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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports

How far away are the Leafs from being a contender?

How far away are the Leafs from being a Stanley Cup contender? Or more accurately, how close were the 2016-17 Leafs away from being a contender? Were they actually already one?

We’ll obviously never know what would’ve happened if things shook out differently in either round one or the regular season, and frankly, it’s a useless exercise to try to figure it out.

But what we can do is try to speculate exactly how far away the Leafs are from being at or near the league’s best.

Let’s dive into the stats. For the purposes of this exercise, I decided to compare the Leafs against:

  • the two Stanley Cup Finalists (Pittsburgh and Nashville)
  • the two Conference Finalists (Ottawa and Anaheim)
  • the Presidents’ Trophy Winners (Washington)
  • the team with the Art Ross winner (Edmonton)
  • the 15th place team in each category. Not the mean, because that requires too much math.
  • and Buffalo, because Jeff thought it would be funny.

It’s accepted common wisdom that it’s most sensible to compare 82-game samples over playoff runs of varying degrees, because it provides for a common data set, with a comparable enough schedule and most factors controlled as much as they can be.

Oh and it’s kind of confusing, but I’m doing positives (+) in relation to the Leafs in areas where the Leafs would like to do well, i.e. scoring more goals than a team, and negatives (-) where they wouldn’t like to have high numbers, such as goals or shots against. In other words, if you see a (+) next to a team that isn’t Toronto, it means the Leafs outperformed them in that category. In other-other words, the number in brackets is how far away Toronto is in any given category.

Team GF
(All sits)
GA
(All sits)
Goal
Diff
SF60
(5v5)
SA60
(5v5)
Sh%
(5v5)
Sv%
(5v5)
GF%
(5v5)
Points
Toronto  251 242  +9  30.6  31.6  8.30 .922 51.1 95
Pittsburgh  282
(-31)
234
(-8)
+48
(-39)
 32.8
(-2.2)
 31.0
(-0.6)
 8.56
(-0.26)
.926
(-0.04)
55.2
(-4.1)
111
(+16)
Nashville 241
(+11)
224
(-18)
 +16
(-7)
 30.9
(-0.3)
 26.2
(-5.4)
 7.84
(+0.46)
.926
(-0.04)
53.0
(-1.9)
94 (-1)
Ottawa  212
(+39)
214
(-28)
 -2
(+11)
 29.4
(+1.2)
 29.3
(-2.2)
 7.03
(+1.27)
.926
(0.04)
 48.9
(+2.1)
98
(+4)
Anaheim  223
(+28)
 200
(-42)
 23
(-14)
 28.9
(+1.9)
28.3
(-3.3)
 7.77
(+0.53)
.929
(0.07)
53.1
(-2.0)
 105
(+10)
Washington  263
(-12)
 182
(-60)
 +81
(-72)
29.8
(+0.8)
27.4
(-4.2)
 9.18
(-0.88)
 .937
(0.15)
 61.4
(-10.3)
118 (+23)
Edmonton  247
(+4)
212
(-30)
 +35
(-26)
 29.9
(+0.7)
28.7
(-2.9)
 8.22
(+0.08)
.927
(0.05)
54.3
(-3.2)
103 (+8)
Buffalo 201
(+50)
237
(-5)
-36
(+27)
 29.2
(+1.4)
 32.6
(+1.0)
6.41
(1.89)
.929
(0.07)
 44.8
(+6.3)
 78
League Median
(15th place)
226
(+25)
 224
(-18)
+5
(+4)
29.4
(+1.4)
 29.3
(-2.2)
 7.77
(+0.53)
.924
(0.02)
49.3

(+0.8)

 94
(-1)

And, just for fun, some historical teams:

