The Leafs are the NHL’s hottest team, but their advanced stats remain terrible. Why are they winning? And can they sustain their success?
Cliches are the hallmark of lazy writers, but the Toronto Maple Leafs warrant an act of laziness, as one cliche fits too darned perfectly: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The front office makeup tells us the Leafs have changed. Brendan Shanahan, 29-year-old analytical whiz Kyle Dubas (who “politely passed” on participating in this story) and Mark Hunter now share decisions with Dave Nonis and had no affiliation with the franchise a year ago. The team makeup tells us the Leafs have changed, too. Randy Carlyle’s glorified three-line system, which gave fourth-liners Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren a few shifts a game, is extinct. Peter Holland gets full-time NHL work now and off-season additions like Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik have turned Toronto into a true 12-forward operation.
The standings, for now, emphatically tell us the Leafs have changed. They sit 19-9-3, seven points up on ninth place in the Eastern Conference and winners of six straight games. They lead the NHL in goals per game. They’ve beaten Chicago, Anaheim and Los Angeles this season, albeit at home.
The more wins pile up, the more difficult it is for even the Grinchiest of pessimists to write this team off and insist its almost-annual swoon is coming. That said, I encourage these Grinches to try, as they’ll find plenty of alarm bells to jingle.
The very reason certain pundits didn’t buy Toronto’s 2012-13 playoff run or fast start in 2013-14 was, of course, analytics. They had an artificially high shooting percentage. They ranked among the league’s worst teams in metrics like Corsi, meaning the majority of pucks, including those that were blocked and missed the net, went toward their own goal. They depended too much on goaltending.
Flash forward a year later to the piping-hot Leafs, and you get this friendly quip from center Nazem Kadri after Tuesday night’s 6-2 shellacking of the Ducks:
“Obviously the shot total’s got to get down, but the way Bernie’s been playing, he’s got those. (he laughs and smiles at Jonathan Bernier, sitting beside him). “So I don’t think we’re too worried about that. But I think coming back, we’re keeping them to the outside most of the time.”
It’s a funny comment, and you have to love Kadri’s honesty, but it’s telling, isn’t it? Allowing high shot totals. Relying on Bernier to bail the team out. Sounds. Familiar.
The Leafs allowed a league-worst 35.9 shots a game last season. This year? They’ve “improved” to 27th at 33.8. Their Corsi Close rating last season? 29th at 42.1 percent. This year? Up to 25th at 46.4 percent. They led the league in shooting percentage in 2012-13, the season preceding their fall. After a dip to ninth in 2013-14, guess where they sit now? First at 11.4 percent.
So the new, exciting, red-hot, revamped Leafs have an unsustainably high shooting percentage and a small enough piece of the possession pie that their goalies get ritually peppered. What has really changed about this team, then?
Thanks to the pervasiveness of analytics in today’s hockey talk, you probably know this already. Every peripheral stat seems to foreshadow yet another classic Leaf collapse. We probably know the answer to “will the Leafs regress?” So let’s try a more interesting question. “What if the Leafs don’t regress?” And, if so, how on Earth will they pull that off?
The players seem to know the answer, if they mean what they say and aren’t just looking on the bright side, which would be human after six straight wins.
Kadri illuminated Bernier’s play as one reason the Leafs can sustain their success. Last year, Bernier was dynamite much of the season before injuries cut into his workload, and James Reimer’s effectiveness waned when spelling Bernier down the stretch. This year, Bernier looks healthy. Maybe he’s not brittle after all. Maybe his body simply had to adjust to having a starter’s workload for the first time. So in theory, he could keep standing on his head and masking Toronto’s defensive deficiencies.
A second idea: quality over quality. The win over Anaheim supported the notion Toronto’s shooting percentage was the result of skill, not luck. Just look at the highlight-reel goals Kessel and Kadri scored.
“We’re an opportunistic team,” Kadri said. “We don’t need many chances to score. So when we get those opportunities, we make sure we bear down and put them in the back of the net.”
That philosophy works both ways. Kadri pointed out the Leafs were forcing teams to the outside, and right winger Joffrey Lupul said the same thing. And then there’s every player’s favorite concept: the intangibles. The idea that improved resolve has made this team better.
“I thought (Tuesday) showed…there were times last year when we went into games in the third period that we didn’t have that killer instinct that we had today,” Lupul said.
Bernier added he feels the Leafs protect leads better, that they don’t get outworked as much late in games, and that “we make the blocks when we need to.”
The rest of the season will tell us which line of thinking is correct this time around: that Toronto has fixed none of its flaws, as the numbers suggest, or that, as the players suggest, they’re playing differently and, for all intents and purposes, “better.”
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