Home advantage. It’s something that you’ve probably had drilled into your head since you started playing sports. Whether it’s baseball, football, hockey, or any other sport, there’s always been this comforting mentality of playing at home, with your friends, family, and fans watching you, and cheering you on.
It’s that kind of edge that teams want, that they fight for all season, so that they can have home ice advantage in the playoffs, and then when it’s game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, you’re playing in front of your fans.
So, why are the Leafs, one of the better teams in the league up to this point, only 3-5 at home, and a whopping 6-0 on the road? Is it just a weird start to the season, or is there a pattern to this?
Well, beyond just the records, there are some things that back this up. The Leafs have outscored teams 21-12 at 5v5 on the road, while they’ve been outscored 13-10 at home. Their 5v5 xGF% at home is solid at 51.69%, good for 20th in the league, but their performance on the road is much better at 53.39%, which is the 5th best in the league.
Now, they’re possession numbers a bit of a different story, as they’re at a below average 49.94% 5v5 CF% on the road, and a 52.6% 5v5 CF% at home, but it’s worth noting that their home CF% is 15th in the league, while their road CF% is sixth in the league. Also, because they’re winning more on the road, they spend a lot more time leading games.
Of course, this is all just in a span of eight home games and six road games. Insanely small sample sizes, so it’d be better to take a look in the past to see how this holds up.
In terms of record, the Leafs have always played better at home than on the road over the last five years, even in their three really bad years. In fact, they had winning home records, they were just awful on the road. Their best road record was still worse than their worst home record between 2013-16.
In terms of possession numbers, it’s the same story. Their home CF% has always been better than their road CF%. In fact, since Babcock took over, they haven’t had a home CF% below 51%, and they haven’t had a single road CF% above 50%.
You could say that maybe it’s Babcock’s deployment this season at home vs. on the road, and there is some indications that Babcock is chasing matchups at home. Here’s the Leafs top 10 players in terms of TOI per game at home and on the road.
On the road, it’s pretty simple. The top four players are their top four defenseman. The next three are the Hyman-Tavares-Marner line, who are one of their top two lines, and got a ton of ice time on Saturday against Pittsburgh without Matthews, which can really affect it when it’s one of six games. The final three would be the other top line, that being Marleau-Matthews-Kapanen. So, your top four defense, and top six forwards. Pretty simple.
It’s a bit weirder at home, and we might be seeing Babs pushing the matchups a bit more. Marner has more ice time than Zaitsev and Hainsey. Dermott plays a lot more at home as well, which I have no problem with, but I don’t know why one third pair defenseman plays so much more than the other. Also, Kadri is playing a lot more, and Matthews has a really low total.
But, it’s more due to small sample size than anything. Marner’s is so high because Babcock has been playing him a ton since Matthews’ injury (the Dallas game was his second highest TOI, and the Calgary game was his third). Kadri’s is mostly because he’s played more since Matthews injury as well. And Matthews has only played one game with a TOI lower than his average of 16:38, when he logged 7:38 against Winnipeg, because he left early due to his injury.
So, the only reason the ice time is weirder at home than the road is that the Leafs have played 2.5/8 home games sans Matthews, and only 1/6 road games without him.
So, what was the point of all of this? Is Babcock making weird lineup decisions at home that are causing them to be worse?
Nope, it’s literally just a combination of luck, small sample size, and Auston Matthews’ injury occuring and them playing more games at home than the road since then. Odds are, they won’t go .500 at home and perfect on the road, and maybe once the Leafs get Matthews (and hopefully Nylander) back, we’ll just see this team win all the games, home or away.