Last week, I started this three part series on how the Toronto Maple Leafs are winning hockey games, and whether they can continue. The importance of puck possession, how the Leafs made the playoffs last year and the likelihood of getting to the postseason with their current scoring trends were among the topics discussed.
Obviously, another factor to the Leafs success over their last 60+ regular season games is goaltending. With bad goaltending comes poor results, just ask Calgary and Winnipeg. One thing that the Leafs had been lacking since pretty much Ed Belfour had been consistent goaltending.
James Reimer’s rookie season, 2010-2011, was extremely successful for him as he was tied for 10th in save percentage at .921 and while his 2.60 goals against wasn’t sparkling, it was the best mark of any regular Leafs goaltender in a single season since the 2004-2005 lockout. The search for a goaltender, at least temporarily, was put on hold.
Leafs fans will remember what happened next: Montréal’s Brian Gionta ran into Reimer while skating in front of the crease, his hip colliding into Reimer’s head. Reimer would be out for a month and a half afterwards, and wasn’t quite the same again. After an OK start to the season, Reimer’s numbers plunged after returning from injury, and it seemed like the search for a goalie was back on.
Of course, Reimer wound up being the backbone of the Maple Leafs’ playoff run last season, this time finishing tied for seventh in save percentage at .924. It appeared, once again, that the Leafs’ goalie search was back off again.
Despite Reimer putting together two pretty good non-injured seasons, the Leafs went out and traded for then-Los Angeles back-up Jonathan Bernier. This was an interesting move, and here’s why:
|Career Even-Strength Save Percentage (ESSV%)
2559 saves/2762 shots
1365 saves/1483 shots
That includes this year’s numbers, which isn’t that big of a deal because Reimer (.944) and Bernier (.937) are pretty close. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive how despite playing on a bad team for years, Reimer put up a better career ESSV% than Bernier did playing for Los Angeles.
Here’s a quick graph showing the ESSV% (Even-Strength Save Percentage) of Reimer from 2010-now, and every regular goalie that played for teams with < 45 CorsiFor% for a season since 2007-2008:
The effect is exaggerated in the chart, but Reimer has outperformed both the expected ESSV% for a goalie on a comparable team, and Jonathan Bernier, over the last three-plus years (which includes his brutal 2011-2012 season). Over that stretch, goalies playing on comparable teams to Bernier outperformed him over the last few seasons as well.
Of course, sample sizes here are an issue for Reimer and Bernier. I don’t feel comfortable with projections for most goalies without 2,500 shots for fantasy purposes, and double that total is closer to the sample size needed for observable skill to outweigh luck. All we really have to go with for Bernier are sparse starts over a few seasons and another small sample with the Leafs this year.
All that said, I think it’s fair to say the Maple Leafs will have at least one goaltender that is capable of winning games for them, if not two. In that Hockey Prospectus article linked above, the quote from Detroit GM Ken Holland is:
If you told me I had one of the top five goalies best goalies in the world, I’ll put my money in the goal, but I believe the difference between the 10th and 17th goalie isn’t much.
In other words, one of Reimer and Bernier (hopefully both) just has to be not bad for the Leafs to find some success. Reimer has shown that in flashes, as has Bernier, which is something the Leafs haven’t had in a long time.
Accumulating Points and Comparable Teams
If Reimer has slightly outperformed those teams with bad possession rates in the Behind The Net era, and assuming Bernier can put up similar numbers to Reimer, what’s a realistic floor for points for the Leafs?
Let’s review those poor puck possession teams again:
- 2007-2008 Atlanta Thrashers: 76 points
- 2009-2010 Florida Panthers: 77 points, Colorado Avalanche: 95 points, Edmonton Oilers: 62 points
- 2010-2011 Anaheim Ducks: 99 points
- 2011-2012 Minnesota Wild: 81 points
- 2013* Edmonton Oilers: 77 points, Toronto Maple Leafs: 97 points
*extrapolated for 82 games due to lockout-shortened season
The simple average for these eight teams is 83 points. The Leafs have already accumulated 20 in their first 15 contests. Assuming 95 points is a safe target for playoffs (it may actually be lower), they need 75 points to assure a playoff spot. They are averaging 1.33 points/game played to this point, and to hit the average target points, the Leafs would need to accumulate 63 points in their next 67 games, or 0.94 points/game played. That would be a considerable drop-off, but let’s assume that’s the realistic floor for the next 67 games.
