It has only been 15 games, and you want to be careful to not draw too many conclusions from less than 20 per cent of a season.
But it’s also fair to say that we’ve seen enough of the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs that we can at least make some early judgments as to what exactly this team is and how it’s changed from a year ago.
We know they’re 10-5-0 but are they a better team than a year ago? And, if so, in which areas?
After practice earlier this week, coming off of an ugly loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday that resulted in a bit of a bag skate on Monday, Leafs alternate captain Joffrey Lupul offered a solid summation of how his team has played so far.
“We haven’t played exactly the way we wanted to,” he said. “But again we’re 10-5. If you go in probably any locker room in the NHL after 15 games, everyone’s going to say there’s still lots of things we can work on.
“It’s early. We’re in a good spot. There’s a lot of things we have to work on, but that’s like every team… We’ve got to take what positives are there: The goaltending’s been great, special teams have been great. Our 5-on-5 play could use a lot more consistency, but we’re going to work on it and we’ll get better.”
What follows is detailed look at how Toronto’s results this year compare to last season, breaking their game down by situation and using a few of hockey’s newer stats (via extraskater.com) to do so.
(The goals and shots statistics here are per 60 minutes of play in that situation. Penalties stats are per game. Possession rating is Fenwick Close at even strength and Fenwick on special teams while PDO is simply the combination of shooting and save percentage. For an explanation of those, see here.)
By the numbers: Power play (5-on-4)
Shot attempts for
The Leafs play with the man advantage has been one of the more subtle positives on their season.
While the personnel on the first unit remains essentially unchanged, they have been generating more shots on goal and more zone time than a year ago, a big reason why they’ve converted on an impressive 23.5 per cent of their power plays.
Cody Franson being on the top unit right from the start of the season has been part of that, as he has seven of his nine points on the power play and is showing strong chemistry with Dion Phaneuf and Co. there.
Toronto’s second unit – which is a different group of players almost entirely – has also been more dangerous than last year, with Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond all chipping in. Rookie Morgan Rielly also seems to be more dynamic on the point than the veterans they used a year ago (John-Michael Liles and Mike Kostka).
The units have changed due to some of the injuries up front lately, but Kadri in place of Tyler Bozak shouldn’t hurt these numbers substantially. With two big shots from the point and their finishing ability up front, the Leafs definitely have the makings of one of the better PP units in the NHL.
By the numbers: Penalty kill (4-on-5)
Shot attempts against
The news isn’t quite as good on the penalty kill.
Led by workhorse centre Jay McClement, who was first among all NHL players in shorthanded minutes played last season, Toronto was an elite team at preventing shots against while shorthanded and was also fairly disciplined.
Combined with good goaltending, that allowed them to post an excellent 87.9 per cent kill rate that was second to only Ottawa.
This year, the Leafs have been taking more penalties and spending a lot more of them in their own zone. It’s been noticeably less common that they have been able to win a draw, clear the puck and kill the clock.
Part of this is simply personnel, as Nikolai Kulemin and Mark Fraser have barely played due to injury and they were 1-2 in terms of shot suppression on the PK last season. (The Leafs also seem to be missing Leo Komarov in this department as well.)
The other side of this could be fatigue. McClement and Phaneuf are both up about a minute a game while shorthanded and are ranked in the top five in the league in total PK minutes played.
We’re not dealing with a huge sample size here, but it’s worth pointing out that the Leafs strong overall penalty kill numbers have been in large part thanks to their goaltending. James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier can’t stop 93 per cent of the power-play shots they face all season (90 per cent is considered elite and 87.5 per cent league average) so it’ll fall to the return of Fraser and Kulemin and the team taking fewer penalties to help stabilize these units.
By the numbers: 5-on-5 play
By the numbers: All situations
Good special teams are nice, but 80 per cent of games this season have been played at even strength, and as Lupul noted, that’s where the Leafs need the biggest improvement.
Other than impressive numbers in the percentages categories, which can often be hard to maintain at that high a level over 82 games, there are some serious red flags here. Shot differential has been talked about ad nauseam with this team, and while it’s not everything, the possession metrics correlate higher with winning over the long haul than most of the statistics we use to evaluate teams.
(Not having the puck enough may also explain why Toronto has been shorthanded so often.)
Not only are the Leafs giving up more shots against than last year’s 30th place performance, they’re generating fewer than a year ago, despite additions like Dave Bolland and Raymond and better health for Lupul and Jake Gardiner.
Toronto’s even strength scoring is also down nearly 15 per cent, which wasn’t unexpected given their shooting percentage last season, and they’ve been helped by a big time boost in save percentage from their two goalies.
If Reimer and Bernier continue to be this solid, the Leafs possession problems aren’t fatal, but it does put a lot of pressure on those two to win games night after night. That 41.2 per cent possession figure is so low that only one NHL team in the last six seasons has fallen that far (the 2007-08 Atlanta Thrashers) and it’s hard to imagine Toronto stays that low, even with the injuries.
(The tough news is that Bolland, now out with an ankle injury for a long period of time, has actually been Toronto’s top possession player this year.)
The Leafs biggest problem areas at even strength have been their inability to break out of their own end with any authority, their lack of any kind of cycle game and really poor starts on many recent nights.
And they haven’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“We can play smarter, that’s for sure,” Randy Carlyle said this week. “That’s really what we’re trying to focus on. We’re doing some things where we’re really not giving ourselves the best chance. Some of the things that have crept into our game and have become more the norm than abnorm. That’s our job as a coaching staff to eliminate those things.”
So are the Leafs better than a year ago? Well, they have been on the power play and in goal. But the penalty kill has taken a small step back and the pressing issues at even strength are even more significant.