The Maple Leafs have gotten off to a bad start, and like usual, Leafs fans are reacting to it in a calm and rational manner.
Sure, it’s early in the season, but this is supposedly the best Leafs team we’ve seen on paper in a long time, especially in the cap era.
But, nothing seems to be going right. Matthews and Marner aren’t living up to their new contracts. Tavares is hurt, and before then seemed a bit off. The defence has been struggling early on. And of course, the backup goaltending is still a massive problem for the Leafs.
Well, nothing seems to be going right. But, if you take a bit of a deeper dive, and you’ll realize that there isn’t that large of a problem. So, let’s look at why the Leafs slow start is more a mirage than anything.
The October Schedule
A quick look at the Leafs schedule this month, and you could probably have predicted the Leafs middling start to the year. Aside from the season opener against Ottawa, and a Saturday night game against Detroit, every game is either against a really good team (St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Boston, Washington) or part of a back to back.
Now, one thing I like to do at the beginning of every week is take a gander at their schedule and predict the results to give a rough idea as to how they should do that week. Usually, I give them wins against teams worse than them, and losses to teams as good/better than them, only because that makes it a bit more reasonable.
Here are the predictions I’ve made so far:
Oct. 2 vs. Ottawa – Ottawa is a really bad team, that should be an easy win. Result: 5-3 TOR.
Oct. 4 @ Columbus – Columbus is good, but their goaltending is a bit unproven, so the Leafs should have the advantage. Result: 4-1 TOR.
Oct. 5 vs. Montreal – Montreal is an okay team that the Leafs should beat, but it’s the second half of a back-to-back, so the Leafs might just get a point out of it. Result: 6-5 (SO) MTL.
Oct. 7 vs. St. Louis – Defending Stanley Cup champs, and they always give the Leafs trouble, so probably a loss. Result: 3-2 STL.
Oct. 10 vs. Tampa Bay – Tampa is still the best team in the league and even got Brayden Point back for this game. Probably a loss. Result: 7-3 TBL.
Oct. 12 @ Detroit – Detroit is a really bad team, that should be an easy win. Result: 5-2 TOR.
Oct. 15 vs. Minnesota – Minnesota is a pretty bad team, that should be an easy win. Result: 4-2 TOR.
Oct. 16 @ Washington – Washington is still really good, and it’s the second half of a back-to-back. Probably a loss. Result: 4-2 WSH.
Oct. 19 vs. Boston – Boston is a really good team, and always in the Leafs head. Probably a loss. Result: 4-3 (OT) TOR. (Woah, a surprise).
Oct. 21 vs. Columbus – See Oct. 4. Result: 4-3 (OT) CBJ (Another surprise).
Oct. 22 @ Boston – See Oct. 19, but also it’s the second half of a back-to-back. Definitely a loss. Result: 4-2 BOS.
Oct. 25 vs. San Jose – Good team, but like Toronto, off to a bad start. But also, Patrick Marleau scoring against his former team factor. I’ll give it an OT loss. Result: 4-1 TOR.
Oct. 26 @ Montreal – See Oct. 5. Result: 5-2 MTL.
Oct. 29 @ Washington – See Oct. 16, but without the back-to-back, so probably an OT loss. Result: 4-3 (OT) WSH.
Based on my predictions, the Leafs should be 5-5-4, and they are currently 6-5-3. They surprised me with the wins against Boston and San Jose, but then made up for it with an overtime loss to Columbus, and regulation loss to Montreal. Otherwise, the season has gone exactly as expected, in fact, one more point you could argue.
I think Shanahan may have run over the dog of whoever makes the schedule, because they got screwed over with this start, so the fact that the Leafs aren’t worse is a pretty good sign. At the very least, they’ve been good at beating teams worse than them, but need to start beating teams as good as them.
The Underlying Metrics
Naturally, since the Leafs are underperforming, that would mean that the Leafs are playing badly, and analytically should also be really bad to start the year.
But, that is anything but. In fact, they’ve actually been performing much better than they had the previous couple years. They currently sit fifth in the NHL in 5v5 CF% with 53.05%, and ninth in 5v5 FF% with 51.69%. They have a bit more middling numbers when it comes to expected goals for, sitting 15th with 50.51%, but it’s been documented that the NHL’s shot charts are out of whack this year and as a result are creating weird numbers all around.
What they aren’t going well in is luck. They’re shooting well at 8.91%, which is about league average at 12th, but are not getting good goaltending at all to start the season, with a 90.42% save percentage to start the season, sixth-worst in the league. Part of that is the re-emergence of October Freddy, but it’s also because of a poor start from Michael Hutchinson, who, because of all the back-to-backs to start the year, has gotten a bunch of playing time.
They’re shooting above average, which usually isn’t sustainable but the Leafs have enough shooting talent to somewhat maintain it, but Andersen’s .901 save percentage is a bit of a drop from his career .917. It’s not guaranteed we’ll see it regress to the norm, but we can hope for a return to form from Steady Freddy.
The injury bug has also bitten the Leafs early, something they haven’t really had to worry about in a few years. While it hasn’t been to an extreme extent (just yet), it is worth keeping in mind that the Leafs were playing much better with Tavares in the lineup (even if he wasn’t playing that well), and now that teams only need to focus on Matthews, it’s a much easier time for opponents.
Not to mention that another part of his line, Zach Hyman, hasn’t even played a game, and that’s led to other players playing a bit out of their depth (Kapanen, and to a lesser extent, Moore and Mikheyev).
Meanwhile, on the backend, the injury to Dermott had weakened the blueline a bit as well. On paper, he’d slide into the top four, but he’ll need to get back up to game speed, but there’s also the fact that Babcock seems to like Cody Ceci, so it looks like Dermott is just going to be on the bottom pair again this year. Not to mention we may be losing Muzzin, although it’s not quite yet determined at this time.
Regardless, depth is depth, and once Tavares, Hyman, and Dermott are all back, the team will probably be a lot better.