March 27 2014 01:50PM
It presumably hasn't escaped people's collective grasps that the Toronto Maple Leafs have stopped being out-shot as much during this lengthy losing skid. Sure, until the game against the Blues, the Leafs had actually out-shot its opposition 160-154 in the first five games, including two consecutive out-shooting games against Detroit and Tampa Bay followed by a 36-36 tie against the Habs.
However, that number is a less impressive 117-129 if you only count only even strength shots, meaning that the Leafs were padding their numbers thanks to a helpful powerplay that has generated four goals in the six games. At even strength with the score tied, the number looks even worse: 24-29 doesn't look that bad on the surface, but those numbers mean the Leafs were only getting 45% of the shots—a rate that only beat four teams this entire season: Philadelphia, Edmonton, Buffalo and, well, Toronto.
Worse yet, the Corsi picture was worse. Before even factoring in the game against St. Louis, the opposition recorded 63 attempted shots with the score tied to 46 for Toronto. That's a rate of just 42% for Toronto, meaning that the Leafs were getting a few extra shots through that weren't being blocked or missing the net. That, of course, hasn't translated into more goals.
I don't want to be alarmingly defeatist here. I was resigned to accept the Leafs would make the postseason...
(although I don't think that is in the best interests of the club to squeak in with a wild card at this point. I think that the way the team is being managed and coached is different from past Stanley Cup winners—possession rules these days. Whether it's the regular season or the playoffs, the poor possession teams get snuffed out and the last team standings are ones who can dominate at even strength consistently. The Leafs have the right musicians and sheet music but the drummer is horribly off-beat)
…but the Leafs proved me wrong yet again by losing six straight. With eight games to go, you could give me any wildly unpredictable scenario for what happens next and it wouldn't be beyond the scope of accepting it in the realm of possibility. This has been a weird season with two different win streaks where the team looked like a Stanley Cup contender, and two losing streaks where the team has looked like a lottery team. Predictably, the team is somewhere in between.
BEING ALARMINGLY DEFEATIST
Now, the possession game for the Leafs hasn't been great, nor has it been much better than their game when they were winning. It's not just that the Leafs haven't been getting the good bounces anymore, but everything is working against them. The Leafs had a 4-2 record in one-goal regulation games prior to the streak but are now 4-6, with the only other two losses (vs. Tampa Bay and vs. St. Louis) close at least on the scoreboard until the final minute. Toronto haven't been getting blown out of the water, they've just dropped close game after close game, unable to record the one extra bounce they need.
But an important point stands: you could look at the Leafs recent losing streak and use six whole games to fit into your whole picture of hockey, depending on whether you think the Corsis or the Fenwicks have any real merit. It's a battle that surrounded the Leafs observers so much this season as many of us are entrenched in our ways, and eventually, the constant squawking got the better of me. There are only so many hours in the day to worry about which Toronto MSM member decided that he would be the latest to come up with the brilliant point that "well, the thing CORSI doesn't account for is the quality of a—". That did get me thinking however: do I spend my days worrying about hockey teams and Corsi because I believe that Corsi is an indicator of future success, or do I spend my days worrying about Corsi because it's in my professional interest for advanced statistics in hockey to enter the mainstream?
That's a problem that a lot of writers have to deal with, unfortunately, and a small sample of games is not enough to let the data lie where it must lay. As easily as I can point to "regression to the mean", the Toronto Sun sports editorial board or whomever can just as easily point to the fact that "well, Toronto's now out-shooting opponents and losing games, so…"
That, of course, is why we look at shot counts when the game is tied or close, to eliminate those moments of the game where one team is pressing with a large number of outside efforts.
Put it this way: in the 2011-2012 season, teams that out-shot the opposition played at a 91.0-point per 82-game pace, while teams that were out-shot played at a 93.3-point per 82-game pace. Through some logic, anybody could say that it's wise to get out-shot and focus on quality, but that ignores the cause and effect that's taking place. Do teams out-shoot the opposition because they're losing or do they lose because they out-shoot the opposition? (NOTE: I wrote a thing a little while back on the practice of "score effects")
I've seen enough evidence, and used it enough in practice via betting and pools and what else is that it's not prudent to bet on high or low percentages being maintained. That's the practical application. Anybody who is telling you that they saw the Leafs six-game losing streak coming isn't being genuine: I don't see any world where six games can disprove the 68 that came before it, and no precise mathematical formula can tell you exactly what will happen in the next eight games. Maybe the Leafs go 8-0. When one side of the "stats versus I-Believe-in-Randy-Carlyle" debate appears to be headed for a sure victory, the next ten games see a near-complete reversal of fortune. That's hockey, and that's life. It's built on the unpredictable and all you can really do is make general assumptions based on the next most likely occurrence.
WHEEL OF FORTUNE
When I play golf, my problem is that I'm a good enough golfer to hit some shots that fly and fall where I want them to. I'm 25, in reasonably good shape, and as a result, can hit the ball a mile if I hit the perfect shot. The flip side is that I don't hit the perfect shot about 85% of the time I shoot, so I spend a lot of time on the course chasing into the woods after lost balls and adding up all the penalty strokes. You can appreciate the good luck that comes your way and it's so tempting to attempt to re-create it—and the more alcohol that's imbibed throughout the round makes it a little tougher to play within my limitations. I'll stand up on the 12th teebox, take a little off the swing, and it feels so good and flies true that I re-create the shot on the 13th teebox swinging "just a little harder, but keep the same motion".
That's pretty much what the Leafs did in the offseason, and I don't think it's prudent to continue that line of thinking. The Leafs can make the playoffs (in a weak Conference) declare victory (without having played a playoff round) and the coaching staff can earn the endorsement of management and ownership so we can continue this struggle next year, where this talented group gets out-classed routinely. The laws of distributions can tell you that eventually, a team with a Corsi Tied of 45% or under will win the Stanley Cup, but that doesn't make it a good idea to try to be that team. Possession is the NHL currently, and over the last few years since I've been paying attention, bad teams have been on the wrong side of the bounces for one reason or another in the playoffs as the competition gets that much tighter.
This post doesn't really have a conclusion. It's more of a spiel of notes and thoughts I've had but I do think that people have been over-thinking the Leafs a tonne this season and I'm not absolving myself of being guilty in some way. Let's just end by me saying that I don't think the Leafs recent slide is caused because they were "due" to lose or regress. It's six games from a hockey team that, despite so much talent up front and so many offensive weapons and one of the best individual goaltending seasons ever, has a thoroughly underwhelming record.
To me it's the 23-24 record in regulation back on March 14, and not the 0-6 since, that needs answering for.