Let’s start of with the fact that the Leafs are 7-2-1 to start the season, sitting at the top of their division, and we’ve seen demonstrations of skill from all the players you’d hope to see that from. The big four forwards are doing terrific, the new additions on the blueline are certainly making it appear the position has been upgraded, and Andersen and Campbell seem like they will be able to get the job done for the Leafs this year.
On the surface everything is looking pretty great, but some of that changes when we reflect on how the Leafs have gotten to this point. The reality is that it’s been a very shaky 7-2-1 performance, and more often than not, the Leafs have been relying on their power play to bail them out, getting by on short bursts of offensive talent in an otherwise lackluster night of hockey from them.
Looking at their performances to date, the wins in Ottawa and against Winnipeg were the only two that statistically show the Leafs as a dominant team at 5v5 and looking to earn their victory. And even in both of those games, the Leafs needed their power play to help put them over the top in those wins.
When it comes to the bad outings, well, The first Ottawa, and first Edmonton game certainly fit those bills, easily. This weekend’s game against Edmonton felt more evenly matched than the underlying numbers show, and this could be attributed to being McDavided or perhaps a bit of unfortunate luck by Koskinen playing a solid game, but I’m not sure I’d say the Leafs were bad as much as they encountered a team playing at their best.
Breaking down the lucky comes with a bit of score effects consideration as well. The strong starts against Edmonton and Calgary in the recent wins led to those teams coming back later in the game and balancing out some of the underlying numbers. I’ll make the case that if you have a negative CF or xG differential after holding an opponent to one shot in the first, you still have things to work on, and you are still lucky that you escaped with a win after giving the game completely back to the opponent. The less under Keefe is probably the same lesson that fans wanted the Leafs to learn under Babcock, and that is they aren’t strong enough defensively across the lineup that they can take their feet off the gas offensively.
The Montreal win was probably a bit more penalty driven, and the Leafs received power plays at the right time and capitalized to get themselves back in the game. Penalties have been a factor in more than just the opener, as the Leafs have only had three games with 5v5 GF% above 50%, and have had a favourable special teams goal differential in 4 of those games with a GF% of 50 or lower. The Leafs only have one game where their opposition outscored them on special teams (the first loss to Edmonton), and that is while only having one game this season where the Leafs had more power play opportunities than their opponent (the season opener). In contrast there have been five games this season where the Leafs’ opponent had the advantage in powerplays.
While it may seem too early to start assigning blame to players, the bottom six of the Leafs forward group seem to be struggling with their 5v5 underlying numbers the most. Kerfoot, Simmonds, Spezza, Barabanov, and Engvall all have sub 40% expected goals %, and Thornton, Hyman, Nylander, and Matthews are the only Leafs forwards above 50%.
Using Corsi For % as the barrier, the picture improves, but still points to a fourth line that is absolutely getting shelled. Barabanov, Spezza, Brooks, Boyd, and Anderson are the bottom performers for the Leafs, but the most troubling might be who is right above them, and that’s the Brodie and Rielly pairing that should certainly be driving the puck in the other direction instead.
The takeaways from the first ten games is probably that they are the first ten games. After a lengthy absence and no preseason, there was bound to be some sloppy hockey played to start the year, and the Leafs and teams like them would have to fall back on skill and talent to keep them afloat. They’ve done that. The challenge will be as systems tighten up around the North Division, and teams have a lot more film on the Leafs to study, will they also be able to tighten up their game and adapt to the style of play that will be required to beat their opponents.
Over the remaining 46 games there are bound to be some rough patches, and right now, while the Leafs haven’t been great, we can celebrate they were able to avoid it having negative consequences, and in fact, they’ve built a rather comfortable buffer that will carry them through the season.