Why the Leafs are 3-0

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There are a few reasons we can say the Toronto Maple Leafs started 3-0. It’s not all because they’re a group of 20 players collectively sticking the middle finger to math. While the Leafs are getting out-played at 5-on-5, they’ve been making up for it in other areas and unlike last season, a fast start can’t be credited only to the team’s shooting and save percentages.

Since there’s little else to talk about in the way of games, new line combinations or trades, I figured today may be a good time to go through a few of them.


I never really got why teams are ranked in special teams by percentages, rather than the number of goals they come out ahead. Just as an example from last year, the Maple Leafs were 19th in the NHL’s PP% but scored more goals with the man advantage than Calgary, ranked 14th, and scored just as many as 8th-ranked Nashville.

One of the thing this Leafs team does really well, especially if Mason Raymond has reverted to his form pre-back injury, is drawing penalties. Nazem Kadri led the league last year, Joffrey Lupul already has three and then you have Raymond. Jake Gardiner also draws more than he takes and he should be up all season, and if Morgan Rielly gets sent down to junior after nine games that brings up John-Michael Liles, who draws twice as many penalties as he takes. I looked at it in a post from just before the season started that made a point about David Clarkson. Even though Clarkson takes a lot of minor penalties, he (surprise!) draws more. I don’t see the Leafs being a team that often takes more penalties than it draws, which is a huge advantage.

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I’m not entirely sure that this is by design, but the Leafs have earned 5 powerplays per game versus just 4 times shorthanded. It’s helped that the powerplay has converted at a very high percentage already, but part of the reason why the team won against Ottawa and Montreal and didn’t get out-shot by a tremendous margin is that they had a huge special teams advantage in those games, simply by looking at the volume of infractions for and against. An underrated part of the powerplay is that it’s essentially two minutes where your opponent doesn’t score.

At this point, the samples are too small to say that the Leafs are X% on the penalty kill or allowing Y% of shots and any of that means anything, but the early success of the units have been helped by the fact that the powerplay unit gets to see more of the ice than the penalty killing unit. Draw penalties, get goals.

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Raymond has already drawn a penalty, and he was fantastic against Ottawa. I’m worried, though, that people may not appreciate the subtle things Raymond does if his scoring halts as it did in Vancouver during the 2011 season. He was still a productive play-driver but the Canucks shot just 6.9% with him on the ice. After sustaining a back injury in the finals, he came back midway through the 2012 campaign and had trouble pushing the play North. Those problems continued through 2013 and the team eventually had to give him up.

Now, Mason Raymond has 4 points in 3 games and he’s definitely not going to finish as a point-a-game player. He has 9 shots in 3 games and he’s probably not going to finish with 3 shots a game, which is an elite amount of volume. He had six controlled zone entries in the second period against Ottawa, and we know that won’t last because Raymond has only had five on the rest of the season.

If you’re unfamiliar with Eric T.’s work on entries, take a few minutes to read the paper he submitted for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As a result of that paper, a couple of junior hockey teams have taken to changing their game strategies around more possession entries. So have NHL coaches Mike Yeo, Lindy Ruff and Barry Trotz. The Leafs have some very good puck-possession forwards for generating entries, such as Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. You can add Raymond to the list. Here’s a list of controlled entries leaders through three games:

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  Successful Carries Dump-ins Failed Carries Successful Carry %
Kessel 19 8 3 63.33%
Raymond 11 5 0 68.75%
van Riemsdyk 13 9 2 54.17%
Ashton 3 5 0 37.50%
McClement 8 7 0 53.33%
Bodie 6 6 0 50.00%
Kulemin 5 2 0 71.43%
Bolland 7 8 1 43.75%
Abbott 1 2 0 33.33%
Lupul 7 6 1 50.00%
Bozak 7 1 2 70.00%
Devane 1 2 0 33.33%
Kadri 4 5 4 30.77%
Orr 0 2 0 0.00%

Now, it’s *just* three games, but this can give us an indicator of why certain things are happening as they do. Raymond’s been a bit of a revelation for the Leafs and while the team is getting out-shot 68-76 at even strength per Extra Skater, with Raymond on the ice, they’re out-shooting the opposition 22-21.

These numbers are going to be fun to track this season, and I suspect that they provide a good indication of which players are driving the play at even strength and why certain players post the Corsi numbers they do.

Notably struggling this season is Nazem Kadri. He has yet to be close to the level he was at last season. Despite retaining those offensive zone starts, the Leafs have just a 34.8% Corsi with him on the ice to start the season. Jay McClement is a tough nut to crack. He has a lot of controlled entries but a lower Corsi than Kadri. It could be lack of support, as he generally skates the puck into the zone when his linemates are changing. After 15 games or so, I’ll have a table of how many shots are generated off individual player entries.

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  • Saultrue

    What are the numbers when a player has an itch in his jock vs. when he doesn’t? I distrust stats. A team has to gel. Over-analyzing everything just opens up the opportunities for skewing things any which way you wish. Agents and GMs can make a great player look bad, and an average player look like a major contributor. I mean, I think they’re interesting, but I don’t place much stock in them. Good read here though.