January 11 2017 12:25PM
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS
We're now in the fourth month of the season for the Buds and the temperature on the team has completely switched. Around this time last month there was a lot of pessimism around the team and for good reason after dropping easy games to the dregs of the league like Vancouver, Arizona and Colorado. Since then the Leafs have been on a tear and are currently in or barely out of a playoff spot depending on whether you look at it sensibly (points percentage) or not (points).
Since losing to the Coyotes, aka their last 10 games, the Leafs are 7-2-1 and #TheLeafsAreActuallyGood hashtag has sort of reached a fever pitch on the ol' Twitter dot com and while I was on the fence about it earlier in the year, this run has pushed me on to the other side with the rest of the crazies. This is a good team. A good team that will fight for the playoffs and in fact has a pretty good chance of getting in themselves.
Before the season started I projected that the Leafs would be around an 87 point team based on a model using Game Score which measures the value of each player in the league. That would put them in the middle camp: not quite playoff calibre, but not a flaming pile of garbage either. Right now, they're set to surpass those expectations as they're on pace for 93 points. In fact, they even be a little better than that.
Here's how good the Leafs are, right now, according to Game Score, and a look at who's driving those results.
How Good Are The Leafs?
Ok so we went from 87, to 88, to 90, and now we're here with an even bigger jump: 95 points. With the rest of the Atlantic division lagging behind, that puts the team at a 60 percent chance at the playoffs. Hard to believe for some who were expecting a bottom five team, but if you believed in their numbers last season (middle of the pack Corsi team, dog poop shooting and save percentage) and saw the injection of talent they were getting this year (The Big Three, healthy JVR, Andersen) you'd see at the time that another bottom out year was unlikely. I saw that, but I never expected at all what we have here, a legitimately good team. Mostly, I underestimated completely the impact of the rookies who are 2.9 wins better than what I expected. I had them at 87 to start the year and with that extra 2.9 wins, you get a 93 point team, basically what they are right now. You can pretty much frame the entire wrongness of my pre-season prediction on "these kids are way better than I thought there would be."
And I sure am happy to be wrong there.
Auston Matthews took a giant leap last month, and while it was mostly a hot streak driving it, it was a solid underlying process we saw all season and it's not difficult to envision him sustaining his 70-plus point pace. He's that good already. Considering he's also got a hell of a 200 foot game, drives play at both ends, and takes a lot of shots on net, it's not surprising he ranks really high on Game Score. Really high. At 19 he might already be one of the league's best centres. That was on full display over the last month and it's why he gets the biggest jump here.
He was so good that the next biggest jumps come from his linemates Zach Hyman and Connor Brown. With Matthews being able to carry those two around, it's allowed Nylander to move up with Kadri and create a potent and dangerous top nine. Very few teams boast the talent the Leafs have on their top three lines, so much so, that the entire forward corps now ranks fourth in the entire league behind only Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York. In a few years time it won't be surprising to see them at the top.
Andersen was perhaps one of the biggest revelations lately though and the Leafs goaltending at this point projects to be at least average instead of bottom 10 or bottom five which is where it was to start the season. Andersen has really proved a lot of people wrong with his stellar play this season and he's been excellent since his poor start to the season. The Leafs picked up McElhinney on waivers yesterday and well, I don't see that being much of an upgrade on Enroth in all honesty. He's not that great either.
The big question remains on the defensive side where the Leafs lack a true number one and rank way near the bottom of the league. The top four is solid, but needs someone to step as The Guy. Jake Gardiner has been just that lately and is getting a lot more minutes as a result, but I don't think he's quite there yet long term. Nikita Zaitsev has been a real nice and low-key addition this year that I don't think he gets enough credit for. Then there's the bottom pair, which still leaves a lot to be desired. Hopefully Martin Marincin can displace one of them when he comes back, but I'm not holding my breath there, and even he isn't that good himself.
Overall, this is a really solid team. Some might even say they're actually good. At the start of last month, I suggested the Leafs had a true talent win percentage of .496, a 91 point team. With the big gains most players made last month, the team has jumped up overall to an expected win percentage of .518, a 95 point team. That's playoff calibre, and if they keep this up, that's where they likely end up in April.