Seeing The Forest For The Trees

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.

Playing Keep-Away

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.

Conclusion?

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.

bufalol

  • I’ve been a fan for over 40 years and never thought I would EVER not be a leaf fan…..been through all the bad years but the way they are treating the fans now has me really turned off. My heart is losing its ties to this team….can’t believe how arrogant this organization has become …..to punish the fan base is just unexeptable to me!!!!!

  • FlareKnight

    The other part your analysis is missing is how the leafs under wilson as well as carlyle are prone to collapses.

    Many teams don’t go on extended cold scoring streaks or fail to pick up points for such a long time. Now there are some teams that don’t gain many points but those are like the oilers and sabres.

    Stop the nonsense of blaming Carlyle or bad luck or what have. Good he is gone and sure Bernier is struggling but those are shades of the bigger problem as the bigger issue is the long standing core which is both incapable of winning and is also prone to collapses.

    • Jeremy Ian

      For once, I agree with you. This is a team that collapses. That is now mathematically true. One thing we know about expectations, if you expect the possibility of collapsing, it becomes more probable. So, it’s a syndrome.

      How to get out of spirals? Shake things up. When teams, or any organization sees that it can — will — fail, then success is hard to bolster and sustain from within.

      Jeffler’s right, the results will turn around. That’s true. This “streak” is anomalous.

      But, the Leafs are out of the playoffs, for all intents and purposes. And they face crucial decisions over Franson.

      I would take advantage of the fact that this team will not make the playoffs AND that we know it is collapse-prone to reset from top to bottom. Blow up, no. But some roster moves and management changes, yes.

      Enough, for instance, of trying to compensate for the absence of a 1C with strength on the wing. We’ve now seen how that will go, unless you have some exceptional 2-way centers like Bergeron.

      Tanking for McDavid isn’t going to work because you can’t hit the bottom before a bunch of other teams do. But there are 5-8 picks to be had that look like damn good centers. And there are teams that would be interested in the likes of Lupul and Gardiner, much as I hate to lose him. Franson will also be coveted.

      So: Shanahan, do not pass on an opportunity to turn this necessity into a virtue. Make some trades, get another draft pick if you can, trade to nudge the Leafs up the selection.

      Then fire Nonis. Get some coherence at the top.

  • silentbob

    I agree Jedfler this team will start to rattle off wins again sooner rather then later (of course I assume there is another losing streak in the future as well). But the problem here isn’t that the leafs can’t win games or will lose 30 of the remaining 35 games this year.

    The problem is they simply are not good enough to avoid these long slumps that ultimately cost them a playoff spot. They also are not bad enough to be in a position to draft the prospects and really improve.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Excellent article!

    The Leafs record under Horachek has provided the opportunity for many in the MSM and the advanced stats crowd to show the quality of their respective analytical skills. According to many in the MSM, the Leafs aren’t scoring because they are sacrificing offense for defense: a narrative that seems reasonable but no evidence is offered other than the Leafs are not scoring many goals and there are statements from the Leafs that they want to reduce opposition scoring chances. From the advanced stats crowd, such as this article, observation, an understanding of PDO, and data is used to assess why the Leafs’ offense has dried up. In this case, my understanding of why the Leafs are finding it difficult to score was not aided by the MSM; it was enhanced by reading this and other posts from those who incorporate “fancy stats”.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Why is there a picture of Phaneuf beating up Eric Staal at the top of this article? I thought maybe you finally came to your senses and recognized that the Captain stepping up like that matters and can turn the tide.

    Last time Dion fought was at the end of the infamous Nashville game. The Leafs followed that game with a few weeks of great hockey going on a streak that was as awesome as the recent one is depressing.

    In the last game the Captain laid a huge hit on Jordan Staal and followed it up with a beating of Eric Staal. It was beautiful to watch.

    Hopefully this leads to another winning streak. Too bad there’s a week break before we can continue. Looking forward to the annual beating of Ottawa tonight. Too bad we don’t have Orr or McLaren to put an exclamation mark on it.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Good job, Jeffler. The only part I wish you’d gone into further is this: “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. ”

    Isn’t it worrisome to be below the curve in stopping non-chance shots?

  • Jeremy Ian

    Good job, Jeffler. The only part I wish you’d gone into further is this: “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. ”

    Isn’t it worrisome to be below the curve in stopping non-chance shots?

  • jasken

    Nice read Jeff

    Its amazing how much difference players who should be backchecking and providing support can change an outcome. To bad players that should have been doing it weren’t and not held accountable yet the ones that were doing and made a mistake were punished for the mistake. Unbalanced accountability more do to likelihood of GM limiting punishment to coach than a coaches choice.

    Quality to quantity is all on the person making the judgement of what is a quality scoring chance. As I have had discussion on what is a quality shot what is not.

    Obviously goals will come your not going to shutout a team every game matter is what kind of consistency will these players will be scoring now. I expect Kessel to drop down to his first 2 years in Boston kind. Jvr to Philly numbers and so the question marks are Kadri, Holland, Bozak.

  • jasken

    Outstanding piece of journalism. The leafs to a man are buying into the new possession game and a strong defensive showing. Oh sh!t Ottawa just scored again for their 3rd goal of the period. But as I was saying great work Jeffler. Maybe the kid assistant G.M. could hire you.

  • FlareKnight

    I believe the answer to whether they will get back into playoff contention is “absolutely not.” Who are we kidding here? This is as bad as any collapse the Leafs have done previously. They are done. They are 10 points behind Boston. They have to catch and overtake Boston to make the playoffs. It’s not happening.

    It’s a well written article with some solid points. But I think this is a case of looking at the wrong forest. This forest is dying and needs to be burned down.

    I’m sure the Leafs will turn it around eventually. They always find a way to play themselves back into mediocrity. This is not a good group of players.