Digging Into Toronto’s Recent Struggles

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Photo Credit: Brad Penner/USA TODAY SPORTS

Just over a month ago, on January 17th, the Leafs looked to be in a strong position in the standings.  They had just won four out of five games and were 7th in the Eastern Conference, one point back of sixth with four games in hand.  The standings were tight, with four teams beneath the Leafs within one game of them, but based on the way the Leafs had been playing and the fact that they’d played fewer games than most of the conference, it seemed like the Leafs would be able to build on their recent success.

Instead, in the sixteen games since, Toronto has gone 6-7-3.  The Leafs briefly fell to ninth in the conference after Saturday’s loss to the Senators but have climbed back into a playoff spot after last night’s win against the Hurricanes.  However, with the surging Florida Panthers, suddenly hot New York Islanders, and climbing Buffalo Sabres all right in the mix behind them, the Leafs’ recent struggles have understandably led to concerns among a fan base that was riding high only a month ago, as their strong position has slowly deteriorated.  But how much concern should there really be?  Is Toronto’s play slipping, or is there something else that explains recent results.  I decided to dig into the numbers a bit to find out.

EVEN STRENGTH

I’m going to divide the Leafs’ performance into three sections, one for each of the most common manpower situations.  In each section, I’ll list some key numbers for evaluating results, and they’ll be divided into two sections.  The first is the team’s play up to and including January 17th, and the second is their numbers in the month since then.  [Note: These numbers were pulled Sunday afternoon prior to last night’s game against Carolina.]

First up is play at 5v5:

Prior To / Including Jan 17 Jan 18-Feb 18
Score Adjusted Corsi-For% 51.2% 50.6%
Shooting Percentage 8.6% 8.9%
Save Percentage 0.919 0.920
Goal DIfferential/60 0.15 0.25

As you can easily see, Toronto’s performance at 5 on 5 has been virtually unchanged compared to the earlier part of the season.  Their score-adjusted Corsi has fallen a little bit, but 0.6% isn’t much to worry about, especially over only fifteen games.  As I’ve written about before, short-term fluctuations in Corsi can often be explained by factors like differences in quality of the opposition.

The other numbers are virtually identical.  Toronto’s seen a slight uptick in their shooting and goaltending at 5 on 5 over the past month, and that’s led to a slightly higher goal differential per 60 minutes of play, but there’s minimal difference.

It’s safe to say that the Leafs have not seen a decline in their performance at 5v5 recently.

POWERPLAY

Now let’s take a look at some key stats at 5v4:

Prior To / Including Jan 17
Jan 18-Feb 18
Corsi For/60 96.8 98.5
Shooting Percentage 14.1% 10.1%
Goals For/60 7.1 5.7

Toronto’s rate of shot attempts has ticked up slightly, but the difference is pretty minor.  The big difference is that they’re converting a lot fewer of their shots into goals.

You might be wondering which number is more likely indicative of Toronto’s real shooting talent: the more recent one, or the long-term result.  A shooting percentage of 14.1% at 5 on 4 would be good for seventh in the NHL, while 10.1% would place the Leafs in 27th.  Unless you believe the Leafs have some of the worst powerplay talent in the league, it’s unlikely that they’ll keep converting just 10% of their powerplay shots into goals in the long-term.  This is likely just a temporary dip that will rebound over the remaining games.

PENALTY KILL

Finally, we’ll see how the Leafs have been faring at 4v5:

Prior To / Including Jan 17
Jan 18-Feb 18
Corsi Against/60 92.6 98.0
Save Percentage 0.899 0.889
Goals Against/60 4.6 6.2

There has been an uptick in the rate at which the Leafs are allowing shots on the penalty kill lately, and that should be cause for a bit of concern.  There’s also been a drop in their save percentage (though it’s worth noting that even 0.889 is still a very good save percentage on the penalty kill.  It would be tied for 5th in the NHL).

The combined effect of the increase in shot attempts allowed and the drop in save percentage is that the Leafs are allowing more goals on the penalty kill than they were earlier in the season.

CONCLUSION

The Leafs play at 5v5 has continued to be strong, with the team posting a positive shot attempt ratio and out-scoring the opposition as well.  With 77% of Toronto’s ice-time this season spent at 5 on 5, that’s the part of the game that matters the most, and it’s the part that plays the biggest role in determining how many games a team wins.

