The Toronto Maple Leafs are not Stanley Cup Contenders, Part 3

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf
Nov 8 2013 Toronto Ontario CAN Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf 3 and goaltender Jonathan Bernier 45 celebrate a win over the New Jersey Devils at the Air Canada Centre Toronto defeated New Jersey 2 1 in an overtime shoot out John E Sokolowski USA TODAY Sports

Add another win to the list.

With a 2-1 shootout win on November 8, and regulation loss to the Bruins on November 9, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in second place in the Eastern Conference, tied with Detroit. That gave the Leafs a 56.9 percent winning percentage since the start of the lockout-shortened season, pretty much laughing in the face of analytics all the while.

For those that may have missed the earlier parts, a few points:

  • In Part 1, I looked at puck possession, playoff rates and what drives team win rates. Puck possession is the most repeatable team skill in hockey, and it’s the best predictor of success. The Leafs are terrible at it, yet it doesn’t seem to matter.
  • In Part 2, I looked at the Leafs’ historical and current goaltending situations, what a baseline rate would be for similar teams to the Leafs over the last couple of years, and how shooting percentages is at the root of all of this. I also looked at how the Leafs can pick up extra points along the way which would enable them to get towards the playoffs.

All this would be insignificant if it weren’t for one more thing that is making all the difference in the world for Toronto’s win rates: Special teams.

Power Play

In Part 1, I showed the work by Cam Charron that explains how puck possession is the most important predictor of future success. The correlation between FenwickClose and winning is more than twice as strong as the correlation between goal differential and winning. It doesn’t mean goal differential can’t win games consistently, it obviously does, but you’re then relying on a luck-driven event (goals).

It’s obvious that having a successful power play is crucial to the success of the Leafs. You look at Toronto’s roster composition – highly-skilled wingers, a couple puck-moving defensemen and the howitzer of Dion Phaneuf – and it’s fair to assume this was intentional in the part of the Leafs front office, both past and present. If there was ever an argument to be made about situations where quality matters, certainly the power play would be one of them. And the Leafs are making that argument:

  • In 2011-2012, the Leafs drew the 17th-most penalties at 267 for the season. However, because of their efficiency (18.4 percent, 10th), they finished tied for eigth in total power play goals scored at 49.
  • In the lockout-shortened season, the Leafs drew the 10th-most penalties, 166 in 48 games. With an 18.7 percent efficiency which placed them 14th in the league, they finished tied for ninth in PP goals scored with 31. What the Leafs did with their power is what goal scorers could do to mitigate goal scoring slumps; Toronto ended up drawing more penalties (taking more shots) to make up for a drop in efficiency (Toronto’s dropped relative to the league, despite going up relative to the year before), and it landed them in the top 10 in PP goals scored again.
  • So far this year, the Leafs are middling again in power play opportunities (tied for 16th with 60 PP opportunities) but their excellent efficiency of 21.7 percent means they are tied for 8th in PP goals scored with 13.

To help create a goal differential over the average team over the last two-plus seasons, the Leafs have relied in part on the power play. If they feel they have the scorers to make up for a lack of possession, naturally they’d extend this line of thinking to the power play. And it’s worked; relative to median teams in power play goals scored since the start of 2011, the Leafs have out-scored those opponents by a little more than six power play goals per 82 game season. Those six extra goals translate to roughly one added win to the team. It’s not a lot, but remember back to Part 2: The Leafs’ team target should be 95 points to assure them a playoff spot. Up to this point, our hypothetical accumulation is 88. Just one added win brings them to a total of 90. To assure themselves a playoff spot, they need five more points.

Penalty Killing

For a several years in a row, Toronto had been one of the worst penalty killing teams in the NHL; from 2006-2012, the Leafs never finished higher than 27th in the NHL in penalty killing efficiency. One thing they eventually got good at was not taking penalties; from 2008-2012, the Leafs finished in the bottom-third of the league every year in times short-handed. Of course, when you’re so awful on the power play, the amount of times shorthanded ends up not mattering much; despite the Leafs taking so few penalties, they finished in the top six for most power play goals allowed every year from 2005-2012. Every. Single. Year.

Then Randy Carlyle was hired as head coach, and the turn-around since has been phenomenal.

After that stretch of several terrible penalty killing seasons, the Leafs finished second in penalty kill efficiency at 87.9 percent. Again with their usual limitation on opportunities – the Leafs were 18th in times shorthanded – Toronto finished second in short-handed goals allowed with 19.

