Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
It’s January 15th and the Toronto Marlies are the worst team in the North Division. Just a year ago, they finished the year with one of the best records in AHL history, and here we are talking about 0.500 being a dream to attempt to accomplish.
People expected regression, but they didn’t expect a chance at being third-last in the league at the halfway point. But something doesn’t feel right about this; what is a team full of quality players, that started hot, and has scored as many goals as they’ve allowed doing at the bottom of the standings?
Here’s an attempt at figuring it out.
Now that we have that gigantic blob of barely legible colour out of the way, let’s go through these individually.
Estimated Fenwick Close%: This stat is the one that sounds the closest to fancy, mostly because the American Hockey League barely has regular stats available to the public, let alone the means to make advanced ones. Estimated Fenwick Close was initially applied to the AHL by former Nation Network contributor Josh Weissbock, who currently works for the Florida Panthers as their Prospect Consulting Specialist. It’s actually not that complicated; it’s shots for percentage, but only using the first and second periods. Toronto currently ranks 3th in Estimated FenClose, sitting at 54.16%.
This trails only the San Jose Barracuda (0.645, 55.46%) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (0.776, 54.33%). Good EFC teams are running the show right now: 13 of 15 teams above 50% have at least a 0.543 record (Rockford is the other), and only 3 teams in the Top 16 in the standings are below 50% (Tuscon, Chicago, St. John’s).
Shots-For Percentage: If you’re of the belief that the first period matters too, Toronto remains Top 5 in the league in raw SF%. Syracuse and Grand Rapids jump ahead in this regard, but Toronto is still tilting the tables at 53.3%. Toronto is taking the sixth-most shots for per game in the league (31.7) and are giving up the 5th fewest (27.8).
Goals For/Against Per Game: Toronto sits right around the middle of the league right now in both statistics. In terms of filling the net, they rank 16th at 2.81 goals for per game and 11th in goals against a game at 2.75. This puts them at 13th in Goals-For Percentage at 50.5%; hardly a result that you’d expect would lead to being in the basement. After all, they’re outscoring their opponents!
Even Strength Goals For/Against Per Game: Bring the numbers to 5-on-5, though, and things just get weird. The Marlies, a team that scored at will last year, are scoring just 1.71 goals at full strength a game, and that’s with an uptick in the past week or so. This places them in 25th, and it would totally sink them if it weren’t for the fact that they’re 3rd in the league in even strength goals against per game.
Shooting/Save Percentage: This year’s league averages as of today indicate a 9.72 shooting percentage and a 0.9028 (0.903) save percentage is enough to ride the curve. Toronto is underperforming here after crushing it last year, firing at 8.54% in all situations. Their save percentage, which has gone through huge peaks and valleys due to the carousel of netminders that have suited up, still sits a bit above average at 0.907.
Lets’ look at the individual scoring charts a little differently.
To quickly explain the final five columns: ESP/G is even strength and shorthanded points per game. ESG% is percentage of goals that came at even strength or on the penalty kill. ESP% is the same, but points. CASH% is the AHL career average shooting percentage of the player before this year (with players who had fewer than 50 career shots removed). VAR is how many goals the player has gained or lost with the variance of their shooting percentage from their career average this year.
Once you get rid of players who have played for half a dozen games or fewer, Brendan Leipsic is the only player at over half a point a game at even strength, which is extremely rough. In fact, he and Byron Froese are the only ones above 0.4 per game; players like Kasperi Kapanen and Andrew Neilsen see huge dives in their totals once you pull their powerplay points away.
Figuring who is scoring more than their career projected is, in effect, an essay of “who plays on the powerplay?”. Byron Froese is the exception; he’s converting on 17% of his shots despite scoring 73% of them without a man advantage. He’s listed as gaining 6.6 goals as a result, but it’s worth nothing that it could be a matter of him shooting from higher danger areas. Froese’s AHL shooting percentage was very low before coming to Toronto, and he shot at 15% in 2014/15 in his first year here, so maybe running with his career 9.5% is unfair to how he shoots today.
