How far are the Leafs from the Stanley Cup?

LeafsGorge

The Leafs are very far away from being Cup contenders – that much is obvious. How far away is a different question though. To measure that, you have to compare them to the teams that have won. Over the last five years there have only been three winners. Los Angeles. Chicago. Boston.

To even compare the Leafs to these teams is unfair, I’ll admit, but it’s a necessary comparison because the goal is to be as good as those teams are. The goal is to contend for the Cup year in and year out. And the goal is obviously to win it.

So we need to see what separates the Leafs from these three teams, and to do that we need to define what makes a team good at hockey, because a good team wins playoff games.

In the last five years, those three teams mentioned above have more than 45 playoff wins each, an average of nine per season. The Leafs have three. Total. Here’s a depressing graph.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 5.36.56 PM

How did they get so good? To me there’s three main components: Possession, talent, and special teams. To see how far away Toronto is, I want to see how they stack up in these regards as separate skills (not very good), and then combine those skills into one metric that provides a more accurate gauge of their true talent (also not very good).

What Makes A Good Hockey Team

Arguably the most important indicator of a good team right now is how good the team is at possessing the puck. You only need to look at this year’s Corsi Hockey League and Stanley Cup champion to see why. The Kings were relentless and resilient, they won battles, they were aggressive on pucks, they broke out of the zone efficiently, they controlled the neutral zone. All the “unquantifiable” good little things that a good hockey team does leads to puck possession. To measure it most people use 5 on 5 fenwick (shot attempts minus blocks) in close situations (tied in any period, up or down one in the first or second period).

It’s been extremely well documented that the Leafs are not very good at this. Everything the Kings do well, those little things, the Leafs seem to have the opposite philosophy. They’re passive in every zone and they play it safe. It’s this conservative mentality that leads to the team being hemmed in their own zone for massive stretches. So it should come as no surprise that over the last five years the Leafs ranked 29th in the league with an average fenwick close of 45.9 per cent. The good news is that they’re ahead of Edmonton though. 

Where are the three Cup winners on average over the last five years? First, second, and fourth. In fact, Chicago, who’s first, averages 55.4 per cent per year. They are about as good as the Leafs are bad, which says a lot about both teams. 

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There’s also the fact that five of the seven Cup winning teams in the Behind the Net era (last seven years where data is available) were top four puck possession teams. Pittsburgh was also a top four team the year they won, once Dan Bylsma was hired. It’s a big deal.

So, step one for the Leafs is have the puck more. They can’t do much without it.

Puck possession is clearly important, but it’s not everything. No one who seriously looks at it thinks that. No one. And yet that seems to be the number one complaint for some reason.

We already know the Leafs are bad at possession at 5 on 5. Lucky for them only about 80 per cent of the game is played at 5 on 5. Even luckier for them is that they are just as bad shorthanded where they also rank 29th. And they’re only marginally better with the man advantage where they rank 20th. If you add those two numbers together the Leafs are 28th in special teams efficiency at 96.5 per cent. 

Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles are all above 100 per cent on average which is ideal. The thing with special teams though is that it’s not a big deal unless the team is really good or really bad. Being average doesn’t really matter in most cases. In the Leafs case, they’ve been really bad and that’s another problem.

So if step one was be better at 5 on 5, step two is be better at 5 on 4, 5 on 3, 4 on 5, and 3 on 5.

The last thing to measure is talent, which is probably the hardest thing to measure thanks to the effects of luck and the rarity of goals. To measure this I’m going to use 5 on 5 goals in close situations adjusted for PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage). Being good at this would naturally require good goaltending and shooting talent, but it’s clouded by luck which is why I divided the total by PDO (it doesn’t do much, but it helps). A good goalie and some finishing ability on a bad possession team can take them places it shouldn’t be going. It’s called the Leafs model for success*.

*Success not guaranteed

In this regard the Leafs are 21st with an average of 48.7 per cent which is a big improvement over their fenwick numbers. That’s likely due to great goaltending over the last couple years, above average shooting, and a lot of good bounces. 

