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Mirtle: Leafs’ woes deeper than their record shows

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle looks on with players, left to right, Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, and Peter Holland against the New York Rangers during second period NHL action in Toronto, Saturday January 4, 2014.


It's a relatively new column in the NHL standings, one that often puzzles fans as much as it informs them when they visit the league's website.

It's also one that highlights just how deep the Toronto Maple Leafs struggles have been recently, on the heels of an embarrassing 7-1 loss to the New York Rangers on the weekend.

Back in 2010, NHL general managers voted to make ROW – or regulation and overtime wins – the No. 1 tiebreaker for teams tied in points at the end of the year, a move aimed directly at lessening the impact of the shootout.

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Suddenly, there was a clear distinction between regulation and overtime wins and that other W column, which includes everything, including how teams fare in the skills competition.

It was a smart move, too. ROW is important. It's a reflection of which teams are winning games 5-on-5 or 4-on-4 and without the aid of the shootout, an individual gimmick where luck plays more of a role than skill.

But ROW is also bad news for the Leafs.

Toronto's issues have been well documented the last two months. But after a shootout win in the Winter Classic last week, the Leafs had recorded points in six consecutive games (4-0-2) and the coaching staff believed things were finally turning around a little.

Then came Saturday, one of their worst performances of the season.

"We felt like we were being more competitive in the areas [we need to be]," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle lamented after the loss to the Rangers. "This one kind of sent an A-Bomb."

This particular nuclear event, however, was also foreseeable. Even in collecting points regularly over the previous two weeks, the Leafs were badly outplayed in several games and escaped with wins primarily because of shootouts and great goaltending from Jonathan Bernier, who had a .950 save percentage in his last six outings.

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The first game he faltered, they were blown out.

Which brings us back to ROW.

The Leafs are currently tied for seventh last in the NHL in regulation or overtime wins with only 14, putting them on pace for just under 27 this season.

In their last 29 games, meanwhile, Toronto has only five ROW and a 4-13 record in the 17 games that have ended in regulation.

They have managed to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference mainly because they have been involved in so many shootouts, with an incredible 34 per cent of their games in that span going to the gimmick. The Leafs have set a franchise record with seven shootout wins this season, winning more of them than all but the Washington Capitals.

While their record is 11-13-5 since Oct. 30, if you filter the six shootout wins and four losses out and count them as ties – as they would have been prior to 2005-06 – it would fall to 5-13-11.

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And that 59-point full-season pace is a pretty accurate reflection of how poorly this team has played through 60 to 65 minutes in those games.

Teams benefiting from a lot of shootouts happens from time to time in the NHL, and the only issue is how difficult it can be to sustain. Two years ago, the Florida Panthers surprisingly won their division in part because they appeared in 17 shootouts in an 82 game season, getting 18 points from overtime or shootout losses alone.

The next season, they finished dead last and were in only four shootouts in 48 games.

These are the empty calories of points in the standings, in other words, the unrepeatable, unteachable and uncontrollable bonuses from year to year.

Shootouts are also one of the key reasons the NHL standings don't always reflect the true quality of teams anymore, not when so many points are being given away almost randomly at the end of games. But if you parse what's there a little, there are some really ugly indicators for the Leafs.

Consider, for example, that the 27 ROW they're on pace for is lower than both the last full season Ron Wilson coached the team (32) and the "18-wheeler going right off a cliff" season in which he was fired (31).

Speaking of which, in Wilson's final 29 games as Leafs coach, during a tailspin deemed one of the worst in franchise history and unlike anything former GM Brian Burke had seen, they still won 11 games in regulation or overtime – six more than the Leafs on their current two-month slide.

Food for thought.

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