Why a rebound of percentages could lead to a quick Leafs turnaround

Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Remember back in 2013, when we were all yelling about shooting percentages creating a mirage for the playoff-bound Leafs? A mirage which involved the Leafs scoring way beyond their means, James Reimer looking like a Vezina candidate, and everything going from zero to amazing until the last ten minutes of the season?

A mirage that led to acquisitions to make the team tougher, grittier, and more leader-y to make sure the Leafs wouldn’t get burned in their next playoff run? Yeah, well, that wasn’t great. Anyway, it’s a different group now, and the circumstances are a lot different. This year’s Leafs team was absolutely wrecked by bad puck luck and are in a position to get some revenge. The concepts are the same as they used to be, but lets see how the odds end up in their favour.

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Cold Sticks

Remember when Nazem Kadri started the season, and looked like he couldn’t get himself a goal to save his life? It was a rough time, and as more and more shots hit posts and pads, the Leafs started dropping early-season games. Such is life when arguably your best forward goes dry.

Kadri finished the year with a 6.5% shooting percentage, not even close to his career average. I crunched the numbers using his all situation’s data and found that if he had shot at his normal rate of 12.5%, he would have been projected to finish the year with 32.6 goals. That made me curious as to how the rest of the team did in this regard.

With this in mind, I took every player who had a notable amount of NHL experience, and put their shooting percentages last year against their shooting percentages over the course of their career. Here were there results at even strength:

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Player GP Shots SH% Career Goals Projected Difference
Leo Komarov 67 102 13.7 9.4 14 9.6 4.41
Colin Greening 30 45 13.3 7.1 6 3.21 2.79
Morgan Rielly 82 129 4.6 3.8 6 4.94 1.06
Joffrey Lupul 46 72 12.5 11.9 9 8.6 0.4
Milan Michalek 13 7 14.3 10.4 1 0.73 0.27
Ben Smith 16 16 12.5 11.1 2 1.78 0.22
Martin Marincin 65 52 1.9 1.6 1 0.84 0.16
James Van Riemsdyk 40 95 9.5 9.4 9 8.93 0.07
PA Parenteau 77 127 10.2 10.4 13 13.22 -0.23
Brad Boyes 60 60 10 10.5 6 6.3 -0.3
Shawn Matthias 51 59 10.2 11 6 6.49 -0.49
Jake Gardiner 79 100 6 6.6 6 6.59 -0.59
Matt Hunwick 60 70 2.9 3.7 2 2.6 -0.6
Mark Arcobello 20 30 10 12 3 3.62 -0.62
Dion Phaneuf 51 84 3.6 4.4 3 3.67 -0.67
Rich Clune 19 9 0 7.5 0 0.68 -0.68
Roman Polak 55 53 1.9 3.4 1 1.78 -0.78
Daniel Winnik 56 81 4.9 6 4 4.84 -0.84
Frank Corrado 39 36 2.8 6.9 1 2.48 -1.48
Brooks Laich 21 32 3.1 8.1 1 2.6 -1.58
Tyler Bozak 57 78 11.5 14 9 10.9 -1.9
Nick Spaling 35 31 3.2 9.9 1 3.05 -2.05
Michael Grabner 80 93 8.6 11.6 8 10.81 -2.81
Peter Holland 65 108 3.7 12.2 4 13.12 -9.13
Nazem Kadri 76 217 6 11.1 13 24.11 -11.1

As you can see, most of the team had rough years, with a couple of extremities on both sides. Komarov’s big boost probably comes from his change in role; he saw himself go from a fourth-line grinder with one career shot on the powerplay to a top-six winger. He also shot more in high-danger areas, which helped him out. Players like Greening, I imagine, see their variance come from a smaller sample. 

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On the other side, you have players like Kadri and Michael Grabner who appeared snakebit all season, and players like Peter Holland, who did the reverse Komarov and went from being a fill-in top scorer to a grinder on the fourth line. Similar is seen in Byron Froese, who I didn’t include on the list due to his lack of prior NHL experience. Froese was a stellar shooter in the ECHL and AHL last season, but playing shutdown and defensive minutes likely meant a lot of his shots came from dump ins or came at the end of his shift when he was starting to tire from trekking up the ice. As for Kadri, I’m lost. Eleven goals is an obscene amount to get shaven off of one player.