But again they’re a far cry from Chicago (55.4, first), Boston (54.9, second), and Los Angeles (52.9, sixth). That’s mostly because they spend a lot less time at the fun end of the ice compared to these teams. Having more possession in the offensive zone as opposed to the defensive zone would go a long way towards improving in the goals department. As it stands now, actually scoring and stopping them doesn’t seem like a big concern for this team compared to their terrible possession and special teams.

So Why Did You Throw These Numbers At Me?

If this is what makes a good hockey team (in my opinion at least), then there should be a way to combine everything to get a better assessment of a team’s true talent level, right?

There’s likely a better way to this, but the way I combined them was in the following equation which I’ve dubbed POP: (Fenwick close + (0.6(Goals close/PDO close))) x (Special Team Efficiency). It’s pretty much useless in very small samples (anything below 20 games I would say), but a full season’s worth of data can be very telling.

This isn’t a perfect system, it isn’t a magic formula, and it isn’t everything, but it does a pretty decent job at indicating how good a team really is. 

I was toying around with this idea before the playoffs started because I wanted to know which stats could predict series best, and if it was possible to combine them. Over the last five years this particular one has gone 56-19 and is 73-32 in the years with available data. And that’s without any context such as looking at splits (first half vs. second half, after the trade deadline), rolling averages (which way was the team trending), or how much a team relies on special teams (relying too much on it is usually a red flag). It correlates with playoff wins better than any of the other three stats do on their own.

It’s also a pretty good indicator of who makes the playoffs, something the Leafs have struggled with. No team has ever made the playoffs with anything below 75. Only two out of 50 teams above 85 have missed the playoffs. Six of the top 50 fenwick close teams have missed the playoffs in comparison.

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The reason this works well is because POP correlates even better with regular season points. So much so that you can derive an equation for expected points based on that correlation.

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This shows exactly how overrated or underrated a team is, and who the best teams are. For example, here’s a chart for this year. Note that after the trade deadline, Los Angeles had a POP of 97.8, an expected point total of 121. They were absolutely dominant after acquiring Gaborik, as we all know by now.

POP

Actual

Expected

Difference

Boston

95.4%

117

117

0

Chicago

89.7%

107

107

0

St. Louis

89.4%

111

107

4

Pittsburgh

89.0%

109

106

3

San Jose

88.6%

111

106

5

New Jersey

87.9%

88

104

-16

Los Angeles

87.6%

100

104

-4

New York Rangers

86.7%

96

103

-7

Detroit

84.1%

93

98

-5

Anaheim

84.1%

116

98

18

Tampa Bay

84.1%

101

98

3

Columbus

83.6%

93

97

-4

Montreal

81.7%

100

94

6

Vancouver

81.3%

83

94

-11

Dallas

80.3%

91

92

-1

Nashville

80.3%

88

92

-4

Ottawa

80.1%

88

92

-4

Washington

79.9%

90

91

-1

Colorado

79.8%

112

91

21

Phoenix

79.6%

89

91

-2

Philadelphia

78.8%

94

90

4

Winnipeg

78.6%

84

89

-5

Minnesota

75.3%

98

84

14

New York Islanders

73.7%

79

81

-2

Carolina

73.4%

83

81

2

Calgary

72.0%

77

78

-1

Toronto

68.3%

84

72

12

Edmonton

68.2%

67

72

-5

Florida

62.4%

66

63

3

Buffalo

59.2%

52

58

-6

It may not be foolproof, but the Leafs need to aim for is a POP of 85 and above to be a contender. They haven’t been anywhere close over the last five years. Let’s take a look back.

In 2009-2010 they were 28th in the league with a POP of 70.7 thanks to their putrid STE of 88.7 per cent, worst in the league. It didn’t help that their good possession was destroyed by shoddy goaltending. At least they got a good draft pick though.

In 2010-2011 they improved to 27th in the league with a POP of 71.3. Once again a terrible STE did them in, but bad possession stats didn’t help.

In 2011-2012, the Leafs were at almost 80 (a borderline playoff team) before the 18 wheeler fell off a cliff. After the truck completely fell off the cliff, Wilson’s Leafs were at 76. Carlyle took them down to 72.6. They were a 63.6 team with him on the bench in this season. During his tenure, the Leafs are at 71.4.