So far this year, the Leafs are taking more penalties (seventh with 68 times shorthanded) but the efficiency remains stout at 83.8 percent, good for 13th in the NHL. They are allowing an average amount of power play goals, but if they start taking fewer penalties, the goals against should come down.

In their last 65 games played, the Leafs penalty kill has saved the team about 11 goals from the median team. From the Goals Per Win statistic linked in the article earlier, we know it’s about six goals for a team win. Thus, the penalty kill of the Leafs has added at least three, if not four points to their team totals in the last 64 games. It is safe to assume they add four points in an 82 game season.

One way to create a positive goal differential is the penalty kill, and in combination with the power play, the Leafs should be able to add three wins to their team totals with their special teams, or six points. From Part 2, we know we can comfortably add five points above an average poor possession team’s point totals through goaltending and goal scoring, and now six more with special teams. With goaltending, high-percentage shooters and elite special teams, the Leafs should be able to get to 94 points this year. That’s short of the goal I set of 95, but should still be good enough for at least one of the wild card playoff spots.

Luck, Special Teams and Playoff Success of Poor Possession Teams

Of course, all this and I have to remind everyone goals are still lucky events. That is why the correlation for puck possession is so important; possession isn’t nearly as luck-driven, it’s repeatable, and the correlation is very strong.

However, with analytics really still in their infancy, and their eschewing in some circles in other sports, it’s not crazy to think there are old-school thinkers running hockey teams. Brian Burke, former general manager of the Leafs and current President for Hockey Operations in Calgary, is proof of that.

So here we are. The roster composition of the Leafs, the nature of those in control of the team, the obvious focus in certain areas of the game that analytics people say is futile and a team tied for the lead atop the Eastern Conference a year after earning a playoff spot. It’s quite a team.

We’ve already seen the regression in action: Toronto is shooting about 8.7 percent at five on five this year, down 2.0 percent already from last year. This has led to them going from third in goals for per 60 minutes with 2.75 last year to 18th with 2.18 this year. Of course, they’ve been able to sustain themselves despite this downturn because the special teams remain top 10 and goaltending has been phenomenal. There they are, laughing at everyone else, because even though they haven’t been good at even strength, the couple of hot goaltenders and good special teams has made up the difference. There’s also a 6-5 win mixed in there, too.

Of course they have a good chance at making playoffs after this start. Even with a shooting percentage regression, they are excelling in enough areas that they can stay afloat in an Eastern Conference that has a terrible bottom half of teams. Could they crash back down? Sure. But this isn’t the 2011-2012 Wild, who started off the season hot and then missed the playoffs; that Minnesota team had a terrible power play, an average penalty kill, and Dany Heatley led their forwards in even strength ice time per game with Kyle Brodziak coming in third. The Leafs are very good on both the PP and PK and they have the likes of Kessel, Lupul, van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Phaneuf and Gardiner. Toronto might be bad five on five, but they might be good enough everywhere else to at least be average the rest of the season.

Finally, we have to think about their playoff outlook. Here’s the thing: the Leafs didn’t get many penalty calls last year. Their opportunities/game meant about a half a power play less per game, which over the course of a series, is at least three fewer power play opportunities than they would have expected. Their opportunities playing a strong possession team were few, and even though they should have probably won that series, they still lost after going into a defensive shell in that third period of game seven.

Not one terribly poor possession team that has made the playoffs – the 2012 Wild, the 2011 Ducks, the 2010 Canadiens – has made the Stanley Cup Finals, and this visual guide shows you that almost no team with poor possession rates succeeds in the postseason. Eventually, shooting percentages go quiet for a stretch, a team doesn’t get as many calls, something happens that they can’t score at the rate they’re used to. When that something does happen, they get bounced – unless you have a goalie like Halak stand on his head for 18 games like in 2010 for Montréal – and we’re back to square one.

Can the Leafs make the playoffs? Absolutely.

Will they find some success in the playoffs? Maybe.

Are they Cup contenders? Not a chance.

And that’s not the intention here. This is the biggest franchise in hockey, any postseason action brings in millions of dollars. Even if they knew the team wasn’t good enough for a Cup run, they will still be raking in postseason profits. There are supposedly 1,000 people in this crowd for a first round game, and they’re not even at home:

So they’re doing their duty to the shareholders and employees: Pockets are getting lined, players are getting paid.

It’s an exciting team, and one that sooner or later will fall down the standings. Not to the point of missing the playoffs, but that’s missing the point: This team will win enough games to drum up enough interest in a hockey-crazed town for the most popular hockey franchise that millions of dollars will be made by everyone that’s not a spectator.

It’ll be fun to watch, nonetheless.

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