The Toronto Maple Leafs are losing a lot of hockey games right now. Not just losing, but putting up final scores that look like they forgot the game was happening that night. Jerseys are pouring onto the ice from angry fans, sometimes in the middle of play. People are calling for heads, or at least transactions. I get it; the realization that a single firing isn’t a magic cure-all to the standings is a harsh one. But if these last six games are any sort of indication; things will turn around.
Let’s start with the obvious. The Toronto Maple Leafs, at least in these first few games look like a much better defensive team using the Peter Horachek-approved bag of tricks. Even the “watch the games” crowd can attest to this – the five/five/five system that is being employed now seems to have the wingers significantly more involved in backchecking and has the defencemen following the play way sooner, leading to fewer rush turnovers.
But what do the numbers say? So far, the Leafs are giving up 56 shot attempts per sixty minutes at even strength – down from 63.6. The change is pretty much universal; out of the 17 players who have played at least four of the last six games, only Sam Carrick, Trevor Smith, and Cody Franson have seen their attempts allowed go up compared to their time with Carlyle.
Most notable is the difference that the first line is seeing. James van Riemsdyk is down 11.8 CA per 60, Tyler Bozak is down 14.9, and Phil Kessel is down a whopping 22.2. The sheer difference in these numbers, which are now in line with the rest of the team instead of being massive outliers, lead me to believe that there was strategical fault with the roles that the top line were assigned previously.
Pucks To The Net
On the whole, the Leafs are actually attempting more shots than they have previously. Now, there may be some reasoning behind this; most notably, the fact that they’ve been the trailing team, but I don’t think it’s playing a major factor (the games have been by and large close and the opponents haven’t really gone into “shell” tactics).
Over the six games, Toronto has taken an average of 54.8 attempted shots per 60 minutes. Leading up to Carlyle’s firing, they had averaged 51.2. It’s not a gigantic difference, but any time you can find a way to have a 7% greater opportunity to succeed, you’d be wise to go for it.
By and large, the players are having this increase reflected on their individual numbers. The exceptions to the rule are Mike Santorelli (down just 1.5), Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, and Stephane Robidas. Kadri’s drop is a little concerning at about 9.5 attempts fewer, but I think that has a lot to do with not having his usual linemates – his individual attempt numbers are up, unlike the others. Also joining the individual decline are the two Davids, Booth and Clarkson.
To wrap things up, 14 of 17 players have seen improved possession numbers. Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, and Cody Franson have seen slight dips, but they’re all under a percentage point (Kadri went from 49.6 to 49.5 – the horror!). These three were also ranked 1st, 3rd, and 5th in CF% on the roster, so I don’t know how stressed I am about them being the blips. Overall, the team is driving play better than before.
Quality over Quantity
Something often uttered by defenders of the previous system was that shot quality was an important factor to consider. Basically, they believed that the bulk of Toronto’s shots against weren’t realistic opportunities to score, and that the Leafs’ opportunistic ways meant they were drawing better chances to score.
Coincidentally, War-on-Ice brought out a nifty new Scoring Chances statistic – it uses location and gives particular preference to rebounds and rush shots. Surely, if there was something to the Leafs systems and shot quality, we’d be able to see it with the Scoring Chances stat, correct?
As it turns out, the Leafs were giving up far and away the most scoring chances in the NHL at the time of the firing – almost 6% more than 29th place Buffalo, where hockey goes to die. By comparison, the Detroit Red Wings, a good hockey team coached by a guy that everybody in Toronto wants to take over the bench, have given up 39% fewer scoring chances this year than the Leafs. Offensively, Toronto is around the middle of the pack.
But how do the new buds compare to the old ones? In the defensive zone, it’s even more lopsided than the shot attempt differential – there’s been a 22.6% decrease in scoring chances, down nearly eight per sixty minutes. Every single player on the team is giving up significantly fewer opportunities; seven players are giving up nine fewer per sixty, which is a ridiculous difference. Stephane Robidas and Jake Gardiner have slashed their allowance by half, which is probably too good to be true, but cool to see.