Overall, the net impact of the shooting percentage variance was a shocking -26.46 goals at even strength. Some of that surely comes as a product of score effects and rebounds from failed attempts, but that’s still an alarming amount of offence to lose due to percentage swings.

I figured that there’d be less chance of score effects coming into play by looking at powerplay numbers. Sure enough, that situation is even more terrifying. Kadri alone loses 4.2 goals from variance on the man advantage; Holland, Joffrey Lupul,  Brad Boyes, and Dion Phaneuf are all in the 2 goal range as well. Almost the entire team underperformed on the powerplay; Komarov skews the numbers due to his single shot of experience prior to scoring 4 on 23 this year, but depending on how much rope you want to give his numbers, the team loses between 14 and 17 goals compared to their historical averages. 

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The team stats back this up; Toronto’s 103.6 attempted shots per 60 minutes in 5-on-4 situations were 3rd behind Los Angeles and Boston this season, but their shooting percentage fell to 30th. Maybe their powerplay structure needs some tweaking for efficiency, but it’s possible that the team simply suffered a continuation of bad puck luck. Now, let’s look to the other side of the ice.

Between The Pipes

I decided to apply the same theory to Toronto’s goaltenders. After all, Jonathan Bernier was absolutely awful until January, and while Garret Sparks start his season well and his enough positive history in the AHL and ECHL to believe he can be at least a replacement level NHL goaltender, he cratered after his groin injury. So with that in mind, I compared Bernier and Reimer to their career averages, and Sparks’s second part of his stint to his first.

Goaltender GP SV% Career GA Projected Difference
Jonathan Bernier 38 0.908 0.916 103 93.5 -9.5
James Reimer 32 0.918 0.913 75 80.2 5.2
Garret Sparks 17 0.884 0.915 38 27.9 -10.2

Now that the season is over with, seeing numbers like this is oddly encouraging for the team. With his late-season surge considered, it’s very unlikely that Bernier is going to be as bad as he was last year again. I’m inclined to argue the same for Sparks as well, though given the acquisition fo Frederik Andersen, it would take injuries or a Bernier trade to give him a chance to prove it. Whatever the case, below-average goaltending looks to have cost the Leafs about fifteen goals last year.

Piecing It Together

If the Auston Matthews draft lottery was won through good luck, Toronto’s position in it was created by bad luck. Without even considering the wave of rookies who had weaker numbers but no history to match, there’s a very real chance that the Leafs sacrificed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 to 50 goals to percentages last season. 

A forty goal gap brings the Leafs, who were 29th in goal differential with a -48, up to 17th in the statistic; ahead of the Detroit Red Wings, who made the playoffs by a tiebreaker rather than finishing in last by a point. Give them 50, and you get into the positives, jumping ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers as well. 

Now, keep in mind that a team that was struggling to score goals to their potential is about to add three blue chip prospects in Auston Matthews (2nd in the NLA in goals), and Mitch Marner (18.6 SH% in the OHL last year), and are integrating William Nylander (17.3% in his AHL career) into the fold full time. Those percentages are a bit on the high side, but all three should average out to be in the 11-12% range throughout the year, and they should be putting a lot of pucks to the net.

The presence of Nylander and Marner will also bring the offensive reliance on Komarov along the right wing down a bit too, which works well, given that he’s the only real risk of negative regression. Many of Toronto’s lower career shooters from last year will either be off the roster (Phaneuf, Winnik, Clune) or played in reduced rolls (Marincin, Hunwick, Polak, Greening, Corrado, Laich). New acquisition Matt Martin, unfortunately, is a low-percentage shooter who had a spike last year, but his minutes will be minimal and I can’t imagine that he’ll be the shot-driver on his line, so that’s not a huge issue.

On the other side of things, I find it hard to imagine a team that is better suited than ever to hold the offensive zone, adds Nikita Zaitsev, lessens the responsibility of Polak and Hunwick, has more familiarity with Babcock’s systems, and has its younger defensive core further ahead in their development cycle is going to give up 2490 shots again this year. That alone should help them defensively, but getting a steady career 0.918 goaltender in Frederik Andersen and a high chance of a bounce-back from either Bernier or Sparks should mean that a few more of the pucks that do get to the net get stopped. 

