How Good Are The Leafs: November Edition

Photo Credit: John. E Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

We’re now in the third month of the season, so it’s time to get an update on just how good this Leafs team is. I know some people are getting more pessimistic with each passing game as the Leafs dropped a winnable game to arguably the league’s worst team and then came up short again last night against a decent Wild team.

I understand the frustration and while I don’t think (right now at least) that #TheLeafsAreActuallyGood, I do think they are at the very least Actually Average and much better than their current 82 point pace would suggest. 

Let’s take a mini dive into their November and then check in on how good they really are.

We don’t really have to go over this in full detail because Jeff already did it last week. The basic gist is that the team in October was top 10 in everything across the board, from Corsi to expected goals, but was bottom five in turning those inputs into actual results, ie. goals scored. That was the reason for optimism after an October month where they had a pedestrian record. We expected better things in November, and while they got a few more wins, their underlying numbers weren’t as sparkling as they tumbled to a bottom 10 Corsi team. But as Jeff points out, they did a much better job at getting to the dirty areas of the ice, ranking top five in expected goals. That’s a good sign. There’s still a chasm between the team’s offence (elite) and defence (trash), but it’s still very early in the year.

The team is currently on the exact same point pace they were on when I wrote this for October so I’ll just copy and paste and make adjustments where I see fit.

The team is on pace for 82 points, and they probably deserve a bit more than that based on their play so far. Before the season started I projected that the Leafs would be around an 87 point team based on a model using Game Score which measures the value of each player in the league. That would put them in the middle camp: not quite playoff calibre, but not a flaming pile of garbage either.

Now that we’ve played some games, though, I wanted to check in to see how each player’s individual projections compare to pre-season expectations their end of October projections and how the team is likely to fair as a whole. This is especially important for this team specifically as many of the players are rookies and the initial projections for them didn’t have any NHL data to its name should tell us which players have improved the most and whose value has degraded. Here’s what it thinks right now.

(My goal was to do this at the end of every month, but I got busy/lazy so here it is on November 10 December 8)

How Good Are The Leafs?

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Before the season started we had an 87 point team. After October that was bumped up to 88. Now we’re at almost 90. Despite the point pace not really changing much over the last month, point projections moved up by almost an entire win and the reason for that is the team is slowly getting better. Over the next 57 games, my model expects the team to play at a 93 point pace. That’s despite having a true talent win percentage of 0.496, which would suggest that they should be playing at just over a 91 point pace. The reason for the discrepancy likely lies in the remaining strength of schedule, which should be easier going forward. A cursory look at the teams Toronto has played so far reveals that they’ve played very few games against the minnows of the league so far.

As for what’s driving the Leafs true talent up after this month, most of it is Frederik Andersen returning to form, but it’s also the emergence of Connor Brown and the play of the Leafs top three d-men. Most of the other changes have been marginal with Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk getting slight boosts.

It may seem that Matt Martin has improved, but what’s actually happening here is he’s gaining value from playing less. Because he’s below replacement level, the less he plays, the most valuable he is and sure enough, his GSAR/60 (Game Score Above Replacement Per 60 (GSAR/60) was unchanged for the month, but he’s playing fewer minutes.

While most players improved, there were some guys who aren’t as valuable this month as they were last month. Many probably assumed Auston Matthews would be one of them after a lengthy scoring drought, but he’s still right there at around 2.5 wins and already among the league’s best centres (for what it’s worth, Patrik Laine is around 1.5, I’m just saying). He did drop slightly, but not much.

The guy with the big drop though is William Nylander. He had a rough month and has found temporary residence in Mike Babcock’s doghouse. I’m sure he’ll turn it around eventually, but it also doesn’t help when he’s playing with guys like the aforementioned Martin as well as Ben Smith, two of the team’s worst players.

Overall this team is slowly making headway. The forward group is arguably a top 10 one in the league, and top five if you’re counting current healthy forward groups. We know defence and goaltending isn’t top notch, but the groups are slowly moving up and away from the bottom five.

I know it’s trendy to say this team is still bad and trending towards another bottom five finish, but I don’t see it that way. This team is better than what they’ve shown so far, and they’ll start getting the results they deserve sooner rather than later.

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    • LukeDaDrifter

      I don’t believe Nylander is in Babcock’s doghouse at all. Nylander is still only 20 years old. That sort of talk is generated by the media who are constantly looking for controversy. I see the situation as this. Nylander wants to play his natural position as a center. There is a real possibility of the Leafs being down to two centers (Matthews/Kadri) at the trade deadline or next year. The Leafs would also like to see him playing top nine center. After the last game Babcock stated,:”The reality is, for him to play centre in NHL he’s going to have to get way better defensively, way more competitive,”. That leaves three basic choices.

      1.- Play center on the fourth line and develop the defense side of the game, including winning faceoffs.

      2. – Return to the AHL to develop the defense side of the game, including winning faceoffs.

      3. – Play right wing permanently.

      As a team, the option of playing wing is the least desired. That is the one area where the Leafs have good wingers waiting in the wings, ready to hit the NHL.

      The trade option is always on the table. We are looking for a top four. That would not solve the upcoming center situation.
      How do the rest of you feel about future Nylander’s role?

      • Capt.jay

        For me I’d love to see him play the wing. We have Kadri and Matthews for that in the foreseeable future. He’s so offensively gifted and doesn’t have the feistiness of Kadri or the size of Matthews to be an all round player that being a Center entails. I believe he’s the kind of guy that can be shut down if shadowed by the opposition. On the wing Matthews or kadri can take the spotlight away from him which gives him more room.

