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.
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%|
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.
Now let’s take a look at some key stats at 5v4:
Prior To / Including Jan 17
Jan 18-Feb 18
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.
Finally, we’ll see how the Leafs have been faring at 4v5:
Prior To / Including Jan 17
Jan 18-Feb 18
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.
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.