For a player who has more goals than all but two others in the NHL the last three seasons, Phil Kessel believes more than most that luck plays a key role in what he does on the ice.
Whereas some might label the Toronto Maple Leafs recent scoring woes a lack of execution, the team’s top sniper credits it simply to a lack of bounces going their way.
The hockey gods are fickle that way.
“This game works in funny ways,” Kessel said Monday, as part of a rare meeting with reporters and after a lengthy chat with assistant coach Greg Cronin. “There’s little bounces. The puck bumps this way or that way and goes in or doesn’t go in. We’ve just got to get a little bit of that back and bury our chances.”
There’s a lot of truth in that.
The Leafs have been the kings of getting the bounces, a team that has defied both statistical and conventional odds. Going back to the tail end of last season, they have continued to win despite being filled in on the shot clock, in large part because of an uncanny ability to score on 12 per cent or more of their shots (nearly a full third above the league average).
It’s a phenomenon debated again and again in the hockey world, with some saying it results from their style of play and an ability to score off the rush, and others attributing it to a bizarrely fortunate stretch of 40-odd games.
Whatever the source, however, it appears to have abandoned Toronto of late.
While a lot went wrong during the Leafs’ 4-6-3 November, the fact they suddenly haven’t been able to score goals certainly tops the list. Toronto had only 18 at even strength in those 13 games, and the team’s shooting percentage dipped to a brutal 7.3 per cent.
That marks the first stretch since the very start of last season the Leafs haven’t scored on 10 per cent or more of their shots on goal. It’s also the first time their goaltenders have had a lower save percentage than their opponents’ in a prolonged stretch of games.
As a result, Toronto’s defensive issues – most of which were unmistakable even during a 10-4-0 start – haven’t been masked nearly as well.
“We were concerned for sure,” head coach Randy Carlyle said of his team’s play early in the year. “And we’ve stated it. The one thing about what happens is that when you continue to have success and you’re doing it that [fortunate] way, it’s not as drastic [a situation]. But we’ve been hit right with the hammer right now [with five losses in six games] so we know where we’re at. We know what we need to do to correct ourselves.”
Carlyle’s list of corrections Monday started with taking fewer penalties and included better defensive-zone coverage and playing an aggressive fore-checking style without giving up odd-man rushes.
To convey that message to players, the Leafs coaching staff had a lengthy video session with them before practice in preparation for the San Jose Sharks – one of the league’s top teams – on Tuesday.
“We believe that those are easily correctable issues with our team,” Carlyle said. “Now, does it happen overnight? I hope so.”
But the concerning part for the Leafs is just how long these issues have been ongoing. Aside from a spirited showing against the Boston Bruins in the playoffs, they have looked little like the feisty team they were in the first half of last season.
The team’s shot differential is one simple indicator, and it’s been exceptionally poor for about 40 games. Of late, it has stabilized around minus-10 per game, which would be one of the worst full-season marks since the league began recording shots on goal.
Defencemen Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger and the team’s third and fourth lines have especially struggled lately, leading to Carlyle shortening his bench last Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens to the point seven Leafs played less than 13 minutes.
Add in how difficult their schedule is going to be in December – with the Sharks, Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins all in a brutal next eight games – and it’s no wonder the team’s skittish fan base is starting to feel a bit uneasy … even if the players still insist things will soon swing back in their favour.
“You know what? It comes and goes,” Kessel said, answering a question about a lack of offence from the defence with an answer that could apply to the rest of Toronto’s offence. “This game, it’s a tough game, right? There’s ebbs and flows. “We’re not scoring as much. We’ve had chances. It’s just not going in. The goalies are good in this league, so you’ve got to make some good shots or get some good bounces and it’ll start coming back.”
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Leafs shooting percentage (10-game rolling average)
One key reason the Leafs have consistently won despite being heavily outshot is that they have scored on a very high percentage of their shots on goal. But NHL teams typically cannot sustain a high shooting percentage and regression to the mean often occurs over an 82-game season. This chart illustrates how opponents have started to score on as many of their shots as the Leafs in recent games.
Leafs shot differential (10-game rolling average)
Toronto has been outshot in every 10-game segment going back to early last season, but in the bigger picture, their shot differential issues have become progressively worse over time. The final 10 games of last year, they were outshot by an average of 11.5 shots per game, a problem that has persisted this season.