The Leafs: Hot Streak or Improved Play?

Before we get rolling here: I’m Chemmy, one half of the Pension Plan Puppets blogging enterprise. Along with PPP I spend my internet e-days i-trolling other team’s fans but occasionally I’ll write a little bit about stats. Nothing too fancy and I try to keep the math simple. As you’re realizing right now I’m not the world’s slickest writer but nobody’s perfect and crummy writing is actually my only flaw as a human being.

Speaking of things that are almost flawless the Leafs are 4-0-1 five games into this young season. Had anyone told me the Leafs would have 9 points by now two weeks ago I wouldn’t have believed them. Without a doubt the Leafs aren’t going to keep up this pace because if they could it would mean they’d make a mockery of the NHL as we know it.

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James Mirtle, a journalist for the Globe and Mail who also does double duty getting things off high shelves in the press box, summarized the Leafs numbers on Tuesday at his blog Leafs Beat

Goals for per game: 3.40 (T-3rd)
Goals against per game: 2.20 (T-4th)
Shots for per game: 28.8 (24th)
Shots against per game: 23.0 (1st)
Save percentage: .904 (22nd)
Power play %: 17.4% (13th)
Penalty kill %: 88.9% (7th) 

The Leafs score 3.4 goals per game on 28.8 shots for a team shooting percentage of 11.8% (3rd in the NHL). Given the Leafs lack of high end talent it’s likely that this shooting percentage will come down as the season goes by. The first person we’ll expect to have their shooting percentage drop should be Clarke MacArthur.

Much like Lee Stempniak’s lucky run in Phoenix last year Clarke MacArthur’s hot start has seen him shooting 38.5% (11th in the NHL). Simply put: there’s no way Clarke MacArthur suddenly more than doubled his career shooting percentage of 15.5%. Phil Kessel is shooting 23.8% (54th) and will likely slow down to the 12-15% range. Remember that when he doesn’t score for two games and the Toronto Sun starts writing about how he hates Toronto and is a huge bust.

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Focusing on shooting percentages leads us to the next area – the Leafs shots for and against per game. Shots against per game is a good measure of a team’s defense and the Leafs have been incredibly stingy in this area so far this year. Some of this can be attributed to Francois Beauchemin and Luke Schenn’s improvement over last season as well as Tomas Kaberle remembering that playing defense is important but unfortunately the Leafs will probably see this number rise as the season goes on. 23 shots against per game is well below what last year’s shots against leader (Chicago) gave up: 25.1.

Luckily for the Leafs their goaltending and shots for per game have been pretty mediocre so far. Lucky? Yes, lucky. If the Leafs were winning on the back of .960 save percentage goaltending it would be pretty easy to say "they’re going to fall apart soon" but the Leafs are winning with a .904. This is a number that should increase. Giguere is probably going to finish the year somewhere around a 0.915 SV% and sophomore Jonas Gustavsson should improve on his rookie season’s .902. With any luck this will offset the rise in the amount of shots against for the Leafs.

Meanwhile on the shots for category the knee jerk reaction is to say "the Leafs should shoot more". But last year the Leafs were fifth in shots for per game. What gives? It’s pretty simple: when you’re always losing you need to press harder and fire more pucks on the net. A team that’s winning can afford to sit back and not pepper the other team’s net at the expense of playing defense. 

Getting to the point: the Leafs shooting percentage is unsustainable but not being ahead will likely cause them to shoot more. We all understand that despite their hot start the Leafs aren’t the best team in the league and despite the small sample size there’s hope Leafs Nation: this could very well be a playoff team if they keep limiting chances on net and our goaltenders wake up a little bit.

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