dion phaneuf

Much to the consternation of the quote-unquote advanced stats community, the Toronto Maple Leafs have repeatedly dismissed the kinds of statistics which state that they’re going to be bad in the very near future, and this is largely due to the fact that they haven’t been given a reason to embrace them.

The Leafs made the playoffs last year, for example, because the season was just 48 games long and their inability to actually possess the puck and generate shot attempts in no way hindered their ability to make the playoffs or push the Bruins far deeper into the first round than anyone outside the Air Canada Centre would have expected. The team rightly saw that brutal collapse against Boston as a stroke of bad luck — and maybe you could say it was a season’s worth of well-earned bad bounces finally going against them in one improbably short period of time — and set about this past summer tinkering with aspects of their team which did not need tinkering.

So it was that the doom-and-gloom nerds who swore up and down that regression was going to pummel them this season got their chance to rub their hands together furiously in anticipation for a season-long period of mayhem brought down by the corsi gods on high. You can’t, they argue, go 48 games at 30th in the league in shot attempt percentage and expect to make the playoffs again and not expect comeuppance.

But then they started the season 10-4-0 and there was significantly chortling out of the ACC’s front offices. They may only be 29th in the league in corsi again, but it’s hard to argue with results, and 20 points from your first 14 games gives them 77 from their previous 62, a pace of nearly 102. Is that vindication that whatever they’ve been doing? Tough to say. If you think playing at a 102-point pace is going to be enough to guarantee them two playoff spots in 130 games played, then probably it is.

The problem for the Leafs, though, is that all the stuff people have been saying about them for the last 10 months or so might finally be catching up with them. They’re winners of just two of the last six games, and one of those wins was no great shakes, coming as it did against the Sabre. Worse, so did one of the losses. The goals have largely dried up too, with only nine from those previous six contests (1.5 per game) after opening the season with 46 in 14 (3.29 per). That’s the kind of thing which corsi has been shown to predict.

Before this little scoring slump, they were shooting 11.7 percent (191 goals on 1,635 shots ) over their previous 62 games. In the last six — which is obviously a very small sample size — it’s at 5.6 percent (nine goals on 161 shots).

The Leafs, for their part, will probably chalk all this up to injuries and suspensions. Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland are both on the IR, and Nazem Kadri is still serving his suspension for elbowing Niklas Backstrom in the face for no reason whatsoever. That’s the team’s top three centers right there, and of course it’s going to be tough to win when all those guys are out. Things are so bad they had to trade for Peter Holland — who to his credit looked pretty good on Saturday night against Buffalo — just as a stopgap.

But a corsi-poor team leaning on the injury excuse to dismiss their offensive problems is something with which devotees have seen before. When the Minnesota Wild were first in the West in early December a few years ago, most who were paying attention pointed out that this was something which could never, ever last. Their corsi rate at the time was hovering at 41.9 percent (and by way of comparison, the Leafs’ right now is actually a little better than that at an even 43 percent). Minnesota fans — and probably the front office — were were baffled by any proclamations that they weren’t going to keep winning all season. They were bereaved by the repeated losses to injury they suffered in the back half, and wrote off the collapse as being that and that alone, rather than that plus the fact that their corsi rate was in the toilet.

The Leafs are likely to find themselves in a similar situation very soon. Kadri’s suspension will be over after tonight’s game with the Islanders. Tyler Bozak said yesterday that he thinks he’ll be back this week. The Bozak news may serve as a bellwether for the Leafs in particular, given how heavily they value his contribution despite the fact that he’s not particularly good at his job. When he comes back, things would, in theory at least, have to go back to some semblance of normalcy, right? So what if the Leafs don’t start filling the net again?

What’s interesting about all this is that the Wild used to swear off the advanced statistics, or at least did not fully embrace them. The story is very different today.

“We do some advanced analysis,” he recently told Elliotte Friedman. “But there wasn’t one or two stats that told us to do this. [Adopting advanced metrics] was recognizing we weren’t going to get better without doing it. … We use what the defense gives us. If there is opportunity to carry the puck, [to] allow our players to use their creativity … wait and find the open spaces, they can do it.”

They used to play dump-and-chase hockey. It led to poor corsi rates. They figured that out. They now enter the zone with the puck. They learned their lesson from history.