Beyond that, over half of Kapanen’s goals are coming on the powerplay, nearly 40% of Brendan Leipsic’s goals are similar (he’s got a heck of a one-timer from the right wing). 81% of Neilsen’s point bombs require a little less coverage, as do 75% of Kerby Rychel’s rebounds in the slot. Looking at players who play even strength and penalty kill time, you’ll see that the likes of Colin Smith, Justin Holl, Andrew Campbel, Frederik Gauthier, and Marc-Andre Cliche are all struggling. Josh Leivo couldn’t score during his conditioning stint, and Frank Corrado had similar issues.
Even some of the rookies remain snakebit; Travis Dermott is still missing his first goal, Dmytro Timashov is shooting at just 6%, and while Andreas Johnsson is at 11%, he’s not taking a ton of shots and most of his goals have also been on the powerplay.
In short, they’re not scoring at even strength. The team has, by and large, been snakebit and success on the powerplay (9th in the AHL @ 21.7% conversion and T-3rd with 36 total goals) has kept them in games.
Some games, truth be told, have just barely gone the wrong way. This year they’ve played, as far as goal difference goals…
- Two five-goal games. Toronto has a record of 1-1 in those.
- One four-goal game. They’re 1-0 in those.
- Eleven three-goal games. They’re 7-4 in those.
- Eight two-goal games. They’ve got a record of 3-5 in those.
- Fifteen one-goal or shootout games. They’ve got a record of 3-9-3 in those.
In short, if the game is going to be wide open, they’re probably going to win it, boasting a 9-5 record (0.643 in those). When it gets to two goals, they’re slightly losing the coin toss, and when the game is within one, they’re a disaster. In fact, they’ve only won one of their last twelve one-goal games, including four losses this in the past week. Let’s take a quick look at those.
|06-Nov||at St. John’s||W||1||3||2||31||30||21||17||9.68||0.933|
Obviously, a degree of score effects come into play, but they’re driving play in these close games. They’re running a 52.9% shots-for, and a 50.6% Estimated Fenwick Close; the latter being a decent dropoff, but still a result that should give you a bigger share of the wins than they’ve had. But their shooting percentages and save percentages have, for the most part, been even worse in these games, with games where at one of the two goalies on the ice decided it more so than any of the skaters.
Is There Hope?
Admittedly, it’s become pretty obvious that this year’s team isn’t quite the same as last year. A big part of that is that, while this group is very structurally sound and is chock full of NHL-calibre talent, they don’t have the same blend of creativity, fines, and even some of the chemistry of last year’s team. Losing William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, and Connor Carrick to the Leafs all at once was a significant blow to their ability to roam and create space in the offensive zone. On the veteran side of things, the unique offensive skillsets that Mark Arcobello and TJ Brennan brought in both creating space and in generating shots are definitely missed as well.
You get a glimpse of it in a play like the above, where it takes the Marlies forever to break out of their own zone in the dying moments of the third period. It’s not even that the players responsible weren’t strong talents; Frank Corrado and Travis Dermott are the two best overall defenceman that the team could’ve sent over the boards, but it took Brendan Leipsic to spin back and blast out the zone to get a play going.
Finding a way to get a few more players who take (and exceed with) the risks that are necessary to create opportunity, whether it’s within or from the outside, will be paramount to this team turning things around. The Marlies have been in situations like this before; in 2014/15, they started the season 5-12-2 before going on a 35-15-7 stretch to thrust them into the playoff hunt. The solution was to bring Froese in from the ECHL, Nylander in from Sweden, and Brennan in from Rockford, and, you know, get some additional bounces in their favour.
They do have the benefit of so much of this being percentage driven as well. Maybe there’s a reason those percentages exist, but even little things like stabilizing the goalie carousel and sticking with Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau should help, and it just takes a couple of hot sticks to get things going again.
But this is a tougher challenge. There’s already a logjam of roster players, and the season is halfway through. They’ll need to go on an absolute multi-week tear to get back into the conversation, and there’s only so much of a roster shakeup that they can give themselves. Is this team actually good? Well, they’re certainly not bad, and they certainly shouldn’t be near the bottom of the standings. It just remains to be seen whether they’re good enough to find their way back.