Estimating the Leafs PDO

It’s the same story, different year it seems. Night after night, the Leafs get out-shot, out-played, out-possessed, but almost never outscored. The Leafs are currently on a 10-1-1 streak right now playing some very good teams in the process and beating them handily to boot. But they haven’t played all that great, they’ve just been scoring by the boatloads while the goaltenders bail them out.

The truth is, this happens to every team, even bad ones. Buffalo was on a 10-3-0 tear before last night and for a while Calgary seemed destined for the playoffs with an Avalanche-like season. But the smoke and mirrors of PDO-fueled play almost never lasts, and surely any Leafs fan (painfully) knows that by now. 

At the same time, it’s obviously a bit curious that this sort of thing happens to the Leafs every single year, like clockwork. The rule of thumb is that all teams’ PDO will regress towards 100, but there always exceptions to the rule. 

Considering what PDO measures is a very noisy approximation of talent, not every team will have a true talent PDO of 100. Many have already speculated that the Leafs certainly don’t and are probably much closer to a team with a PDO of 101 thanks to two great goaltenders and a parade of talented shooters. Looking at rolling 10 game averages in the Carlyle era, we can see that the Leafs do in fact hover around the 101 range for the most part. Funny enough, but this current stretch is the Leafs highest 10 game point in this time span.

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Right now the Leafs PDO for the season is at a sky-high 102.3, good for third in the league, and that certainly won’t last, but what number should we expect from the Leafs going forward? As mentioned earlier, a few smart people expect it to be at 101, so let’s test that.

To estimate that I took what we already knew about the players on the Leafs from previous years and applied that to what’s happened this season to see the difference. I took the top 12 forwards and 6 dmen in ice-time, found their shot totals for this season and checked how many goals they would score if they scored at the same rate they did in the last three seasons. The assumption is that most of the players are in their prime years and shouldn’t deviate too much from average.

I felt that three years was recent enough data to not cloud it with old news, while also being a large enough sample size to judge the player with the exceptions of Morgan Rielly, Trevor Smith, and Richard Panik. In the former two cases I decided to include this year’s data as well because Rielly’s was too low and Smith’s too high. Panik I left alone considering his shooting percentage was around average for a forward anyways.

Anyways, here are the results:

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Those that said 101, pat your backs a bit right now I guess. This is obviously not a perfect way of doing things, but it’s probably a decent benchmark for what the Leafs shooting and saving talent is. With the way the Leafs are playing now, they’ve gotten about 10 extra goals for, while surrendering 3.5 extra goals against.

Given the talent estimate, let’s apply it to shot totals to see what kind of shot differential the Leafs would need in order to be a playoff team by finding expected goal differential. A reminder that all of this is just at 5-on-5 and doesn’t take into consideration that the Leafs have a pretty good special teams unit.

The highlighted blue in the chart below is the Leafs rate right now. Numbers above that -1 in shot differential per 60 minutes and below is +1.

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So with their expected talent combined with their shot differential of -4, we’d expect the Leafs to be a 93 point team on the bubble. The Leafs have banked a lot of points, but they’re living on the edge in the long run. Getting to just break-even shots and this is a 100 point team. That’s why getting more shots, and surrendering less matters more in the long run. That’s what the successful teams do, and that’s because when the percentages run dry, like they always do, they can survive. 

To their credit the Leafs have improved that this year, but there’s still much to be desired and it’s trending in the wrong way recently.

Talent is the Leafs weapon. We know they have it. But it’s clear from past seasons that they shouldn’t rely on it exclusively, because the magic doesn’t last forever.