There’s been a lot of talk over the past few days, particularly in justification of decisions, that the Leafs are a rebuilding team that expects to be in the Nolan Patrick sweepstakes next year. I don’t know how much of that is true. While they should by no means be “going for it” and making bold, future-costing decisions, the group they have right now might not be as incapable as we think they are. This quantification of “the bounces” shows that the Leafs were burned heavily and near-universally last year by percentage variance, and that a lot of these guys have shown in the past that they’re capable of doing better.

As we all know, a lucky shot can be the difference between two points and zero. Toronto is in a position to get a bunch more lucky shots next year, which is a good place to be for a team that still performed better than just about every last-place team in the cap era despite that. Contention might be a ways away, but decency appears to potentially be within arms reach.

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    • Using the same practices from the article above you..

      Martin scored 10 goals in a high shooting percentage year where he, based on his career and shots that he took this year, was projected to score 6. He’ll probably play with more offensively inclined players than Clutterbuck and Cizikas, but expecting him to go 50% above his new career high seems a bit presumptuous, no?

      Not that he necessarily can’t, just seems like an unfair expectation to place on him.

      • jasken

        no disrespect to clutterbuck and Cizikas, who are amazing grinders and banger. but I think he we will be paired with at least one player with more skill and wont be expect to just bang. (Nylander, marner, bozak, or Kadri)

        I was kidding a little bit too, but i do think he will do better then the bad news bears he has been receiving. I dont think they plan on slotting him on the 4th line. But what do i know. 😀

        15 might be ambitious but ill take the over 6 anyway.

        big time fan of the site btw.

        thanks for the articles.

  • CMpuck

    Do we want to see a season where we get hot sticks and all the bounces? We’re on the brink of building a contending core, we’ve been fortunate with our top picks 4 of the last five drafts but we’re still in need of big pieces.

    I’ll put my hope for the long term future in next year’s draft, I made the mistake of being excited for Stamkos so it should be back to square one.

    Matt Martin overachieving or the hope that Kadri breaks out doesn’t inspire sustainable progress IMHO.

    • I wouldn’t want to necessarily see hot sticks; that leads to situations like 2013.

      But the point here is that even average sticks would make the team drastically better. Hot sticks probably make them a contender but that could be said about just about any team in the league.

      • CMpuck

        Fair point, but at the end of the day is it not more desirable to get another cornerstone for a season where we’re missing the playoffs anyway?

        I think whats getting obscured is how close do people think this rebuild is to being finished? I’d say we still need a 1D and probably a 1A C, other pieces can be found in free agency and trade but only way we get a 1D is by drafting him.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Just to echo others’ appreciation for the site — hope you are all not feeling too beat up by us.

    I have a slight worry that the team overshoots in 2016-17. That may swerve the plan.

    We lost 25 one-goal games last year.

    Average stick effects and average goaltending means we win half of those games. That puts us in range for playoff contention (Boston made it on 90 points — we ended with 69). If we get 2013 over again, the Leafs are in the playoffs.

    Much as I love Leaf playoff games, I don’t want the Leafs to squeak into the playoffs and stripped by the Pens or Caps.

    Stick with the plan: trade Bernier, Greening, Polak, Hunwick, Laich, and Michalek. (Leave Lupul and Cowen out of this on account of their injuries for now). The rookies will fade inevitably in the final quarter of the season; guys like Johnson and Gauthier can get some time playing in ACC.

    We miss the playoffs gracefully. Get more picks.

    Aim for contention in 2017-18. Just one more year of pain — and nowhere near as bad as the root canals in 2015-16.

    One more “rebuild” year. It’s not a full-on tank; but it’s still reconstruction.

    EDIT: and get some vicarious pleasure of watching the Habs and Oilers agonize every game over whether their big trades set them back for a generation.

    • I don’t think teams usually go from not making the playoffs or being a bottom feeder right to being contenders. There likely will be a few years of “squeeking” into the playoffs and being eliminated first round, or even legitimately making the playoffs and still being taken out first round. They might even make it next year and miss it the year after due to many factors (injuries and luck being a part of that) I think part of the “rebuild” is to get there and gain playoff experience.

      • Jeremy Ian

        Basically, I agree with you. What I want us to avoid is playoff-hunger meaning that we hang on to the vets to reach the first round — only to run into Ovechkin/Holtby or Crosby et al. Then we get nothing for our pending UFA’s and learn the probably pretty obvious lesson that we are not yet ready for prime time. And we might have lost our crack at one more highish draft pick.

        Let the squeaking and playoff experiences begin the following year.

