The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t had the best go at things to start the season. Nobody is going to deny that; a simple look at the standings shows a team that’s tied for the penultimate spot in the league’s standings, bringing together their 1-5-2 record to begin the year.
Things haven’t been going the right way for the Leafs. One goal games are ending the wrong way. Jonathan Bernier still has a habit of letting in the first shot, and James Reimer’s save percentage is a bigger throwback to the 80’s than Back To The Future Day was. But beyond the goals for and goals against, there have been some bright spots, and a lot of it comes from above.
Raw possession numbers are an easy go-to for a lot of people, and its hard to blame them; every shot you take is time devoted to both scoring and having the opponent not score on you. In the log term, the teams that shoot more than they get shot at are the ones that tend to win, and while you shouldn’t be spraying pucks to inflate a number on a table, if you’re able to do it as a byproduct of your system and attempts at victory, you’re likely to win more often than you aren’t.
So far, Babcock has been a big winner in this regard. Toronto’s 54.05% Corsi For is near the top of the league, and the best that the team has had since 2006/07, Paul Maurice’s first year with the team. This spills over into other possession metrics as well, their Fenwick (54.2%) and Scoring Chance (53.7%), are the best they’ve been since the base stats became available in 2005/06, and their High Danger Scoring Chance Percentage (51.9%) is the highest it’s been since 2009/10.
Digging further than percentages shows more positive signs. Toronto is attempting shots more frequently than they have since Ron Wilson was fired, and preventing attempts better than they have since the data became available. Scoring chances, both regular and high danger, are down in levels that blow away all of the prior five coaches.
The hype when Babcock came in was that he was going to apply a possession based game similar to the one he operated in Detroit. Every public metric we have points to him taking the absolute black hole that Randy Carlyle created and turning it into one of the league’s most respectable units, even with the percieved weakness of his cast.
What I thought was really interesting, and a great example of how his methods differ was looking how attempted shots bled into the other metrics. It’s interesting to see, for example, how many shots go wide or get blocked. Or from a different angle, where they’re coming from and when they’re coming. Shots balance themselves out over the grand scheme of things, but they’re not always born equally.
Something that I initially noticed is that the Leafs block about 23% of attempted shots on goal. That sounds like a lot, but it’s far from, for example, Ron Wilson’s days, where his teams would be in front of 26-28% of them until they day he got fired. Paired with missed shots, Babcocks’ Leafs are actually letting a higher percentage of shot attempts turn into shots on goal than any other coach has.
That sounds like a knock, but it’s not. Babcock’s systems require his players to play more “active” defence. He wants them shutting down the lanes, intercepting passes, and generally focusing on getting the puck way the heck out of the defensive zone whenever he possibly can. This differs from a more passive system, where defencemen inch their way back and prepare to react to the shot rather than preventing it from existing. Yes, more attempts are turning into shots, but the end result of an active approach is fewer shots per game, particularly compared to a team like the 2013/14 roster, who gave up the fourth most in NHL history.
On the other hand, the Leafs have improved significantly in eliminating scoring chances placed against them. “Scoring Chances” are a quantified statistic from our friends at War On Ice; in short, they involve shots off of the rush, rebounds, and shots from areas close to the net. High Danger scoring chances are attempts taken from the slot; these are significantly more likely to lead to goals. Only 45.6% of Toronto’s attempted shots against come from scoring chances, a 7% improvement from last year and the only time the percentage has dipped below 49.1% since 2005. High Danger chances are down as well, though not as significantly.
Heading the other way, Toronto is seeing percentages fall the other way, and it returns to a shift in strategy. There are a few major differences that can be spotted in Babcock’s coaching style; he loves himself a good cycle once the offensive zone is gained, he doesn’t mind having someone in front of the net but won’t straight up glue a guy there, and the breakout doesn’t involve two cherry picking wingers; mostly because they’re busy playing defence, and not waiting to play dump and chase.
This is reflected in the numbers. The Leafs are avoiding shot blocks better than they ever have, getting past the opposition with 77.4% of their efforts and are near their best in hitting the net, doing so 54.7% of the time. Using all five skaters in even-strength situations is massive in making this happen; having a James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, or Leo Komarov stand in the goalies face might give you a screen if someone can get a shot off, but it’s harder to find an opening if everybody else is playing 4-on-5.
This is reflected in the scoring chance numbers. Maurice’s last year set the bar for shooting the puck without a hope in the world (thanks, Jason Blake) with just 47.5% of attempts being considered scoring chances, but Babcock’s 50.62% isn’t much better; certainly lower than with under Carlyle. But without cherry pickers on the wings, there’s a lower chance of creating a rush attempt. Furthermore, without someone in front of the net, you’re less likely to attempt a rebound in the slot, and as such, the Leafs have nosedived there. They’ve gone from 25-30% of their efforts coming from the slot to 17.5%, the lowest in the sample.
The tradeoff? They’re not taking significantly fewer on a per game than Carlyle’s teams were, likely because the constant movement allows for someone to slide in after the initial shot. The fact that it’s not a focal point of their game has, if anything, made allowed for them to add more opportunities to make those slot plays happen; lowering the relative but maintaining the frequency.
I took a look at Detroit’s high-danger numbers under Babcock, and they were never particularly high with him either, never peaking above 20.5%, and typically lying in the 18-19% range. Simply put, his game isn’t slot driven; he wants his team searching for opportunities from all angles.
It’s still pretty early; the Leafs have only played eight games, after all. But this loveable group of not-so-talented misfits have aesthetically looked more in control of games than previous iterations of the team, and the numbers really, really back things up. You can see a night and day difference between the results that an old-school system like Randy Carlyle’s produced, and a more modern, defensively active, offensively creative system like Babcock’s. As the talent base grows in Toronto, it’s likely that the conversion level will increase, and we’ll see some spectacular results. Heck, we might even see decent ones now, if a few pad-wearing individuals start to normalize.