The Leafs need to accumulate 12 (95-83) extra points throughout the course of a season to assure themselves a playoff spot, and it’s pretty safe to say none of those points will be accumulated through outstanding puck possession play, especially given their needs at centre for the next month as well.
How did those other teams accumulate some extra points?
- Colorado (2009-2010), Anaheim (2010-2011), Toronto (2012-2013) all had at least one 35+ save shutout performance from their regular starting goalie. Reimer already has one this year. I’m sure it’s not ideal to rely on a goalie to absolutely steal you at least one game a year, but it is something goaltenders are expected to do once in a while, and Reimer has one, with Bernier more than capable of another.
- Each of those three teams were in the top 12 in goals for/game in their respective seasons: Colorado was sixth (2.89), Anaheim was 11th (2.87), Toronto was sixth (3.02). In part one, I showed how being a top 12 scoring team meant about a 7-in-10 chance of making playoffs. Of the eight teams that had under a 45 CF% since 2007-2008, those three teams were the only ones that were top 12 in scoring, and they all earned a postseason berth. It’s obvious that along the way, those teams were able to pick up a few points by outscoring the other team in (in fact, the Leafs had the third-most games of four-plus goals in a game as a team in 2013 with 19), while the poor possession teams who struggled to score could not (Edmonton was 24th in such games with 12).
So working off our base of 83 points, we can comfortably add five points between a stolen shutout game and a couple of high-scoring affairs. At 88 points, the Leafs would then need to figure out where to find seven more points in order to ensure a playoff spot.
At this point, it’s important to talk about the volatility of shooting percentages, both at the team and at the player level. The best way to do that is with examples of how influential they can be to actual production at both levels.
The 2007-2008 season was one of the greatest seasons we’ve seen from a skater since the ’05 lockout; Ovechkin remains the only player to score 65 goals in a season this millennium. His goal total was a function of two things:
- Ovechkin took 446 shots, the second-highest single season shot total since the lockout (he re-set that record the following season with 528).
- Ovechkin shot a career-high 14.6 percent for the season.
Had Ovechkin shot at his current career rate of 12.2 percent, he would have scored 54 goals. If he had shot at his career-low rate of 8.7 percent like he did in 2010-2011, he would have tallied 39 goals. That’s how much effect shooting percentage can have year to year; the difference between Ovechkin’s best and worst shooting efficiency seasons is the difference between one of the greatest seasons in recent memory and not cracking the 40-goal plateau.
There are different reasons for shooting percentage to drop off: Fewer power play opportunities, change in team philosophy, injuries, line mates, luck. Two things we do know is that shooting percentages have a big effect on personal production, and they are very unpredictable.
The 2009-2010 Washington Capitals
Staying with the Caps, they shot 10.39 percent as a team at five on five in 2009-2010, only one of two teams to do so since 2007-2008 (2013 Maple Leafs). They also took 2011 shots, leading to a league-high 209 5v5 goals for, with the next closest at 178 (Chicago, and they were the only two teams with over 170 five on five goals).
The following season, the regression monster hit and Washington shot 7.55 percent as a team at 5v5, taking 1,811 shots on goal along the way. Had they shot the 10.39 percent that they did as a team the year before, they would have scored 188 goals. Rather, their team shooting percentage dragged them down to 142 goals for, going from first to 20th in one season. That 46 goal difference was part of their (-58) goal differential from year to year, and helped them on their way to six fewer wins (which is actually pretty good, considering the size of the drop-off).
Of course, the volatility of shooting percentage is what can be worrisome about the Leafs.
You’ll notice how much the Capitals dropped off after being the only team to shoot over 10 percent until the 2013 Leafs, who shot 10.56 percent and finished third in goals for at five on five. So far this season, the Leafs are shooting 9.42 percent when it’s five on five, and that would be a good mark if they could maintain it for the year. As of today, they are 12th in goals for this season, which is pretty low until you realize they take the fourth-fewest shots at five on five per game of any team.
In the first two parts I’ve shown how the Leafs fit a comparable mold to a few teams that have made playoffs over the last few years, and how they can start to accumulate points to ensure this postseason berth despite being a poor puck possession team. With their low five on five shot totals and still fairly high shooting percentage, they are walking a very fine wire right now without much margin for error.
The final part of this series will discuss the crutch of the entire season for Toronto—special teams.