Changing special teams performance is largely at fault for the Leafs’ recent struggles.  In particular, their shooting percentage on the powerplay has fallen into a bit of a rough patch, but one that’s unlikely to last the rest of the season.  On the penalty kill, there are multiple things working against the Leafs, as they’re allowing the other team to shoot more often and stopping fewer of the pucks that get through.  Tightening up the penalty kill would probably help improve Toronto’s chances of winning.

But looking at the full picture, there’s not too much to worry about.  The Leafs are still a good team at 5 on 5, and much of the dip in their special teams can be explained by simple variance.  Odds are pretty good that the Leafs will win more frequently over the rest of the season than they have over the past month.  The playoff picture has gotten very competitive, but the Leafs are still in pretty good shape moving forward.

  • Stan Smith

    I’m not as confident as you about the short term future of the Leafs. The games are going to get tighter as the season gets nearer the end. The better teams will start exploiting their defensive weaknesses, and the gruelling schedule is going to wear them down. I think they will be lucky to make the playoffs. I truly hope i’m wrong, but while they have made great strides this season, they still have a long way to go.

  • Glen

    I am not so sure about their five on five play. I guess if you dribble a couple shots on goal it comes out as a positive corsi. Still hoping for them to put a strong stretch run together.

  • LukeWarmWater

    Dear drag. As any long time leaf fan will simply remind that the last third of the schedule is when the pretenders are separated from the contenders. Play becomes more physical with squads that have big forwards being tougher to contain as they out muscle their opposition. Goalies find more and more visitors to their crease. This is no surprise as a young team is getting a quick baptism of how tough the second half of a season can be. The leafs as usual have a large number of back to backs which of course are always tough especially for a young squad learning to win. The leafs still have a number of road games including a dreaded trip to the west coast.

    Stan is right the leafs with their inexperienced defence a hot and cold Andersen are in tough the rest of the way. They could possibly make the playoffs but even if they don’t any intelligent leaf fan would indeed accept the tremendous improvement and most importantly the exciting, entertaining style of hustle and speed this young rookie laden squad exhibits on most nights.

    So work on all your stats there but the bottom line is can the leafs survive against the increased physicality, the tighter defensive coverage. Can they remain relatively healthy and can Andersen once again find his A game or does our back up play a more prominent role.

    Stay tuned as the stretch run won’t have many dull moments as number 34’s spectacular goal last night illustrated.

    • Harte of a Lion

      Luke my friend, this season isn’t about making the playoffs although I’d be fibbing if I implied it wasn’t important to myself and every Leafs fan (including all the bandwagon jumpers).
      This season is about teaching the kids what it takes to make the playoffs. How the failure to buckle down in the final 20, to be hard on the puck every shift, to play heavy on your stick and never give up on a play as those blown 3rd period points will haunt a team in March.
      If the Leafs had won 5 of the 9 they blew in the third period, they would be in 1st place in the Atlantic.
      I have been saying all season, win or lose, this is and will be remembered as the turning point of this franchise moving forward. The last time I had this much fun was a weekend that turned into 10 days in Vegas but that’s a story for another time with a strictly over 18 readership.

      GO LEAFS! GO MARLIES!

      Thank you Brendan Shanahan for returning the sense of pride within the organization. It is apparent every shift, every game, every practice and every media interview. Not certain how you neutered Feschfuck and Simmons but next time I see your vehicle I’m going to check the rear view mirror for dangling testicles.

  • Bob Canuck

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    I agree with your conclusions but I would add a little detail regarding the power play and penalty kill. For purposes of my analysis, I will call the period from October 12 to January 17 P1; P2 is January 18 to February 18; the data is from Corsica.

    With respect to the power play, there was a 10.2% decrease in xGF/60 (P1 – 7.66; P2 – 6.88). However, the shots on goal per 60 increased 11.0% (P1- 50.59; P2 – 56.17). My conclusion is that the power play was not as effective in P2 partly because there were fewer dangerous shots (in percentage terms) as there were in P1. This finding is also consistent with the shooting percentage reduction in P2 from P1.

    On the subject of the penalty kill, there was a 22.1% increase in shots on goal per 60 (P1 – 45.83; P2 55.97). The xGA/60 increased 19.8% (P1 – 5.66; P2 – 6.78). This would suggest that the rise in the number of shots, as noted in the article, is a cause for concern. The decline in save percentage from P1 to P2 is also a concern.

    I’ll leave it to others to determine why the noted data changes occurred; I just wanted to add a little colour to DragLikePull’s post.