3
Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Yes, it does matter if the Leafs make the playoffs

Dec 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center William Nylander (29) attacks with the puck as San Jose Sharks defenseman Justin Braun (61) hooks him at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Thanks to a very difficult past week that saw the Leafs collect only a single point in the standings, for the first time in a while it seems like their chances of making the playoffs are slipping away. That’s because, well, they are.

Most statistical models now have Toronto at below 50% probability to make the postseason, and the script has been flipped from holding on to now having to make a climb.

Now, the narrative heading into this season was that if the team improves a few points from their last-place showing a season ago, missing the playoffs this year won’t matter. But while that was probably true initially, this team has changed the story. If there aren’t at least two NHL playoff games in Toronto next month, I’m going to be disappointed. You should be too.

Why?

They’re good

When you’re not a tanking team or overall pile of garbage, every season is precious. The Leafs aren’t a bad team dressed up as a good one. Their underlying numbers have been relatively strong all season – to date they’re tied with Chicago for 8th in score-adjusted Corsi% – and they’ve been able to make good on turning this quick injection of new talent into a lot of goals.

Yes they’ve had trying times defensively, which has mostly been chalked up to inexperience with such a raw group (though I personally disagree). But generally they’ve been able to push the puck in the right direction. This isn’t the paper tiger that Kessel and Reimer dragged into the postseason in 2013. They deserve to get in as much as any team near the bubble. Shootouts not included, there are only 13 teams in the league with a positive goal differential this season. Toronto, at +8, is twelfth.

They’re a bit unlucky

Look, despite this team’s talent and ability to score plenty of goals, they still have not had the bounces go their way really. When it comes to grabbing the extra point in shootouts, they’ve done so just once in nine tries. As a result, they’ve been absolutely putrid in one-goal games, but that typically isn’t a measure of a lack of talent. On the ice we’ve seen that in the form of this club being unable to close out teams, resulting in late-game collapses and such, but that’s been highlighted far more by the fact they’ve let overtime chances slip and gone to a shootout, which is then the equivalent of trying to recover a fumbled football. [And please don’t tell me “good teams find a way to win, even in the shootout”. Detroit and Arizona are the best shootout teams in the league.]

Luck could swing the other way down the stretch, and that’s somewhat of a reassuring thought. This isn’t a team crashing back down to earth after riding hot on percentages. They’re more likely a mid-to-upper level club that has the ability to finish things out as such.

If these last eighteen games don’t go the Leafs’ way and they finish outside the playoffs, you’ll likely see me (or another writer here) write some kind of post-mortem about how this was a building year and we should be thankful of the growth this club has shown. And that would obviously still be true.

But this is a season where we’ve seen Auston Matthews emerge as a right-away superstar, to go along with Nylander and Marner showing they’re not far behind. It’s a season where the team shelled out five-million dollars on the cap to a starting goalie in what should be his peak age. It’s another season for other prime-age guys like Rielly, Kadri, Gardiner, and JVR. And looking at it through that lens, it would be quite upsetting to see things unravel in the final month of the season after all the work this team has put in to stay right in the postseason mix 75% of the way. I think whether you’re a coach, player or fan, it’s okay to admit that.

  • lukewarmwater

    Certainly the leafs have slumped as most intelligent fans felt they would as the second half as usual saw teams tighten up, play with more intensity and physicality. We particularly saw it in the Cali death valley trip as the Sharks, Kings and Ducks are all big playoff experienced teams.
    But the analogy with the fumbled football is absurd. Plus there is nothing unlucky when it comes to Andersen in a shoot out. He joined the leafs with an approximate 60% save percentage in shoot outs and has seen that average drop to around 50% this year. This guy has trouble stopping a beach ball in shoot outs. Now somehow he is psyched out. It reminds me of certain N.B.A. stars especially big centers, shaq daddy as an example who actually had a foul in basketball named after him, the Shaq attack. Teams would simply foul him late in a close game knowing that he would probably miss half the foul shots.

    I’m not trying to be picky here but I expect articles to be a little deeper in knowledge than unlucky or puck luck.

  • Chelmsford Leafs

    I have been looking at the schedules for Boston and the Islanders. I think we are chasing Boston for 3rd rather than the Islanders for the Wild Card. Have any of our number-crunchers run a points prediction for our rivals and what we need to qualify? Game 82 should be OK – CBJ will be celebrating their second post-season by then and will give their best player a rest……

    • lukewarmwater

      Those are the type of stat predictions I too would like to see Chelmsfor. I get Corsi is the Holy Grail but indeed it would be nice to see an article breaking down the Islanders and Boston’s and those teams close behind us in their remaining games. I was surprised to see the Islanders walk into Edmonton where they had not won a game for years and years and pull off a 4 to 1 win. Btw you can also expect Pittsburgh to be resting their number one goalie and likely a couple key veterans sitting out the game. So even though the leafs end the season back to back, in some ways playing these two strong teams in their final games gives the leafs a bit of an advantage as you suggested.