Teams Fall Apart: Looking Back at the Toronto Maple Leafs

As the 2013-14 NHL season has wound down, I’ve been looking back at the seasons of the unfortunate teams eliminated from playoff contention; so far, we’ve looked at Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton, the Jets, Isles and Flames, and Vancouver. Today, I’m going to light up a cigar, pour out a celebratory glass of 16-year-old Scotch, and look back at the season of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were eliminated Tuesday night.

Photo credit: Flickr user Dan Perry. Use of this image does not imply endorsement.

Good thing the Leafs don’t play in the CHL. The CORSI hockey league. They’re doing just fine in the NHL, though.
- Steve Simmons, via Twitter, October 13, 2013

Corsi crowd now thoroughly deflated. Predictions of impending doom not even close. Abacus needs sharpening.
- Damien Cox, via Twitter, February 8, 2014

In telling the story of the 2013-14 Maple Leafs, I’m honestly not sure how far back to go to find the beginning. Given that I was writing about this team in the offseason, it doesn’t feel like it began on Opening Night. For some, the problems that led to this team’s elimination began on April 20th of last season, when the Leafs clinched their first playoff berth since 2004 (unsurprisingly, they needed a 49-save performance from James Reimer to win the game). Some would even tell you it began on March 3, 2012, when a faltering Toronto team fired Ron Wilson and hired Randy Carlyle as head coach, or on January 9, 2013, when Dave Nonis was given the Leafs’ GM post. Under Wilson, Toronto was (generally speaking) a fundamentally sound squad undone by the spectacularly poor goaltending of guys like Vesa Toskala, J.S. Giguere, and Jonas Gustavsson. Carlyle’s arrival, however, coincided with the emergence of James Reimer as an excellent starting goalie, and the team’s playoff appearance and seven-game series versus eventual finalist Boston validated the work of the Carlyle-Nonis regime in the eyes of many observers.

Still, skeptics in the hockey analytics community weren’t convinced that Toronto’s resurgence was genuine. The 2012-13 Leafs, after all, were an abysmal defensive team, allowing more even-strength shots against than any team in the NHL, and their 43.8% Fenwick Close suggested a squad that struggled terribly to drive possession. The secret to their success last season appeared to be a combination of stratospheric 10.6% even-strength shooting, strong goaltending from Reimer and Ben Scrivens, and a surprisingly effective penalty kill. As such, many analysts took the view (see here, here and here) that Toronto had essentially gotten lucky in the shortened season, riding unsustainably hot shooting and solid but unproven goaltending to a result that didn’t reflect their underlying quality. Of course, supporters of Nonis and Carlyle didn’t share this opinion, and the offseason was filled with spirited debate as the GM doubled down on Carlyle’s approach in his personnel moves. A trade and a new contract brought in a presumptive replacement starting goalie in Jonathan Bernier; Mikhail Grabovski, the team’s best center, was bought out, and a strong possession player in Clarke MacArthur left in free agency; Tyler Bozak was given a lucrative extension; third-line center Dave Bolland arrived from Chicago; and New Jersey’s David Clarkson was signed to a massive free-agent contract.

What played out between Opening Night and Tuesday felt like a soap opera for anyone closely following the NHL season. In October, the Leafs roared out of the gate, with ten wins in their first 14 games. True to form, this early success arose from scorching shooting luck (10% at even strength) and 0.941 play from Bernier and Reimer; their Fenwick Close in these games was just 41.4%. This stretch of games included a 4-1 victory over Minnesota in which they were outshot 37-14, and a 4-0 victory in which they surrendered 43 shots to a weak Oilers team. This, of course, inspired the infamous Tweet above from the Toronto Sun‘s Steve Simmons, and a lot of debate about shot quality and team systems, but ominous signs were emerging already. Toronto’s 9th game was a 3-1 loss in which they were dominated from start to finish by Chicago, and a 4-0 loss in Vancouver on November 2 saw them similarly hemmed in their own zone for much of the game. That Canucks game would prove to be the start of a long slide.

Over the Leafs’ next 32 games, they won just 11 times, with seven of those victories coming in shootouts. Their possession numbers during this stretch from November through January 12 were still abysmal (43% Fenwick Close), but their shooting cooled to 7.4% at even strength and they saw a dip in goaltending (0.926 at 5-on-5). The loss to Vancouver was just one of many ugly games for Toronto this winter. In late November they were blown out 6-0 at home by Columbus, and followed that with a shootout loss in Pittsburgh in which they blew a two-goal lead and were held without a shot for the final 25 minutes of the contest. On December 12, they were outshot 16-7 in the first period by St. Louis, and by the 29-second mark of the 2nd they were down 4-0. In early January, they were torched 7-1 at home by a Rangers squad that had played and traveled the night before. Five days later they lost a 6-1 contest to Carolina.

