With last night’s 7-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Maple Leafs move to 13-3-2 on the season and sit atop the National Hockey League in PTS with 28 and 2nd place in PTS% with 0.778 behind the Florida Panthers who have a 0.786 PTS%. This has been the Leafs’ best 18-game start to a season since the 1934-35 season where that squad led by Charlie Conacher started 15-2-1 and would go on to lose to the Montreal Maroons in the Stanley Cup Finals.Just over a month ago I tried my best to answer the age-old question of “Who are these Toronto Maple Leafs?” even though it was just after their 3rd game of the season with a 3-2 win over Ottawa. Fast forward 34 days and the Leafs have played 15 more games crossing the quarter-mark of this 56-game season and that leaves us with an opportune time to evaluate this team from both an eye test perspective and a statistical perspective.
On the first episode of The Leaf: Blueprint (produced by the club and can be viewed on all of their social media platforms), Sheldon Keefe is speaking during a team meeting and he is focussing on showing the players “Stanley Cup Habits” and is quoted directly saying “We are coaching… EFFORT”. This episode aired on the first day of the season and it has resonated with me ever since. Those who know me well, know that I love the dramatization that is involved in sports movies and conveniently enough, Amazon Prime Video is doing a documentary on the team during this season so I am sure more of Keefe’s speeches will stand out to me also. The reason why Keefe’s words resonate with me so profoundly is because I truly believe that this team cannot be successful unless they are all striving to achieve one goal. Pretty standard strategy right? YES! However, what some people fail to realize is that if the way to achieve that goal isn’t communicated properly, it will not resonate with the group… and once that happens, you have already lost the season. So when Keefe talks about these habits that can lead to a Stanley Cup, I could only assume that meant if we see a tremendous difference in the way this team played…the players got the message loud and clear.
With that being said, I see a ton of differences in the Leafs play on a shift-by-shift basis thus far but if I had to group those intricacies into one overarching statement it would be “They played with purpose tonight”. I find myself telling all my friends and family that same sentence in every Leafs groupchat I am a part of. There is a certain mentality about this Leafs team that comes to the surface as a fan watching on T.V. that makes me feel like this team is different than any version of the Leafs we have seen before and are capable of doing the one thing that we as a fan base have craved for so long.
Keefe seems to have a game plan for each line to execute on every shift they have and it just feels like there is always a method to the madness when you see each line hop over the boards. The veterans they have brought in bring a tremendous energy to the group and that comes to the forefront with their energy every night, even with the detractor of having no fans in the stands to amplify the intensity. It almost seems like the weight of a mountain has been lifted off the shoulders of this team, which I attribute to the long list of strong characters that were added to the locker room. It was well-known that the Leafs bench has been one of the quietest during games for a few seasons now but that all seemed to change with the addition of players like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Zach Bogosian. As talented as our young stars are, I believe it became an often occurrence for them these past few years to fade away in a game if things were not working for them early. It simply isn’t possible for a player of any ilk to let a shift pass them by when you have personalities like Thornton and Simmonds on your bench. So not only are those veterans bringing their very best to contribute on the ice, I strongly believe they are bringing the best out of the returning players this team has.
As positive as their record looks, the numbers seem to tell a slightly different story. Let’s take a look at where the Maple Leafs stack up at 5v5 in their own division:
|Metric||Value||Place in Division|
To start off we are looking at Corsi For Percentage (CF%) and Fenwick For Percentage (FF%). These two stats essentially represent shot attempt control for a team, and the idealistic range should be above 50% for both. The Leafs sitting at 5th and 4th in the division respectively for the two key metrics of shot attempts is concerning to me. From the beginning of the 2018-19 season until the end of last season, the Maple Leafs ranked 8th in CF% (51.86%) and 14th in FF% (50.61%) across the entire NHL. It should definitely raise concerns as to why this team has controlled 3.33% and 1.75% less of the shot attempts in the games that they have played.
Moving on to their Expected Goal For Percentage (xGF%), this stat takes into consideration shot location and is basically a more situationally detailed metric of what shots are more or less likely to be goals. The percentage conversion of this stat should be interpreted as, are the Leafs generating enough theoretical goals than their opponent. In this case, we’d also like them to be as high above 50% as possible. Ranking 3rd in this statistic and comparing it to the clubs actual GF% of 59.72% could indicate that there is some regression coming possibly tied to the teams shooting percentage. This isn’t necessarily a huge cause for concern seeing as the Leafs shooting talent is well above the rest of the division, but this could come into play if the Leafs were to go on a long run in the playoffs.
Lastly, the Maple Leafs rank 3rd in the division in Save Percentage (SV%) and 1st in PDO. The club’s SV% is quite self-explanatory but their PDO is something that might need some context. Essentially this stat adds a team’s Shooting Percentage (S%) and their Save Percentage (SV%) and uses the value of 100 as their target point that teams will usually regress to over time. So if you have a PDO of above 100 like the Leafs, Flames and Canadiens… theoretically speaking your PDO will go down back towards 100. It is a stat I like to call the “Luck Stat” because mathematically speaking, every shot on net is either a goal or a save in every hockey game ever played which in turn leads us back to that special number of 100 that teams will likely move towards. However, this doesn’t mean that the Leafs cannot be successful riding a high PDO… recent Stanley Cup Champions like the Lightning and the Capitals are ranked 1st and 2nd in PDO from the 2017-18 to 2019-20 season.
Overall, the main takeaway should be as always… don’t get too ahead of yourself as a fan because the real work is done in the playoffs. I will never tell someone to not enjoy a win, especially when your team is winning as much as these Leafs. All I am saying is to be mindful of the underlying metrics, and know that there is still a lot of time for this team to hit their full stride.