The Leafs stink and will continue to stink this season. The advanced stats, however, tell us coach Mike Babcock already has this team on the path to winning long-term.
A believable narrative: Timmy is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Timmy knows his Maple Leafs will struggle this season. Timmy is a Toronto Blue Jays fan, too. He’s devoted all his energy toward following the ballclub’s post-season exploits. He hasn’t watched a minute of Leafs hockey yet this season.
Timmy checks the NHL standings, though, and he shrugs his shoulders. Same old same old. The Leafs have a single win in their first six games. They’re dead last in the Atlantic Division. Their lone victory came against the 0-7 Columbus Blue Jackets. They average 2.17 goals per game and allow 2.83. They rank 22nd in power play and penalty kill percentage. Start dreaming of Auston Matthews, Jesse Pulujarvi or Jakob Chychrun in blue and white.
The latter thought is legit. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be a lottery team in 2015-16. But to assume the current incarnation is the same sad sack of underachievers is inaccurate. Beneath the surface of this flaccid team, the Mike Babcock effect has already begun.
It’s hard to remember the last time, if there ever was one, when a coach signing brought about such fanfare. The Leafs almost literally parachuted Babcock into the city like he was James Bond on a rescue mission. They whisked him out of Detroit in a private jet the day he inked his eight-year, $50-million deal. But the idea of Babcock as a larger-than-life personality, more myth than man, was just a media construction, right? Coaches are coaches, and there’s only so much they can do.
Not according to the Leaf players.
“I wouldn’t say ‘coaches are coaches,'” said right winger Brad Boyes. “I’ve played with a lot of different coaches, and some are a lot better than others. Coming in, I wasn’t wide-eyed, thinking ‘this is Tom Cruise’ or anything, but his resume is very impressive. To this point I’ve been impressed with how he’s putting together our team, how he’s put together systems, how he’s stayed on top of guys. The attention to detail is the biggest thing. The best coaches have the most attention to detail.”
A look at the deeper numbers, underneath just wins and goals, suggests the Leafs are indeed showing better attention to detail under Babcock, doing the little things right.
The 2014-15 Leafs registered 182 shots on goal in their first six games. They allowed 202 shots. The 2015-16 Leafs: 195 shots for and 179 against. That’s a 23-shot difference in shots against over just six games, good for 3.8 per contest. The Babcock Leafs average 32.5 shots for and 29.8 against. Last season’s 82-game averages: 29.2 for, 33.5 against. The sample size is obviously tiny, but it’s highly encouraging to see the Leafs flipping their ratio already.
We know the Leafs have graded out poorly in the advanced stats era to date. Their rankings over the past five seasons in score-adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi, per war-on-ice.com:
2010-11: 25th (47%)
2011-12: 20th (48.4%)
2012-13: 29th (44.8%)
2013-14: 29th (42.4%)
2014-15: 27th (45.3%)
2015-16, under Babcock: 10th (50.6%)
The natural reaction is to laugh off that revelation, but you shouldn’t. Yes, six games isn’t much. But look at the difference compared to the first six games last season. The Leafs were peppered right away in 2014-15. Even after just six games, they ranked 26th in the NHL with a 45.9 score adjusted Corsi percentage. Since Corsi tracks not just shots, but shot attempts, the sample size is much bigger than it seems in a six-game snapshot. It’s remarkable how accurately the first six games of 2014-15 (45.9%) reflected the full-season total (45.3%). We thus are justified in taking Toronto’s early-season sample this year seriously, too. This team is already tracking as top 10 in puck possession.
That’s not the say the end results in the standings will be strong for the Leafs this year. They are obviously a talent-deficient club, especially minus Phil Kessel. They lack finishers up front and will have a very tough time scoring goals. They are by no means a playoff team, and Babcock was justified in predicting a season of pain. The advanced stats do tell us, however, the coach is changing the way this team plays. It makes fewer mistakes. It does a far better job suppressing shots. So it’s encouraging to imagine what the Leafs will do once they do inject real talent back into the lineup. Picture the same philosophy and newfound possession skill in the 2016-17 Leafs, but add William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and perhaps Mitch Marner. And say a top-end 2016 draftee like Matthews is so good that he makes the club. Suddenly, this team gets dangerous in a hurry.
And it’s all thanks to the coach. Toronto will stink on the surface, but work has begun within on the long-term shift to a winning culture.
“It’s been great,” said left winger Shawn Matthias. “He’s an intense person. He wants to win. He’s passionate about what he does. And those are great qualities you want in your coach. Everyone in this organization wants to feed off that.
“He’s the type of person where, if you work hard every day and give it your all in everything you do, on the ice, playing, in the weight room, how you treat people, he’ll respect that. He’s going to make everyone a better player and better person.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin