Barring any unexpected trades, it now appears that the Leafs roster is largely set. The question then becomes what we can reasonably expect from this team.
The short answer is "it depends on the goaltending". If the Bruins and Leafs had swapped goaltending last year, the Leafs would not have been Cup contenders and the Bruins probably would not have missed the playoffs, but there is a fair chance the Leafs would have passed the Bruins in the standings. Goaltending is that important, and the Leafs’ fortunes will rise or fall in significant part on the performance of James Reimer.
With that said, however, the players in front of Reimer remain important. Goaltending can move a team several places above or below the talent level of its skaters, but those skaters still set the baseline.
One of the best ways to assess the talent of a team’s skaters is to look at how effective they are at possessing the puck and moving it to the other team’s end. Numerous studies (see for example this one from Tyler Dellow or this one from Vic Ferrari) have indicated that shot attempts – a measure of possession in the offensive end – are more repeatable and therefore a better predictor of future offensive success than shooting percentage or goals.
The two most common measures of offensive performance are corsi and fenwick, explanations of which can be found in a recent article at Matchsticks and Gasoline. A more comprehensive FAQ on advanced stats is at Behind the Net. Unfortunately, the Leafs were one of the worst teams in the league last year on that front. This article will examine whether the Leafs are likely to be any better next year based on the roster changes to date.
Kent Wilson at Flames Nation has already looked at last year’s Flames from this perspective and I recommend his article as background on the theories I rely on here. In a nutshell, when looking at players’ performance you should consider two things: (1) how challenging their ice time was; and (2) how they performed in light of their circumstances.
In the chart below I have examined the 2009-2010 Leafs from this perspective. The three left-most columns look at how hard the minutes were, in terms of quality of competition, quality of teammates, and percentage of shifts started in the offensive zone.
The next four columns look at how a player performed in those circumstances, including where their shifts ended up and whether they directed more shots at net than their opponents, both in absolute terms and as compared to their teammates. The column for "5v5 Tied Fenwick%" eliminates "score effects" – the tendency for teams to shoot relatively more when trailing and less when leading – by looking at Fenwick performance only when teams are tied at even strength.
The last column looks at team shooting percentage when a player is on the ice (for forwards) or team save percentage when the player is on the ice (for defencemen). There is some doubt concerning the extent to which these represent repeatable skills; stevesmith19 at Pension Plan Puppets, among many others, has recently demonstrated why. However, I provide them with the proviso that they probably have little predictive value unless a sample size of several seasons is used.
|Player||Corsi Rel QoC||Corsi Rel QoT||Ozone% Start||Ozone% Finish||Corsi Rel||Corsi On||5v5 Tied Fenwick %||Sh%|
(Players no longer with the Leafs are in bold)
• With the exception of the Kulemin-Grabovsi-MacArthur line, none of the Leafs were able to keep their heads above water possession-wise.
• Versteeeg, Crabb and Sjostrom saw some of the toughest minutes for the Leafs last year and someone else is going to have to step up.
• Mitchell, Brown and Orr were getting murdered out there in spite of facing the softest competition on the team.
• Bozak and Kessel probably saw the easiest minutes of anyone in the Top 9 (accounting for quality of competition and zonestarts) and still had terrible possession numbers. What does this mean in terms of roles players may be capable of filling?
• The MGK line can outplay the opposition in a second line role.
• The Leafs have no one proven capable of holding the fort against tough opposition other than perhaps Boyce, though I would like to see more than one year of NHL performance before I put too much stock in him.
• Kessel and Lupul need a possession monster if they are to match up against first lines.
• Kadri and Armstrong have performed well facing third level competition.
• Bozak was utterly dreadful last year – he had poor possession statistics while enjoying relatively soft minutes – and absent significant improvement may be best suited to the fourth line.
What about the newcomers? Can they fill the gaping holes? I have included Lupul here since he played relatively few games with the Leafs last year.
|Player||Year||Corsi Rel QoC||Corsi Rel QoT||Ozone% Start||Ozone% Finish||Corsi Rel||Corsi On||5v5 Tied Fenwick %||Sh%|
|Connolly||2010-11||0.321 (6)||2.137 (3)||56 (5)||53 (5)||11.2 (3)||9.55 (2)||0.534 (5)||8.05 (6)|
|2009-10||0.787 (3)||0.942 (1)||55.9 (2)||52.6 (2)||-2.7 (10)||-2.17 (11)||0.499 (7)||8.85 (3)|
|2008-09||0.847 (4)||-.688 (11)||46.3 (12)||49.5 (8)||-1.0 (10)||-2.85 (10)||0.495 (12)||13.07 (1)|
|Lombardi||2009-10||0.167 (10)||1.079 (2)||57.7 (2)||54.0 (3)||-0.6 (10)||3.52 (8)||0.496 (8)||10.20 (2)|
|2007-08||0.482 (5)||-2.176 (8)||49.4 (14)||50 (9)||-8.8 (10)||-1.91 (10)||0.467 (10)||6.12 (10)|
|2008-09||0.193 (7)||-0.163 (8)||46.9 (8)||46.8 (10)||-2.9 (11)||-6.79 (9)||0.474 (10)||9.36 (6)|
|2007-08||0.305 (7)||0.544 (6)||46.6 (3)||47.0 (8)||0.5 (6)||-7.84 (7)||0.433 (13)||9.77 (3)|
I have offered three years of data, omitting any year lost to injury, and (except in years split between two clubs) have indicated team rankings among forwards playing 40 games. The team rankings give a sense of what level they were playing at on their team, as raw numbers can be affected dramatically by a particular team’s schedule. Unfortunately, the data does not suggest we have added any dominant possession players.
• Connolly performs acceptably against second line competition and with generous offensive zonestarts. It is possible he may also have an ability to drive favourable shooting percentages, which may mitigate any possession shortcomings, though as noted there is significant debate concerning the degree to which this is a repeatable skill.
• Lombardi had poor possession statistics in spite of generally playing a second to third line role. His relatively gaudy statistics have been buoyed by two years of abnormally high on-ice shooting percentages. His poor 2007-2008 performance in that regard suggests that we should not count on continued high shooting percentages when he is on the ice. Lombardi, if healthy, belongs on the third line.
• Lupul is a terrible possession player, posting numbers among the worst on his teams in spite of playing third-line minutes for the most part. He needs to be pulled up by other players.
Where does that leave the Leafs? The short answer is without anyone who can reliably face opponents’ top lines. Given the Leafs’ lack of elite offensive talent I do not believe they can continue with a "Top 6" approach with a designated checking line akin to the approach Vancouver employed so effectively last year. We need to get scoring out of our Top 9 and we do not have anyone who has proven he can shut down opposing top lines.
The best bet may be to try to give the MGK line the tough assignments and hope they can handle the step up in class. This may also have the side benefit of depressing Grabovski’s offensive numbers in a contract year. Connolly will hopefully represent enough of an upgrade over Bozak to allow Kessel and Lupul to perform adequately in a second line role, while Armstrong-Lombardi/Bozak-Kadri can hopefully at least tread water on the third line.
On the fourth line, the more we see of Bozak and Boyce instead of Orr and Brown, the better. Dupuis, Zigomanis and Crabb are also respectable options here though I have not included their numbers given their limited histories and expected roles.
In the next article, I will examine the Leafs defense corps possession rates.