Scoring chances for, though? This is where the team has seen a slight drop, though it’s only by a single chance every three games. Most notably, the high-offensive minute players are the ones seeing the drops; the first line, Rielly, Kadri, and Gardiner. Robidas’s scoring chances are slashed too, but he seems to just be playing really low event hockey on the whole, spending most of his ice time in the neutral zone.
As well, Booth and Clarkson find themselves back on this list – I’d guess that Booth is having injury recovery struggles and that “try not to fall and stand in front of net” isn’t flying with Horachek, leading Clarkson to suffer for now. Individual scoring chance numbers are similar, with the exception that Kadri’s turn back up (probably for the reasons mentioned prior), and Santorelli’s dip a bit down.
The Goals Will Come
I think that the most important numbers to come out of this losing skid are 1.5 and 0.895; those are the Leafs’ shooting and save percentages since they last won a game. After years of being the little PDO machine that could, the team is riding a 910 at perhaps the worst possible time.
Here’s the thing about all of this; these changes should be a massive boost to goal differential. Take this into consideration.
Of all of the shots that the Leafs attempt that don’t count as scoring chances, 2.1% of them find their way into the net (best in the NHL). The ones that are? 7.8%, near the NHL’s mid tier. One of the reasons that the Leafs have sustained an above average shooting percentage over the years, using the “eyeball test”, is because their shooters have, well, a lot of shooting talent, and quite frankly, are better at turning low-percentage shots into goals. For a lot of these guys, it’s not about having quality opportunities, but rather their ability to turn lemons into lemonade.
Scoring chances are obviously preferable; Toronto is 374% more likely to score on a chance than a standard attempted shot. But that ratio is actually the lowest in the NHL. Ottawa is 1400% more likely to score on a scoring chance! Anaheim is 1044%! Typically, most teams are in the 6-700% range; Toronto seemingly requires them less.
With that considered, sacrificing a scoring chance every few games for a few more non-chance opportunites, in the long run, should lead to a very slight amount more goals scored. Nothing to phone home about (seriously, its about 3 or 4 goals a season), but it’s there.
The trade off? Goals against, where a huge difference occurs. Toronto is very lucky to have the goaltending duo they do; while they’re below the curve in stopping non-chance shots, they’re second best in the NHL in stopping shots that come off of scoring chances. Either way, they want to minimize both of these types of events – a goaltender allows 0% of the shots that he doesn’t face.
Assuming that Bernier and Reimer stop pucks as they have throughout the year, the decreases in scoring chances bring the Leafs from a projected even-strength GAA of 2.63 to 2.16. That’s nearly half a goal a game, or 38 goals a season. Even if you’re only gaining 3 or 4 in the goals for column, shaving off 30 goals against is a gigantic gap.
In fact, a 40 goal differential swing like that is probably enough to put the Leafs in or close to the playoffs in every season they’ve missed in the past decade.
Obviously, it’s a pretty small sample, but it seems like the numbers are matching the eyeballs here. The aggressive zone coverage by the Leafs, on the whole, has lead to a slight uptick in opportunities to score and massive drop in opportunities to get scored on.
It’s a real downer to watch the Leafs lose hockey games, but they’ve lost this pocket to a bunch of very good teams (even Carolina is playing well of late) under historically bad puck luck. Even getting to the average should be enough to get the Leafs back in the swing of things, probably in a way that’s better than one has seen throughout the year.
Is it enough to get them back into playoff contention? I don’t know – probably not. But they’re playing better hockey, and in the long run, that’s a positive. They’re not going to lose 2-0 forever and the games have gone from “DO THEY EVEN KNOW HOW TO HOCKEY?” to “IS THERE A VOODOO HEX ON THEIR STICKS?”.
At the end of the day, the name of the game is scoring more goals than the other team. The Leafs have some steps to ensure that a scenario like that is more frequent, and it looks like they’ll keep those steps intact despite the recent results. Now it’s just time to work on the “scoring more goals” part.