        I think he is better suited as a major contributing compliment to a line and not the center point of one.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          We do have center Adam Brooks who is almost the exact same age as Nylander.. He is having a good year with the Regina Pats. In 21 games played he has 47 points.

          When considering playing Nylander on right wing you also need to consider what to do with the other guys.

          Right now on right wing we have, Marner, Brown, Soshnikov, Smith

          Possible future arrivals on the right wing: Bracco, Kapanen, Nikita Korostelev, Martins Dzierkals, J.J. Piccinich,

      • espo

        I think its a lack of legitimate NHL centers coming up from the AHL, but a glut of NHL ready wingers (okay I’m playing a little fast and loose with the terms glut and legit when refering to Leipsic and Kerby Reichel and maaaaaaaaaybe Kasperi Kapanen but you get my point)

        Using this year to determine if Nylander is worth using as a top three Center option or not could be really useful in planning FA, draft and trade strategy over the coming months and more importantly over the next few years.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          I think you are on the right track. Last year this time Nylander was slotted in to learn and play his first year in the NHL at center. Drawing the best ping-pong ball in the lottery changed the whole dynamic of the rebuild. Just before training camp many didn’t think Marner could even make the team this year. In Babcock’s statement on Nylander needing to be more competitive to play center, is a little concerning to me. It is likely why “Capt.jay” interprets that to mean “doghouse”. Babcock doesn’t pull any punches. Obviously he wants and expects him to play more aggressively. How long the experiment of Nylander on the fourth line will last is anyone’s guess. Enroth got two starts after Babcock said he has to win a game for us now and then. This is the NHL and every win counts. Babcock tries to win every game. Personally I like that about him.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          I appreciate you getting in this conversation Capt.jay kicked off. I feel sometimes we go on and on too much criticizing the bottom part of our lineup. As long time hockey fans we should be attempt to view the big picture of the rebuild in a positive ways. Personally I worry we part we one of our prospects before they have completely developed their NHL game, Though I also understand the urge to go for it now. I am just as pissed off as everyone else when we lose two in a row.

          • Capt.jay

            I think for me I’d like to see 2 very strong lines in the future. 1 line with kadri and Marner, and one line with Nylander and Matthews. Put a JVR on one and a brown or Kappenen on the other. A third line Center can be found in FA or maybe keep Bozak. We have a glut wing prospects who can always be traded for a Center or defense.

            As for Nylander in the doghouse. That was incorrect of me to say he’s in one. That’s media speculation and not my opinion so I’ll own that one. Wrong choice of wording.

            Whether Nylander plays wing or center, this is a good problem to have.

          • LukeDaDrifter

            What I take from Babcock’s comment is he is there offensively. but is is not enough to keep him in the lineup. If he can’t get his complete game up to speed quick enough then he will go back to the Marlies for more seasoning. The talk here last year was always “look how good Nylander is offensively”. Nobody cared how well he could play defensively. Babcock knows Byron Froese our top preforming Marlie center can win faceoffs, play the PK, and is sound defensively. His offense is lacking, though he is the second highest goal scorer with 9 (Kapanen 11), on the Marlies. Only 3 assists though. I believe Nylander can and will get better defensively. I am not so sure he can play a more physical game. He is only 20 and a lot of his peers are still playing junior. Most of the guys he plays against are bigger, older and stronger.

          • Pete Smith

            I disagree, but perhaps more importantly, I think Babcock does as well. He seems to see Kadri as a 3C, and is pretty much using him in that classic role.

          • AussieBoy

            I believe ultimately,that as easy as it would be to put Nylander on the wing,it would be much more rewarding to see him center a line[2nd,3rd?].
            He is too good to waste on the wing…As Luke said,we already have enough great players to fill the wings[right] role.
            Willie,I believe,is the guy to center a line.

            And Babcock can probably get that out of him.
            It would indeed be a waste to see him go.
            There is more to Nylander than we have seen so far.
            And what we HAVE seen,damn…

            I was at the Leafs/Wild game and aside from Mitch and Austin,Willie looks dangerous….He really is the real deal.

            Do not trade away the future of the Leafs.
            He really is that good.

      • Glen

        As far as Nylander goes the long term plan has to be to put him a position to utilise his talent. He will never be Datsuik, so forget that. He does not belong on the fourth line long term anymore than Hyman belongs on the first line long term. Maybe there is a personality clash between him and Babcock, if there is that is unfortunate. Hopefully this is just teaching by Babcock in the short term. I agree with Luke that this entire situation is mostly media driven.

  • tealeaves

    Not bad analysis. I’d discount Nylander’s contribution as he is in babcock’s dog house and bump up the impact that hunwick, polak, smith etc will have as these are important pillars of babcock’s leaf team

  • Pete Smith

    Ya. I don’t think Nylander is in Bacock’s doghouse. I think he’s challenging him to up his game. Dude is 20 years old, and learning to play. This year is a balancing act between teaching and winning, with the player development of it’s young core the most important overall component. The organization challenged Kadri a couple years back, and he responded. I actually think the way they’re using Nylander right now is good for his development as a player. Learning to play Centre better against weaker opposition while being shot up the line up on the PP and the wing at various points throughout the game. Nylander will be our 2C next year.