When it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ solid 7-5-0 record, there really is an argument that the numbers tell the story.
Just consider where they’ve improved over last season.
It’s not in terms of scoring, as their 2.83 goals a game is almost identical to the 2.77 of a year ago.
It’s not on special teams, as the power play is worse (down to 15 per cent from 18.4 per cent) and the penalty kill is exactly the same (an ugly 77.5 per cent).
And it’s not on the shot clock, where their totals for and against are nearly identical to a year ago (28 for and a little more than 30 against, per game).
The biggest change – and the one almost everyone failed to predict – is this is a team getting great goaltending, through 12 games.
Obviously we’re still dealing with small sample sizes, but entering Sunday’s games, James Reimer’s .929 save percentage put him seventh in the NHL among regular starters and right about where he was in his fantastic rookie season two years ago.
That, combined with backup Ben Scrivens’s up-and-down play, has pushed the Leafs team save percentage up to .915 – a monumental improvement from last year’s .897, which came with Reimer battling a concussion and Jonas Gustavsson battling being Jonas Gustavsson.
Goaltending is such a difference maker in this league. No position player can make an impact as big as a top No. 1, and any team that’s riding a goalie with a save percentage approaching .930 all season is going to make the playoffs.
Even if the Leafs can finish the season with a team save percentage of .910, we’re talking about an enormous impact on their goals against, likely in the range of 20 fewer goals over a 48-game season.
If they can maintain a .915, then that becomes a 26-goal improvement.
And that 0.40 to 0.55 per-game improvement in a team’s goals against is the difference between being an 80-point team and a 95-point team over a full season, and it’s come in large part because of Reimer’s play.
That’s the kind of impact a good goaltender can make, and the kind of difference the Leafs have been lacking for nearly a decade.
It’s early, but there’s no question who the MVP of this team has been at the quarter-way mark.
Another surprise is Tyler Bozak His impact obviously hasn’t been nearly that of Reimer’s, but Bozak’s evolution into a more effective player has been another factor in Toronto’s start.
There are a few figures on his start that stand out.
No. 1 is his work in the faceoff circle. Bozak is winning 60 per cent of his draws, putting him into the top 10 in the league among regular centres and up from about 52 per cent last season. (At even strength, he’s won two-thirds of his draws in the defensive zone.) This has always been a strength in his game, but it’s even more evident this season. Credit both his work with the coaching staff and an increase in strength and technique as he continues to mature.
The other area Bozak has been a big contributor is on special teams. He is playing nearly 30 per cent of his minutes (6:06 a game) on the power play or penalty kill, which ties him for first with Dion Phaneuf. Six of his eight points are on the man advantage, too. That’s why he surprisingly leads the team’s forwards in ice time, with 21 minutes a night. (Before Saturday’s games, he had played more minutes than all but four forwards leaguewide.)
J. van Riemsdyk
Bozak obviously still has his limitations, but part of what’s working is that head coach Randy Carlyle realizes how to use him. He and Phil Kessel are getting what you’d call fairly “soft” minutes and rarely facing other teams’ top lines, leaving the Mikhail Grabovski– and Nazem Kadri-led trios to take more of those duties. Bozak will never be the prototypical two-way No. 1 centre, but he looks like a No. 2 who has some nice intangibles and can chip in with 50 to 60 points in an appropriate role.
“He can impact the game,” Leafs GM Dave Nonis said about Bozak. “When he drifts a little bit [in his defensive play] he doesn’t. But so far this year he’s been pretty competitive. If you look at his minutes, Randy believes in him and that’s the best compliment you can get from your coach.”
Here’s the only issue with a 7-5-0 start, for any NHL team: It’s a bit deceiving.
Toronto is really only on about a 95-point pace, which in recent history with all the three-point games has put teams on the very edge of those making the playoffs.
A 7-5-0 record is really the new .500. And the old .500 means you’re headed for a pretty good spot in the draft lottery.
That said, without Joffrey Lupul and Carl Gunnarsson and with three Marlies playing big roles, the Leafs have done well to play at this level. They’ll just likely have to maintain this pace for another three months to end their postseason drought after nine years.
And there will be plenty of skeptics given they started last season 9-3-1 and went on to play at a horrible 72-point pace the rest of the way.
Even in a lockout-shortened year, there’s a lot of hockey left.