A lot of what’s gone wrong with the Toronto Maple Leafs has been thoroughly picked through by now.
But one thing you still hear quite often, around the team and in the media, is about how inconsistent this group is.
As in, great one night, awful another.
Great might be overselling it, but what’s undeniable is the Leafs did have two short bursts where they put together a lot of points and made up ground in the standings. It happened at the beginning of the year when they went 10-4. It happened again before the Olympic break on an 11-2-1 run.
Minus those two stretches, they were awful, at 17-27-7, including the latest three wins in 13 games nosedive.
Hockey’s a streaky game. One of the things that people like statisticians Gabe Desjardins, Eric Tulsky and others have picked up on is how some of those streaks function, both for players and teams, and when they’re sustainable and when they’re not.
What makes the Leafs so wildly inconsistent is they’re actually built to try and win on those unsustainable aspects.
Here’s the best example of that when it comes to Toronto:
The amazing thing about the Leafs this year is just how much their success was mirrored just by their shooting percentages.
And more specifically Phil Kessel’s.
The two peaks in Kessel’s season were the same for the Leafs. When people were saying he was worth the new contract and a Hart Trophy candidate and all kinds of wacky things about how great his two-way game had become, Kessel had 18 points in 14 games in October and 25 (!) in 14 games before the Olympics.
The other 51 games, he had only 37 points and the Leafs couldn’t win.
The point here isn’t that this is on Kessel to produce well over a point a game all year and be Sidney Crosby. Even great scorers are streaky. And streaks are built on shooting percentage, which on a base level is a measure of getting the bounces and chances turning into goals.
But the problem comes when your team is built so much on percentages that that’s the only way it can win.
It’s very difficult to consistently outscore your issues in the NHL.
“Scoring goals for this team is not a problem,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri lamented the other day. “It’s keeping them out of our net. That’s really the issue we’re trying to deal with. That surrounds the whole team.”
If you look at the successful NHL teams in recent years, their shooting percentages are almost as variable as the Leafs, even if the peaks aren’t quite as pronounced. The difference is that clubs like the Los Angeles Kings have the puck more than Toronto, outshoot teams more than Toronto and control the play more than Toronto.
As a result, when their shooting percentage goes in the tank (as it did in midseason, far worse than Toronto’s ever did), they’re not totally dead in the water.
That’s why the Leafs look so inconsistent night to night; they’re relying on an inconsistent path to success to win games. Teams like the Kings are the opposite: They’re a metronome, hitting the same beat again and again, period after period, relying on a process that produces chances to eventually produce them results.
The Leafs have the high notes down. What they need to work on is everything else.