Baited as you might have been by the headline, there is a real possibility that the run of play that Toronto has been on lately is the best this team has ever been.
The idea was spurred by our own Nick Barden as an offhand thought: “I think they’re much better than last year’s team”. But we can go a step further than comparing this year to last year, thanks to data. In this post, I’m going to compare the entire Matthews-era Leafs against itself, to find when exactly this team has looked its most “juggernaut-y”.
We can define “best” in different ways. There are the best underlying numbers, the shot attempts and things like that that predict future results. That’s what we typically talk about on Staturday. There’s also the best results, getting wins, scoring goals, and looking like a proper juggernaut.
How can we do this? It’s rolling averages to our rescue. Essentially, we average the last 10 games of data, and then shift that by one game on and on over the course of the season, looking at each of the different 10-game stretches.
We will look at 10-game rolling averages for each of the last seasons in four statistics, the first two being underlying-based and the latter two being results-based:
- Corsi For Percentage (Corsi %) at 5-on-5
- Expected Goals For Percentage (xGF%) at 5-on-5
- Goals For Percentage (GF%) in all situations
- Standings Points Percentage (Pts %)
Let’s start by looking at the stretches where the Leafs were at their best in these four categories.
Corsi For %
For Corsi, which is just a quicker way to say shot attempts, we’re looking at how well the team was favoured in shot attempts for versus shot attempts against. This is expressed as a percentage. There were two good stretches for Toronto in Corsi %.
The first was at the end of the 2018-19 season, where Toronto was trying desperately to hold off the Montreal Canadiens for 3rd spot in the division. The rolling Corsi % in the sixth, fifth, fourth, and third last games of the season were each in the top 10, ranging from 56.18% to 57.83%. Normally that would have predicted a really good playoff run, however, we know that that wasn’t quite the case (sad face).
The other one was at the climax of the the famous “North Division” season. We’ll talk more about this stretch later, but there were three games in row here in the top 10 for rolling 10-game Corsi %, ranging from 56.03% to 57.36%.
Expected Goals For %
For expected goals, first, a quick reminder about what that is. At its core, expected goals is a model that takes shot attempts and adds a weight to them based on where they were shot from. So, shots that are taken closer to the net are valued higher, because they’re more expected to be a goal. You can add other factors in, and the model on Moneypuck that we’re using factors in some other things as well, which you can read about more here.
There’s really only one stretch worth talking about in Toronto’s rolling 10-game xGF%, and that’s the aforementioned climax of the 2020-21 season that didn’t actually start until 2021. Nine of the Leafs’ ten best rolling xGF% numbers come at this point in time. Their numbers reached a high of 61.33% control of the expected goals. During the 19 games that are included in these nine 10-game rolling averages, they played 11 games against the playoff-bound top four of the North Division and 8 against the bottom 3 teams.
I wanted to see what the next best stretch was, and it harkens us back to the 2016 when the young Leafs were full of vinegar and something else. I had hoped that the next best was this season, but alas, the fancy stats don’t actually look that great for the Leafs this year. That’s not to say they’re bad though. They’ve had two of their top-25 10-game stretches this year in terms of xGF% (and one of their top-10 best Corsi % stretches). It’s just not quite the same as how dominant they were last year.
Goals For %
Scoring goals is ultimately what we watch hockey for, and we know that the Leafs are very good at it. We also obviously want to see them not get scored on. This is what Goals For % (GF%) does. It’s a lot like +/- or goal differential, but expressed as a percentage. Some say that percentages are more representative than going cumulative like goal differential does. The real reason I chose to use goals for % in this instance is because the other stats I wanted to use were also percentages, so this way we can compare apples to apples.
The Leafs have achieved a 10-game average GF% this season of as high as 72.72%, which is ridiculous. They achieved this maxima after their win against the Ducks; the current average was brought down slightly by allowing 3 goals to the Avalanche. It’s this that gives us a basis to say that the Leafs could very well be at their very best.
Standings Points %
Of course, none of the above really matters with out standings points. If you’re winning one game 10-1, losing the next 1-2, your GF% looks great, but you’re a .500 team that’s not going to make the playoffs. As unlikely as that situation is (very unlikely), it’s still important to consider the standings points percentage as a metric for team-level greatness.
Unsurprisingly, the rolling 10-game average for the Leafs these last few weeks has been very good. The rolling average has hit 87% for the last two games, and 83% before the loss to the Penguins.
Surprisingly, this is not the peak, and, the peak is not during the 2020-21 stretch we’ve talked about a lot before. The rolling points percentage average in the 2019-20 season hit 90%. The Leafs took points in all of the 10 games in the average, including 8 regulation wins. It’s obvious looking back that this was the best standings points run.
What about overall?
I struggled at first with how to bring these different numbers together, but I decided on the best approach being Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). So, I just averaged the four percentages together! Is this the type of hard-hitting science that could land me a job in an NHL team’s research department? Definitely not. But it’s enough for our purposes today.
The best average of averages that the Leafs had was the period we just discussed in the 2019-20 season, when they won 9 of 10 and took points in all 10. The best average of averages works out to 67% (CURSE!).
What’s holding them back from peaking this year is their control of the shot attempts, or Corsi For % (CF%). They’re mostly sitting around 51%, which isn’t bad, but definitely isn’t something to laud them for. But the goals ratio is better than it’s ever been for Toronto, and that’s why they seem like juggernauts.
However, circling back to the statement in the title, this year has seen three times where the average of averages hits their second best value of 66%, and five of the top 10 going all the way back to 2016. This recent stretch is also the only time that the average of averages is in the top 10 more than twice. It’s this consistency of greatness that makes me conclude that it really is possible that this is the best version of the Matthews-era Leafs we’ve ever seen.