People have tried to ascribe a lot of theories about why the Leafs continue to be so bad at holding the puck — including that they intentionally play as though their protecting a lead as a means of boosting their shooting percentage artificially — but statistically this looks like the start of a very strong regression to the mean. Even if this is a minor hiccup, the fact that the passage of time has shown the Maple Leafs are literally the only team in recent NHL history to shoot this successfully suggests that a hard rain is going to fall in the near future.

So the question, then, is whether the Leafs will, like the Wild, determine that maybe the stats people were right all along, and that the way they current play is unsustainable and not going to lead to much success, or simply stay the course and try to ride this out. Given the intransigence they’ve shown on the subject in the past, which has been greater than most of the “watch the games” crowd, I have my guesses.

Comments (29)

  1. All hail the great fortune teller Lambert!!! Tell us Lambert, who is going to win the art ross?? Who wins the Corsi award? Nothing but a bunch of antagonistic bullshit. I’m glad the Score gives you lots of empty space for your “facts”.

    • Why are you so bitter about one persons opinion?

    • Hard to argue the facts my friend…28th in sog…28th sog against….25th faceoffs.
      Also near the top in blocked shots and hits. Hmmm, maybe this Lambert guy is on to something; it’s just a shame there’s too much empty space in your brain to understand it.

      • Yes the empty space in my brain shows that currently the Leafs are 3rd in the conference and tied with Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh with 12 wins. Is that sustainable? Who knows, these stats can “project” what “might” happen but this is real life all the stats in the world can’t predict exactly what will happen next. So to assume that the Leafs will collapse is premature and antagonistic to the entire fan base.

        • Ya! if these so called “advanced” stats can not even predict things with 100% accuracy then they are totally worthless. I mean, who wants to know what will “probably” happen? I want to read wild speculation based upon team truculence and manliness.

      • Cloud09 is going to be one of those people asking “what happened??” after the Leafs’ collapse.

  2. Confirmation bias to the max! Wooooo!

    *fart noise*

    • Not really, considering this happening has been predicted since last season.

      • Predicted what? That injuries to key players hurt the ability to win? Wonderful stuff as usual.

        Just go back to last year to read Lambert argue (when OV wasn’t scoring) that such a decline was inevitable, given his age. Then silence when he started to score again

    • Do you know what confirmation bias means? Predicting something before the season and then it starting to happen isn’t confirmation bias.

      • Yes, but when a team (A) loses it’s top three players at centre and (B) starts losing game and you don’t think that A is the major cause of B, something is weird there.

      • I do know what it means. Lambert indicates that the Leafs are falling victim to the advanced statistics regression that all the idiots, who wouldn’t have an opinion on hockey without the help of a calculator, have predicted.

        “The problem for the Leafs, though, is that all the stuff people have been saying about them for the last 10 months or so might finally be catching up with them.”

        He fails to explain how difficult it would be for any team to sustain success while having their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd line centres gone. Boston, for example, would be screwed without Bergeron, Krejci and Kelly off their team.

        That’s called confirmation bias, Steve. He’s clearly hoping they do regress and that the issues around that are based on regression to the mean.

        The Leafs are a very good team.

        Excellent Power Play. Excellent Penalty Kill. Excellent Goaltending. Excellent scoring depth. Those are the marks of very good and elite teams.

        The fact that the Leafs don’t fire meaningless shots on net all night long doesn’t mean they are going to start losing games hand over first.

        The Leafs score almost all their goals off the rush, and none off the cycle, but you already knew that.

        • Man you are delusional.

          And just FYI, most advanced stats “nerds” probably watch more hockey than you do.

        • Direct quote form article:

          “The Leafs, for their part, will probably chalk all this up to injuries and suspensions. Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland are both on the IR, and Nazem Kadri is still serving his suspension for elbowing Niklas Backstrom in the face for no reason whatsoever. That’s the team’s top three centers right there, and of course it’s going to be tough to win when all those guys are out. Things are so bad they had to trade for Peter Holland — who to his credit looked pretty good on Saturday night against Buffalo — just as a stopgap.”

          So there. He acknowledges the fact taheir top 3 C are msising and this makes it harder to win. Then he proceeds to give an axample to what happened to a team that had the same kinda “hot” start and then the same “bad luck”.