Then, just when it looked like the bottom was falling out, the Leafs started winning again. Starting on January 12 against New Jersey, Toronto reeled off six straight victories, and would win 15 times in the 22 games between then and March 13. In those 22 games, their Fenwick Close dipped to a scarcely-believable 40.6%, and their goaltending was largely unchanged (0.926). The reason for their success would not have surprised people who’d watched them last season; in those games, the Leafs shot 10.1% at even strength. On March 13, the Maple Leafs won 3-2 in Los Angeles despite being outshot 41-29, taking four of six possible points on a tough trip through California. At that point, they were in second place in the Atlantic Division and, with 14 games remaining, had an estimated 89% probability of making the playoffs.

If you’ve been following this team, you know what happened next: Montreal, Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Columbus all began to win, and Toronto went on an 8-game slide that put them in 10th place in the East. Wins over Calgary and Boston gave the fan base hope that they could hang on for a wild card, but a disappointing performance against Winnipeg over the weekend (in which they were outshot 41-25) and Tampa Bay on Tuesday (in which they were outshot while trailing 2-0 in the third period, despite their season being on the line) sealed their fate. Over those last 12 games, everything about Toronto’s game fell apart, from their 39.1% Fenwick Close to 0.909 goaltending to shooting 7.2%.

A couple of notes about statistics and this season’s Leafs:

  • This season should put to rest Randy Carlyle’s reputation as a coach of sound defensive hockey. As discussed in this post from Adam Gretz (and by Leafs blogger Steve Burtch throughout the season), Leafs fans were treated to the wrong sort of history this season. Carlyle’s squad should end up surrendering about 2,900 shots on goal this season, which would make them the sixth-worst defensive team since the NHL began tracking shot numbers. This puts Toronto in the company of teams in expansion years, and of some of the worst teams in NHL history.
  • PDO (the sum of a team’s even strength shooting and save percentages) is commonly used as shorthand for how lucky a team is, but the important thing to remember about it is that, while it’s not very predictive of future wins, it is strongly correlated with a team’s position in the standings. Even with the late-season regression in their Sh% and Sv%, Toronto still has the fourth-highest PDO in the NHL. That a team with 8.6% shooting and strong goaltending couldn’t make the postseason is as damning an indictment as any of their hockey fundamentals. If the Leafs had been even mediocre as a possession team, they almost certainly would have made the playoffs with a 1012 PDO.
  • With the Leafs out of the playoffs, their even-strength Sh% a full two percentage points lower than last season’s, and their defensive game a mess, it’s probably fair to declare that the analytics community was right about this year’s Leafs, and their detractors were wrong.

One imagines this will be an interesting offseason in Leafs Nation. The contract to Clarkson looks to be an unmitigated disaster – his $5.25M cap hit has bought just 5 goals and 11 points this season, and there are six more years on the deal – and extensions to Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf will leave Toronto with limited flexibility to improve their squad. The Clarkson deal is just one of many problem contracts on Toronto’s books: oft-injured Joffrey Lupul will make $5.25M for four more seasons, and Tyler Bozak will be an overpaid center at $4.2M for the same length of time. The Leafs are also on the hook for two more years of Tim Gleason’s $4M cap hit. This puts the Leafs in the worst position an NHL team can be in: tight against the salary cap, yet still nowhere near good enough to contend for a Stanley Cup. This isn’t to say that there aren’t positives to their roster: Kessel is one of the league’s true elite scorers, and James van Riemsdyk may be nearing the same stature; Bernier performed splendidly in Toronto’s goal alongside Reimer; Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly look to be superb puck-moving defensemen; and the much-maligned Phaneuf remains a strong offensive force. Still, while it’s easy to imagine a smart coach getting better results out of the existing lineup than Carlyle did, it’s not clear that ownership and Nonis are ready to blame him for the team’s defensive woes or their late-season collapse. Reimer is almost certain to request a trade, and Phaneuf may take a large share of the blame for the team’s play. But otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the status quo in Toronto largely in place next October.

About Nick Emptage

Nicholas Emptage is the blogger behind puckprediction.com. He is an economist by trade and a Sharks fan by choice.
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