In 2012-2013, the year they made the playoff the Leafs had their best POP season, ranking 17th in the league at 79.4 which is still not great (10th in the East and an expected point total of 91). It was their highest total, but it was still a mirage as it was grossly inflated by the second best STE in the league and an adjusted goals close percentage way above their possession. Both things were thanks to luck and very good goaltending. 

In 2013-2014 the Leafs predictably regressed and had their worst POP yet at 68.3 and were 27th in the league. Bad possession, bad penalty killing. So bad that great goaltending and a good powerplay couldn’t keep the team afloat. Eventually the numbers catch up to you.

The Leafs haven’t been very good at any of the things that go into POP, and thus haven’t been very good at hockey, which most people could see from just watching them try to exit their zone. It should be no surprise where they rank over the last five years: 28th with an average POP of 72.5. Meanwhile, Chicago is first (89.3), Boston is third (87.7), and Los Angeles is seventh (86.9).

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To contend for a Cup, the Leafs need to be as good as the Blackhawks, Kings, or Bruins have been over the past five years. And they’ve been good because of possession and the little things that go into it, talent at the right ends of the ice, and special teams to give them an added edge. That’s what matters. That’s what will give a team the best chance to win as the hockey gods (luck) take care of the rest. There’s other components to hockey, but I don’t think they’re as important as these three things.

The Leafs have some talent, they have some nice pieces. It seems like the biggest problem right now is figuring out how to use it.

**Edit: I’m new here and can’t format pictures apparently, so the graphs turned out kind of unreadable. Sorry. Here’s a link to an imgur album.

  • Benjamin

    Really enjoyed the article, thanks Dom.

    The only thing I question is the ‘talent’ metric, specifically regarding the inclusion of long term PDO as a measurement of pure luck. My understanding of PDO is that its largely useful for identifying outliers in smaller samples, where drastic deviations above/below 98.5-115.0 are indicative of lucky/unlucky streaks respectively. I just don’t see the rationale behind including it when its measured at the team level and taken over the course of an entire season.

    Subjectively I also have a hard time believing a true metric of individual player talent puts the Leafs in the bottom third of the league. They’re a cap team with quality goaltending and wingers. Are the centres and defencemen really that significantly overpaid to bring the entire group that far down?

    My minor concerns aside, again, I really enjoyed this piece and I think you’ve done a really solid bit of analytical investigation. It also does nothing but reinforce my desperation for a coaching change in the near future.

    • The rationale is that it’s really difficult to quantify talent. For me it’s the ability to outscore the other team so I used GF%. The problem is that some teams can get very lucky for an entire year (last year’s Leafs, this year’s Avs). The reason I adjusted for PDO was to artificially lower some GF% that were probably more likely due to the effects of luck.

      A team that has a FF% of 48 GF% of 54 and a PDO of 103 probably had some very good bounces that year but maybe also a great goalie standing on his head (whether thats repeatable is a different argument). The teams talent should show up in their ability to outscore the other team, but getting 54% of the goals with only 48% of the time spent in the o-zone seems like a stretch. Adjusting for their high PDO brings it slightly down to 52.4 which seems high still, but less of a stretch.

      With regards to the Leafs in the bottom third, it’s an average over the last five years so that includes parts of the Toskala/Monster era. There’s also the Leafs depth issues recently thanks to certain line-up choices. You can look at it as “they’re in the bottom third” or “they’re up 8 spots compared to their possession.” The latter implies that there’s talent there, it’s just not being used right.

  • Benjamin

    It’s true that the Leafs are far from the Stanley cup but if they make the right moves they have a chance to at least make the playoffs. BTW, do you guys think these trades would work?
    Toronto:3rd draft pick, Yakupov
    Edmonton: Phaneuf, Kadri
    I would rather trade Kadri than the 8th round pick, and with that saved money sign Paul Stastney. I am also hesitant to trade Phaneuf because overall the leafs defence will obviously get worse. Then with that 8th round pick maybe they could do this….
    Toronto:4th round pick
    Calgary: Riemer, 8th round pick
    These trades are obviously unlikely but I think they have a chance of working. Having the 3rd and 4th round pick would be great!