          Now lets quote your quote:

          ““The problem for the Leafs, though, is that all the stuff people have been saying about them for the last 10 months or so might finally be catching up with them.”

          MIGHT. See, he’s not sure. That’s what might means. “not certain, but in my opinion likely”.

          On top of that, no advanced statistics “nerd”, “geek”, “wonderful person”, “smart ass”, “couch potato”, “choose your favorite description” claims that these stats predict the future. THey state very clearly, time and again that it shows trends and probabilities. So again, they know that they don’t predict the future. You’re kicking in doors that are so open you actually break the floor.

          Have fun fixing it.

  3. It appears they’ve learned good goaltending is necessary for success when getting outshot. See Bernier, Jonathan.

  4. Leafs fan…Corsi’s a pretty useful stat, albeit it’s just one. The only caveat is that the two things that tend to help teams get around bad Corsi are excellent special teams and excellent goaltending, and the Leafs have had a bit of both through the last season and this one. Still, it’s hard to think we can survive getting swamped this badly most nights.

  5. Hoo-boy, you used “their” when you meant “they’re” your entire opinion is invalid.

  6. Lambert isn’t alone in his theory about the Leafs. Mirtle has been saying the same thing since last year. The only thing Lambert didn’t cover is Bernier and Reimer’s exceptional (and unsustainable) save percentages.

    • Truth. It really is a double edged sword when you factor in how lucky (I mean good) the goalies have been. Leafs fans who can’t see some logic in what’s being said here are the equivelant of a 4 year old covering their ears yelling “la la la la la la la la”.

  7. **The following comments include “extreme” examples, but the logic is the same – people using small sample sizes to overule, data, logic, and/or science

    The logic behind “Leafs are outshot and are still winning” corsi argument is basically the same as claiming global warming is a hoax cause we’ve had an extremely cold winter, or claiming cigarettes aren’t bad cause some relative smoked all their life and never had any health issues.

    If you keep smoking, you’ll likely have health problems
    if we keep polluting, we’ll likely have flood/weather problems
    if the Leafs are constantly outshot, they’ll likely have more losses than wins.

  8. Truculence beats stupid numbers every time……….JK.

  9. I read the title and thought to myself, hmm another advanced stats article on the Leafs. I expected a regurgitated article that basically says nothing different than what has been written about the Leafs for the previous 2 years, and I was not disappointed. Then I saw Lameberts name at the top and it all made sense to me. Lots of negativity but little substance once again from this guy. Truth is the Leafs will be fine. We are seeing now how valuable Bozak is to this team as they have gone cold without him. Once he and Kadri are back the Leafs will get things going again. I want to know if the analytics guys who continually count out the Leafs will admit their folly when Toronto is too three in their division? Will they admit what hockey people have been trying to tell them, and realize how much they overrate corsi, people etc.?

    • People seem to think the Leafs will “prove” they can buck the trend after just 60 or 70 games. It doesn’t work like that. It takes longer for the team to be a good counterexample—we’ve seen teams like the 07-08 Habs and Pens pull this off for entire seasons.

  10. I agree with this article. Leafs fans get high and mighty about a good early start to the season. Toronto has got to be one of the hardest cities to play in just based on the fan base. Things go well off the start of the regular season, they still manage to put up wins and wins are what counts in professional sports but that being said, the way they are getting wins aren’t earned through dominating possession and shot count. Sure, the leafs have good shooters and point grabbers like kessel, lupul, jvr, kadri, bozak etc. But I don’t think they can rely on favourable shooting percentages all season long. There will be stretches of the season where their scorers are struggling to find the twine (it happens to everyone) no one plays at a consistent pace over 82 games and that is what advanced stats have proved. That’s where the fan base and media kick in. When the leafs are losing the fans and media tear them to shreds, it has to be at least a minor factor in how they perform. I can’t imagine it being too encouraging to play when your getting boo’d in your own barn like they have in past. So, right now if the leafs are managing to pull out wins while being out-shot and out-possessed the majority of their games played, advanced stats predict that they can’t manage to keep winning like this all season long. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the leafs are healthy again. I think it’ll be a similar case to the minnesota wild a couple seasons back.

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