.
The Leafs stunk as a data point. Their PDO fell from 1.039 to 1.029 according to behindthenet's numbers, but the drop wasn't enough to force them out of the playoffs. Despite their win percentage dropping, the Leafs made it to overtime enough to actually increase their points per 48 games played from February 17 to the end of the season. I was wrong.
There is a chance I could be wrong about all this. The general complaint about "shot quality" among the analytics crowd is that there's no tangible proof a coach can affect his team's on-ice numbers. Generally, the more skilled player, the higher his shooting percentage will be. Star players in the NHL can do two things: they can shoot for a high percentage on their lonesome, and they can generate a lot of shots to take. What the Leafs are doing is in the absence of star players that can generate a lot of shots, they are banking on the idea of "quality possessions" that result in a higher percentage of shots going in. This is meant to be in response to criticism that no playoff team has been as heavily out-shot as the Leafs since the 2002 Montreal Canadiens, and that there were different areas this offseason in which the team ought to have improved.
Tally up the career shooting percentages of the 19 skaters projected to make the Maple Leafs this season, from Dave Bolland to James van Riemsdyk. At even strength in their careers, they've scored 579 goals on 6365 shots, or 9.1%. That's a little higher than NHL average, but had the Leafs' shot percentage been 9.1% last year instead of 11%, they'd have lost about 14 goals at even strength last season, and depending on where those goals were scored and the game situations they were in, that probably would have been enough to boot them out of the playoffs.
I'm open to the idea that I'm wrong about this. I don't think so, generally. Fenwick numbers have been shown to be better predictive of wins than wins themselves. Corsi Tied numbers are some of the best things we have for predicting the future of hockey teams, and while the Leafs' roster underwent a significant turnaround in the offseason, the Leafs cast aside two players—Grabovski and MacArthur—that can positively influence the team's shot counts and got just one back in Clarkson. While Bolland works better than Grabovski stylistically in Randy Carlyle's dream system, Carlyle is still gambling that his system is any better than blowing it all up and playing a fast-paced offensive style. The team's coup-de-grâce in the offseason was to go out and pay a massive premium for Jonathan Bernier, a goaltender with half the career starts of James Reimer, the goaltender that brought the Leafs to the playoffs last season. The theory here is that Reimer's success in two of his three years as a Leaf has nothing to do with Reimer and instead thanks to the systems devised by Carlyle.
It's all a big experiment, and there's likely been no higher profile test subject in the application of hockey analytics. I'm as interested as ever in what the Leafs do or don't accomplish this season and a good batch of people's acceptance of new hockey analysis is probably going to depend on whether the Leafs compete for the Atlantic Division crown or not. It's going to be divisive, entertaining, and every small winning or losing streak is likely to be accomplished by a thousand "i told you so"s in unison.
Basically, check your snake oil at the door. The Maple Leafs will be just one team out of 210 in the "Behind the Net era" at the conclusion of the 2013-2014 campaign, but until then they're a test case. It's going to be a hell of a season.