I recently glanced at this Leafs Nation piece from Cam Charron, and it occurred to me that, if I’m going to write about analytics and the NHL, there’s basically no avoiding the subject of this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs. In case you’re not familiar with the debate at hand, last year’s Leafs were a hard-hitting, hard-fighting group who managed to end the organization’s long playoff drought, and very nearly eliminated eventual finalist Boston in the first round of the postseason. A closer look at the team’s play in 2013, however, suggests some ominous flaws: Toronto was heavily outshot throughout the season, and appeared to win its games on the back of sterling play from goalie James Reimer and a sky-high team shooting percentage of almost 11%. The implication of this was that the shortened regular season had allowed the Leafs to effectively catch an early streak of hot play, one that made them look better than they actually were. Which would be okay, except that the team has done nothing since the season ended to address its shortcomings, and in some ways may have exacerbated them. Strong possession drivers like Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur will start the coming season elsewhere, while weak two-way player Dave Bolland has come on board.
Not helping the Leafs’ relationship with the statistics folks who write about them is the team’s odd tendency to publicly downplay the importance of shooting metrics. Back in the spring, coach Randy Carlyle dismissed a suggestion that his team going without a shot on goal for 24 minutes was in some way a problem: “Stats are for you guys.” This was followed by similar comments from Joffrey Lupul and Jay McClement in the offseason. Whether this is just bluster and misdirection versus genuine skepticism is anyone’s guess. But hockey websites have given it about the response you’d expect: a lot of the people who do what I do are preparing to tap dance on Toronto’s grave should the Leafs struggle this season.
Dispensing with one thing: if you’ve read my Atlantic Division preview, you already know that I expect Toronto to miss the postseason in 2013-2014. Over an 82-game season, I don’t believe the Leafs have the sheer skill to repeat their shooting performance from last season. And more generally, the recent history of teams that consistently get badly outshot is not a good one. That said, I don’t have nearly the emotional stake in this outcome as some of my peers north of the border: for American hockey fans, the Leafs are mostly just another middle-of-the-pack team that hasn’t won anything in a long time. So I’ll only offer two thoughts on the matter.
First, it’s important to remember that, for pro sports teams in big markets, style doesn’t matter like results do. And for that reason, the 2013-2014 season may not be much of a referendum on shot-based statistics or the perils of ignoring them. If the stats crowd is right and getting outshot matters a lot more than hitting, then Toronto’s 2013-2014 is probably going to be a disaster, and Carlyle and GM Dave Nonis will almost certainly lose their jobs for it. But it doesn’t follow that the team’s failure will be attributed to poor puck possession, even if that’s demonstrably the case. It’s important to remember that sports fans, sports writers, and even teams are very good at telling themselves stories that appear to explain the outcomes they see. If you ran the Leafs and were judging team strategies strictly on results, you might remember Toronto’s disastrous attempts at possession hockey during Ron Wilson’s tenure (disastrous mainly due to the goalies playing behind it), and you likely wouldn’t realize that Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer made Carlyle’s Anaheim 2007 team strong in possession. As such, you might attribute a bad season to any number of reasons other than shot differential. You might tell yourself that Carlyle “lost the locker room”; you might tell yourself that you lacked strong leaders; you might tell yourself that the team didn’t compete hard enough; you might reference the king of lazy sports narratives, a lack of “intangibles”; or you might just blame Carlyle and Nonis and Dion Phaneuf and Reimer and everyone else you can easily cut ties with, and call it a day. As anyone who’s followed a big-market sports team knows, there’s no particular reason to believe you’ll actually dive into the data and offer a reasoned, evidence-based account of your season.
Moreover, it’s not easy to be a patient, analytical sports organization in a town with rabid fans and a prominent media machine. As a Sharks fan, I have no problem explaining how Doug Wilson has been able to build a team in San Jose that leverages data and spends smartly and patiently, without (to date) having a Stanley Cup to show for it. It’s the same reason Billy Beane has been able to run a cutting-edge, forward-thinking team for over a decade in Oakland: the Bay Area is just not a sports-crazed place where the fans are impossible to please and local talking heads see a catastrophe in every loss. By contrast, I lived in Boston a few years ago, and saw the Red Sox organization abandon sabermetrics and throw money foolishly after free agents the moment NESN ratings started to slip. This is the same sort of thinking that led the Yankees to give a 32-year-old Alex Rodriguez a $250M contract: when fans and local media are in a position to sway the opinions of ownership, short-term thinking carries the day. This is possibly the biggest reason for pessimism among Leafs fans. Even if Nonis and Carlyle get the boot, even if their replacements are smart and data-savvy, and even if none of Nonis’s player contracts end up hurting the team long-term, the next regime won’t have long to get better results. Whatever else you might expect, don’t expect patience or long-term thinking to guide the direction of the Maple Leafs.