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.