Team GF
(All sits)
GA
(All sit)
Goal
Diff
SF60
(5v5)
SA60
(5v5)
Sh%
(5v5)
Sv%
(5v5)
GF%
(5v5)
Points
Pittsburgh, 2015-16  245
(+6)
203
(-39)
 +42
(-33)
 32.4
(-1.6)
28.5
(-3.1)
7.54
(+0.76)
.931
(-0.09)
55.4
(-4.3)
104
(-9)
 Chicago, 2014-15  229
(+22)
189
(-53)
+40
(-31)
 32.9
(-2.3)
29.8
(-1.8)
6.87
(+1.43)
.935
(-0.13)
54.2
(-3.1)
102
(-7)
Los Angeles, 2013-14  206
(+45)
174
(-68)
+32
(-23)
 31.2
(-0.6)
25.0
(-6.6)
 6.91
(+1.39)
.935
(-0.13)
 55.6
(-4.5)
100
(-5)
Toronto, 2013 (prorated to 82 games)  248
(+3)
227
(-15)
+21
(-12)
 25.7
(+4.9)
33.0
(+1.4)
 10.57
(-2.57)
.924
(-0.02)
52.0
(0.9)
97
(-2)

Goal differential is probably the most comparable way to judge a team as a whole. The Leafs are somewhere between 7-39 goals in terms of differential away from this year’s two finalists and the three previous Stanley Cup Champions. 20 more goals for and 20 less against and they win the Cup?

Some observations:

  • Offensively, the Leafs are just about there in terms of contenders. They finished with the 5th most goals in the league this year, and more goals than the 2015 Blackhawks, 2016 Penguins, and the 2014 Kings. All three of those teams won the Stanley Cup.
  • Frederik Andersen is a fine enough goaltender, but he might need to hit another gear or get a little bit more from his backup at 5v5.
  • The difference between the Leafs and a contender’s defence is somewhere in the range of 2-5 shots against per 60. You’d like to hope replacing likely Roman Polak and maybe Matt Hunwick could account for the first two, but they actually finished 1st and 4th amongst Leafs d-men in that category.
  • Just eight goals against separate the Leafs and Penguins goals against, while just 18 separate them from the Predators. In the case of the Penguins, that’s the case of about one goal every ten games, while in the case of the Predators, it’s about one every four-and-a-half-games. Not small margins, but both attainable.
  • Buffalo has a lot of work to do. Read about their offseason here. (Although, they did, somehow, allow fewer goals than the Leafs.)
  • The Nashville Predators wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Not a knock against them, as they’re a very good team, just, notable again.
  • Maybe it’s beating a dead horse, but nothing really suggests any level of repeatability for the Ottawa Senators next season for their unexpected playoff run.  Hell, they were the only team to make the playoffs scoring less than they gave up and finished 18th in ROW with the league’s third most shootout wins. Then again, we’ve been wrong about the Sens before.
  • LMAO the Leafs shot at a ridiculous percentage in 2013. There’s almost no way any of that would’ve lasted over 82 games, but whatever, it was fun while it did. They finished 28th in 5v5 shots for and 30th in shots against and were like 90 seconds away from winning a playoff series. 48-game seasons are whack.

The playoffs are enough of a crapshoot anyway, as we know.

Some realistic goals for the Leafs next year:

  • 5-10 fewer goals against. It doesn’t take much to not allow 10 fewer goals in the season. Honestly, that many can probably be accounted by for simple luck. But honestly, averaging a shot per night or two against less should probably do the trick. As stated, they should aim to reduce between 2-5 fewer shots against per 60 to be considered a true contender. Easier said than done, of course.
  • 0-5 more goals for. As stated, the Leafs are already a very good offensive team, as you know. If they score the exact same amount as this year, I’d be okay with that. Even if they regress slightly offensively, they’re still bound to be in the upper echelon of offensive talent. Maybe a free agent acquisition will up their offensive skill?
  • Better shootout luck. It should not be understated how drastically shootouts affected the Leafs season this year. The Leafs won in them once and lost 8 times. Go even, and that’s second place in the division right there if everything else stays the same.
  • Less overtime. The Leafs were involved in 22 overtimes, which ranked 7th in the league, with an overall record of 7-15 in them (including shootouts). Not surprisingly, that was the most OT/SO losses in the league. They picked up more points from overtime and shootout losses than overtime and shootout wins. That seems bad.

While this article involves a lot of “what ifs”, it’s really just meant to be an exercise to point out where the Leafs can improve, and how far they really have left to go to be unanimously considered one of the NHL’s elite.

  • Stan Smith

    Even though we are one win away from seeing the Pens win back to back Cups, I think this year’s playoffs show that league parity is as close to being a reality as it ever has. We could just as easily be seeing the Sens battling the Preds for the cup right now, despite having a very mediocre team on paper.