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Stats vs. the Eye Test on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ “Core Four”

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
9 months ago
The fun thing about having an extended break between Game 3 and Game 4 is there is a chance for everyone to form narratives around the Maple Leafs. Did I say fun? I meant tedious. If the Hockey Gods were merciful the Leafs and Panthers would have played again on Monday night.
One of the most prevalent narratives has been that the Leafs’ “Core Four” of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander hasn’t shown up in the second round against the Panthers. I can appreciate that narrative as the scoresheet matters but as often occurs the pendulum swung too far in one direction and now there is a counter response that is almost equally ridiculous showing that this group might actually be playing their best hockey of the season over the past three games.
The above graphic shows the Core Four have their best expected goals, shot attempts, and shots from the slot per game, and are very close to matching their production in season when it comes to scoring chances. What has suffered is points, shooting percentage, and by extension, goals. I’m not sure if the intention is to say that the stars have been playing well and are unlucky or if it’s that Sergei Bobrovsky has been just that good, but when it comes to their offense I think both of those things factor into some degree but don’t tell the entire story and let the Leafs’ quartet off for too easily considering what’s at stake here.
Continuing with the strictly offensive look at the performance there needs to be an appreciation for what happened in Games 1 & 2 vs. what happened in Game 3. In Game 3 the Core Four were effectively shut down, and didn’t show up, however, you want to put it, but you can see where their lack of offense was part of the problem. The importance of getting a win in Game 3, the recency of it, and the fact that the group has largely been absent from the scoresheet fuels the narrative, but you can also see that Matthews hasn’t stood out as you’d expect a star player of his stature to and you can make a case for Marner being bad offensively in Game 1 as well. The underlying numbers for this group might be good but aren’t what you’d hope to see from a group that is explicitly paid to perform at their highest level in this exact type of situation.
Additionally, there is the all-round play when the Core Four are on the ice and that has varied a lot more for each player.
So John Tavares has been straight up bad across the board. When it comes to goal differential they’ve all been terrible, and at the end of the numbers are pretty bad for Mitch Marner. So statistically, there isn’t a whole lot to salvage here unless you want to make your argument off the best four stats presented in a specific context that is somehow both too small a sample but also is large enough to intentionally mask the reason for being disappointed in the Leafs’ top forwards.
There is something also for the lost context in these numbers.
This is a chance from a high danger area on the ice, it would be recorded as a higher expected goal, but as we can see it is square into Bobrovsky with no chance of going in. Over the course of a season and a large sample, these numbers start balancing out and the best players will have the best expected goals (more or less), but in the three game sample being used this is an inflated value for a shot that had very little chance of going in.
There’s also something to be said for moments like these from Mitch Marner that have created some frustration based on eyes over numbers:
So basically, this is an instance of hyperbole and frustration with the Leafs Core Four vs. bad data storytelling. Are the Core Four underperforming in this series? Absolutely and they should be taken to task for it. Is it something where they all need to be sent off to distant corners of the league never to be reunited in Toronto again?
As for the data side of things, maybe this was an attempt to answer the hyperbole with the data equivalent of it. The lack of context made it seem like the Leafs top players deserve not only a passing grade but that they’ve excelled in this series. That is simply not the case either by data or eyes.
Often the truth falls in the middle ground and that is that is perfectly reasonable to expect a lot more from this group but there have been some issues with puck luck and hot goaltending thrown in. Now the tricky part is can the Leafs address it?
If you look at the table above you’ll notice the low average TOI for each of the players. You’d think that step one of trying to get the Core Four going would be putting them out more frequently. In Game Three, which was devoid of penalties,  it seems foolish to keep the top players off the ice in favour of the fourth line, even if it was the fourth line that came through for Toronto. Keefe needs to put in work on his matchups to get his top players breathing room and that is a failure that rests with him.
I won’t put it all on the coach because the Leafs players need to be better regardless of the direction they are given but I’ll ignore the sense of urgency comments or imply they don’t care. I think they understand the urgency and there is no doubt they care. They just haven’t been able to convert into something practice on the ice. Often under pressure, people try to do more when the solution is often to do less. This likely means Marner making two fewer moves when he has the puck. This means Matthews taking the shot and not looking for the pass. This means Tavares going to the net and trusting the other Leafs on the ice to give him something to work with down low.
If the Leafs’ Core Four really are playing at the level they should be maybe some subtle changes will help change their results and make our eyes happier as well.

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