The players looked dumbfounded.
Some even admitted they had played that way, too, in what became a 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues that was far more lopsided than the scoreboard let on.
And after losing their sixth game in a row in regulation, the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff hopes are on life support.
“Today we came out tentative,” Leafs veteran Joffrey Lupul said afterward, an understatement given Toronto was outshot 23-7 in the opening period. “And it could be that fear of it slipping away a little bit. But realistically we’re still right there with these other teams. There’s reason for concern, but it’s not completely time to panic. We’re still right there.”
Technically speaking, where they are is 10th in the Eastern Conference, tied with three other teams with 80 points.
The tie is a little deceiving, however, as all three of Columbus, Detroit and Washington have games in hand and all but the Capitals hold the key end-of-season tiebreaker of regulation/overtime wins.
According to probability website sportsclubstats.com, the Leafs chances of qualifying for the postseason are down to under 25 per cent, with a 5-2-1 record the rest of the way needed to give them a better than 50 per cent shot at qualifying.
More than where they are, it’s how the Leafs got to this point that should be the most concerning. Prior to the six-game slide, which has brought the team’s foibles into clearer view, Toronto’s record was really a house of cards.
Why that is comes down to some fundamental truths about the game of hockey that are getting more and more attention these days.
There has been some great analytical work done online the past few years on the NHL and what constitutes a winning team in the league, much of which was popularized by a statistician named Gabriel Desjardins, a Winnipegger who now lives and works in Silicon Valley.
Roughly 38 per cent of winning, Desjardins wrote, can be attributed to luck. Another 37 per cent is due to puck possession, which has become the primary, quantifiable focal point for much of the work in analytics in hockey these days.
The remaining 25 per cent is everything else: special teams, shooting ability, goaltending – you name it.
That’s a highly simplified version of his work – which is all available on the web in various locations – but the way it applies to the Leafs is obvious if you watched them try to take on the Blues, who are currently the best team in the league.
Toronto has a massive 37 per cent hole in its game, with the second weakest possession rating in the league at less than 42 per cent, and it showed starkly in Tuesday’s game.
Against the Blues, the Leafs puck possession number when the score was close was 20 per cent – one of the lowest of any game in an NHL season that’s already had 1,088 games played.
It shouldn’t come as a huge revelation that puck possession is important; it’s been talked about in hockey for ages, and teams like the Detroit Red Wings, especially in their heyday, were the most recent personification of why it works.
Even Blues coach Ken Hitchcock made note of it prior to facing the Leafs: If you have the puck, he explained, the other team’s best players don’t.
More often than not, when that happens, you win.
“They did a lot of things that we’re trying to convince our hockey club to do,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said.
The funny thing about the NHL these days is that a lot of what defines which teams win and lose games is random. Goaltenders are so good that it often takes funny bounces or deflections to beat them, situations where the puck being one inch one way instead of the other is the difference between two points for one team and two points for the other.
Players talk about this all the time: They either get the bounces or they don’t.
And when you out possess a team the way the Blues did the Leafs, you're just exponentially improving the number of chances that the puck has to bounce in your favour.
“They’re really good on the cycle,” Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk explained. “They do a good job of not turning anything over. And just getting it in and going to work. That’s tough to play against a team like that.”
“We couldn’t get the puck,” Lupul added.
“When we did, we just slapped it around,” Carlyle said.
While management has denied the team has a possession problem in the past, Carlyle has noted going right back to the first game of the season that he would like to see his team manage the puck better and establish more of a cycle game.
The reality is, however, that Toronto is an even worse team in this area than they were a year ago, dropping from 43.7 per cent to 41.6 per cent, better than only last place basket case Buffalo in both seasons.
Why the coaching staff hasn’t been able to correct this issue should create some very tough questions around both Carlyle and those above him that continue to come up with excuses for the team’s lack of success, whether the Leafs somehow find a way to squeak into the postseason or not.
The coaching staff now seems to realize what the problem is but not how to correct it, and given many of these players didn’t have these kinds of possession issues under the previous coach (for all his faults), this can’t simply all come down on their shoulders.
There are systemic issues involved, and what’s clear from players’ comments lately is they are becoming endlessly frustrated with the results.
“We didn’t seem to be able to break the cycle, and they were using the points,” Lupul lamented. “We play with a lot of people down low in our zone so the points are open, but then they seemed to be getting the point shots through and getting a lot of tips and rebounds. Obviously something was wrong there.”
He’s right. And finding out what that something is could cure a great deal of what has been ailing this team this season.
Some bright folks online have a suggestion on where to start.
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