It’s a paragraph sure to draw the ire of any fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, especially after a long-awaited playoff berth appears to have the team headed in the right direction after seven seasons in the rebuild-on-the-fly wilderness.
But Rob Vollman only cares what the numbers say.
And in the case of the Leafs breakthrough 48-game season, in his opinion, the news isn’t very good on that front.
“Even if the season had continued to 82 games, the Toronto Maple Leafs may still have finished among the top five luckiest teams [in the last five years],” Vollman writes in Hockey Abstract, a statistical tome released this year that is meant to mimic what Bill James’s various Baseball Abstracts were to that sport in the 1980s.
“They finished in the top five in the Eastern Conference standings despite being outshot 1543 to 1264. There was not a single Leaf [player] with whom Toronto outshot their opponents throughout the course of the season. They started the lowest percentage of shifts in the offensive zone in the entire league, the second most in the defensive zone, and their puck possession rate was also second lowest in the league.”
Vollman, who has been providing NHL-related commentary for Hockey Prospectus and ESPN for years, is hardly alone in his analysis, either.
While many pundits in the media have forecasted a return to the postseason this year for Toronto, which is once again one of the youngest teams in a league, the statistically minded are unanimous in their skepticism over the Leafs success and the moves made in the off-season.
One key reason is often, as Vollman outlines in the book, their terrible possession stats, numbers which typically attempt to measure the percentage of time teams have the puck in the offensive zone.
One metric often used in this regard is called Fenwick Close, which is essentially attempted shots, for and against, in situations where the score in the game is close.
According to behindthenet.ca, the leading source for these types of stats, the Leafs were second last in the NHL in Fenwick Close, with a mark of 44 per cent that was better than only the Buffalo Sabres.
But possession wasn’t the only trouble spot for Toronto.
In one section of Hockey Abstract, Vollman examines the previous five NHL seasons and picks out the “luckiest” teams involved, with the 2012-13 Leafs eventually finishing No. 1 out of the 150 teams analyzed.
To do so, he looked at five key areas where team success is often very volatile and tends to regress to the mean year over year: shooting and save percentage, special teams, injuries, overtime and shootouts, and one-goal games.
The better teams did in all five areas, the more likely that their success that season was “luck” driven.
Here’s an example, using a small sample size as an illustration, of the type of regression Vollman is talking about.
In the five seasons before 2012-13, only nine teams out of 150 had a shooting percentage of 10.5 per cent or higher. Those outliers, as a group, averaged 10.84 per cent that season, meaning goaltenders posted a terrible .892 save percentage against them that year.
In the very next season, however, those nine teams had their shooting percentage drop to an average of 9.24 per cent, which is almost identical to the NHL average over this period.
That 1.6 per cent difference may not sound that dramatic, but it actually is. For your average NHL team that has 30 shots on goal a game over 82 games, that would be the equivalent to scoring 40 fewer goals.
And last season’s Leafs team had a shooting percentage of 11.5 per cent, right at the far extreme end of the scale.
Toronto was actually out of the norm last season in a couple areas.
Shooting and save percentages (which combined for a total of 103.6 per cent, matching the highest “PDO” by any team going back to 2008-09) were one, but the other was special teams (which combined for a total of 106.6 per cent, the fifth highest “special teams index” mark registered).
So, if the Leafs are going to take a step back this season, those are the two areas where it would be most statistically likely.
As a result, predictions over how Toronto will finish this season have become a battleground between stat-heads and those not so inclined.
Because of just how certain most analysts like Vollman are about the Leafs fate, they are going to serve as a very high profile test case for hockey’s new numbers and their predictive value.
If, as forecasted, Toronto takes a step back, then the number crunchers will have successfully forecasted what would have been completely unexpected four or five years ago.
If, however, the Leafs repeat their success of a year ago, it will likely only fuel the ongoing debates over just how useful any of this Bill James inspired analysis is.
That’s not something that Vollman and Co. seem particularly worried about.
“The 2013 Leafs played in their own zone and without the puck to a greater extent than almost any other team,” Vollman said in an e-mail about Toronto’s potential success. “Both history and reason suggest that it is difficult for a team to either remain successful this way or to reverse such a situation quickly.”