        On the other hand, I’ll hardly weep if we do make the playoffs.

    • jasken

      I’d be perfectly satisfied if we had a season similar to Buffalo this year. Finish around 10th worst in the league while showing signs of progress. Still secure a strong draft pick.

      • Jeremy Ian

        That would be closer to the curve I’d like to see, though I think the way the prospect pool has been restocked for the Leafs, we can leapfrog over the Sabres in three years and sustain it.

        if we draft around 10th next year, there are still another six more picks in his wake — and how many more if we flip the UFAs.

        Three strong draft years in a row with a nice mix of prospects really changes the picture long term.

        (which is why, just to beat the dead horse, I am not alarmed about the Polak and Martin signings…).

  • Jeremy Ian

    For those who believe we need to tank again and draft in the top 5 or top 10 in order for the rebuild to be work, I think you might be being too pessimistic.

    IF we contend for a playoff spot this year then we don’t need another top 5 pick to be contenders in 3-4 years.

    Assuming that Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Reilly develop as we hope, and that even a handful of our lower tier prospects pan out to their potential, this team will be pretty darn good team in 3 years even without another high draft pick.

    That’s not to say that there won’t be holes, but the same is true of all teams that have rebuilt, it’s just that free agency and trades will have to be used to fill those gaps.

    Look at Chicago, they drafted Toews, Kane, (stars) and had a raft of B level talent pan out Keith, Seabrook etc.., then they added some free agents (Hossa) and have been dominant ever since.

  • jasken

    You do realize anything you do your team you must equally match other teams and in doing so you still remain at the bottom. Flyers had their dealings with bad puck luck as you call it, and so did red wings. Correcting yours for last season would mean you have to do the same to them, and your under the impression they didn’t have bad puck luck which is actually the wrong impression.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Martin on the fourth line with Laich and Soshnikov will be a dynamite line as long as Laich can keep up.

    A top 10 pick for a strong defenceman will be the final high draft pick they should need for the core. It’s always great to keep acquiring high draft picks as long as you do something with them and done get Oileritis.

  • Gary Empey

    I think for the most part you can explain the shooting percentage to the change of coaching style. Take Kadri, normally he carries the puck into the high danger zone to cause panic among the defenders. Instead Babcock likes him to get it on net from near the top of the slot. His wingers have to be flying towards the net to make this effective. The wingers we had last year were either injured or had a hard time doing it.

    With all the new personnel expected to make the team this year I think July 5 is far to early to consider tanking for draft picks. If for some reason we have over estimated the young guns, then they will all be sent back to junior or AHL like last year. That would leave us with a team made up of mostly vets to be traded at the deadline for our usual picks and prospects. Let’s wait for the puck to drop to see how it all fits together.

    Yes the players need experience fighting for a playoff spot, along with making the playoffs.

    I think the fans need some of that experience too. It’s been a while.

    • “I think for the most part you can explain the shooting percentage to the change of coaching style. Take Kadri, normally he carries the puck into the high danger zone. Instead Babcock likes him to get it on net from near the top of the slot. His wingers have to be flying towards the net to make this effective. The wingers we had last year were either injured or had a hard time doing it.”

      What he said.

      Also, if we consider the fact that Carlyle’s teams generally tended to ‘pick heir spots’ so to say – getting a lot of pucks on the net was not as important as getting good shots off – shouldn’t we be expecting the shooting % to remain the same as last year? Or, to put it another way, doesn’t it follow that the more you shoot, the lower your shooting percentage should be? Kadri was directed to ‘throw everything on the net’ rather than only shoot into an empty net or when in really good position to score under Babcock. He isn’t the greatest shooter – never has been – he’s more of a passer/playmaker type. If you look at the guys that had their shooting percentage improved or remaining the same – it’s only guys that either didn’t get to play because of early injuries or guys that were put higher in the lineup than they’re used to and got more minutes.

      It’s not luck – it’s systems.

  • wallcrawler

    News Alert!
    It was not bad puck luck as the reason for Kadri’s start to the season. It was just plain dumb decisions for the reason he had only 9 points almost halfway through December.
    If Kadri used his wingers JVR and Komorov to better advantage he would have gotten more points. You cannot hope to score with his weak shot from where he was shooting from.
    It wasn’t until he started going to the dirty areas in front of the net to get rebounds and tap-ins that his point totals started going up.