NHL PLAYOFFS 2013: Toronto Maple Leafs – back, but for how long?

Leafs players celebrate a goal as they clinch a playoff spot for the first time in 9 years.  Image courtesy of the Toronto Sun.

Leafs players celebrate a goal as they clinch a playoff spot for the first time in 9 years. Image courtesy of the Toronto Sun.

As we get closer to the playoffs, IceNationUK will be taking a look at each team’s roster as they clinch a spot in the postseason.

Next, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

SEASON LOWDOWN

Image courtesy of mapleleafs.nhl.com.

Image courtesy of mapleleafs.nhl.com.

Well it’s about time.  The Toronto Maple Leafs have finally had a season really worth talking about, ending their NHL-longest streak of 9 consecutive years out of the playoffs.  And handing that non-too-flattering title on to the Edmonton Oilers.  Thanks guys, thanks.

Brian Burke, in his last few months as the team’s GM, started to change the make-up of the team.  He began by trading really-quite-bad goalie Jonas Gustavsson’s RFA rights to Winnipeg, allowing the team to go with the tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens in net – a far more worthy duo.  Talented but perpetually underachieving defenceman Luke Schenn was shipped out for talented but also underachieving power forward James van Riemsdyk, a player that has proven to be incredibly useful for them despite being somewhat streaky.  When Burke was removed and Dave Nonis installed, he opted to trade oft-injured center Matthew Lombardi to Phoenix, freeing up some salary.  These moves allowed the team to gain some flexibility in key positions, freeing up roster spots and salary.

Further moves like trading enforcer Mike Brown to Edmonton and sending David Steckel to Anaheim meant they were shipping out redundant bit-players.

The team started out OK in January, going 4-3-0, and picked it up in February going 9-6-0 which included a 4 game winning streak.  They really took off in March, romping out to a 7-3-4 record and finishing the month with an 8 game point streak, and after losing their first game in April, went on another streak posting points in 5 consecutive games, helping them to lock up a playoff spot for the first time since 2004 and ending their dubious distinction as the only NHL team not to make the playoffs since the 2004/05 lockout.

Yet, the team might not be as good as their record suggests.

lucky-brass-horse-shoe-547-p

The team won a lot of close games that they didn’t win last year with very much the same team, and studies have shown that whether or not a team wins those close games is largely random.  Even more glaring than that however, is how bad the team has been in terms of shot differential and how lucky they’ve been to win in spite of that.  The team has the highest PDO of any team in the league at 1032.  This number is determined by adding the team’s shooting percentage (11.00%) to the team’s save percentage percentage (0.922), and over time this number should always regress to 1000.  If it is above 1000, the team is playing in good luck (high shooting percentage + high save percentage) and if it is below 1000, the opposite applies.  An 11% team shooting percentage is well above league average (8.34% this season), and a quick glance at the top scorers shows you why: the likes of Kadri, Bozak, Phaneuf, Lupul, McClement and Frattin all have ridiculously high shooting percentages, the kind that are unsustainable.  Their 5v5 save percentage is pretty middle of the pack, neither good nor bad.

You combine that PDO number with their Fenwick Close % (a proxy for the amount of time each team spends with the puck, gathered from shots on net and shots that miss the net in close games) of 43.8% – the second worst number in the league behind only Buffalo, who are struggling this season – and you can see that despite being awful at puck possession, the team is scoring on an incredibly high amount of the shots it does take.  Puck possession is one of the best predictors of success there is, as teams with good puck possession ability – and who hence take more shots – tend to be the ones with the most success.  LA, Chicago, Boston, St Louis, Detroit, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, they all have a Fenwick Close % above 50%, indicating they are superior puck possession teams, and they are almost all regarded as the class of the league.

Toronto, meanwhile, shares the company of Buffalo, Edmonton, Tampa Bay and Columbus – another team riding luck to get to the playoffs.  Not a good indicator of future success for the Leafs, I’m afraid.  They are one of the worst teams in this regard to make the playoffs since these stats started to be tracked.

And for those believing that Toronto’s toughness and willingness to fight got them where they are?  Think again.

That said, I much prefer Toronto’s roster as it is now to how it has been the last few years, but they will struggle to continue their winning ways if they don’t sort out their puck possession issues.

Thanks to Cam Charron’s PDO articles at NHLnumbers.com for this information, and behindthenet.ca for much of the data provided.

2012/13 Season Team Stats (to date):

46 Games – 25 Wins – 16 Losses – 5 OT Losses – 55 Points

Goals For = 140

Goals Against = 129

Goal Differential = +11

Home Record = 13-8-2

Away Record = 12-8-3

CURRENT LINEUP

Forwards:

JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK – TYLER BOZAK – PHIL KESSEL

JOFFREY LUPUL – NAZEM KADRI – NIKOLAI KULEMIN

CLARKE MACARTHUR – MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI – MATT FRATTIN

COLTON ORR – JAY MCCLEMENT – LEO KOMAROV

Defence:

CARL GUNNARSSON – DION PHANEUF

JOHN-MICHAEL LILES – RYAN O’BYRNE

MARK FRASER – CODY FRANSON

Goal:

JAMES REIMER

BEN SCRIVENS

EXTRA: JOE COLBORNE, RYAN HAMILTON, FRAZER MCLAREN, MIKE KOSTKA, JAKE GARDINER

INJURED: N/A

TOP SCORERS

leafs top scorers 2013 (2)

EVALUATION

Nazem Kadri carries the puck into the offensive zone.  Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

Nazem Kadri carries the puck into the offensive zone. Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

As always, the forward corps is led by Phil Kessel.  The quiet, slightly odd persona of Kessel does not lend to him being particularly loved by NHL fans, but the fact is he has blossomed into quite the NHL scoring star.  The Leafs may have paid a high price for him, but they got what they wanted – a top-of-the-line forward.  Unlike most of his team-mates he’s putting up points at a career-best rate whilst scoring at around his career-average rate of 11%.  He takes on tough competition without the benefit of extreme zonestarts and dominates it.  Great player, and a possible Hart Trophy nominee.

Nazem Kadri has been quite the revelation this year, after several years of AHL time and not much NHL success.  However it appears that development time has paid off, with Kadri being on pace for over 30 goals and 70+ points in a full year.  However, we must take a step back with a situation like this.  It’s incredibly rare for a player to play so long in the AHL, then burst out of the gates in the NHL to be amongst the league leaders. His shooting percentage is at an incredibly high 18%.  Very few shooters in the NHL can score at that rate, and we have no reason to believe that Kadri can continue that torrid pace over even a full season, let alone several years.  That is not to say that he can’t or won’t, but to blindly believe “this is the real Kadri” is very short-sighted.  What he is doing well is taking on middling competition and outperforming it significantly in shot-differential, with less than desirable zonestarts.  His PDO of 1066 also suggests he is playing in considerable good luck, like much of the team.  Still, he has clearly arrived on the NHL scene, and it will be interesting to see what kind of player he settles into.

Tyler Bozak continues to take on the number 1 center role on this team, and does the best he can, but it is clear it is not a role suited to him.  His 12 goals so far have been the result of an insanely high 19.7% shooting percentage, and whilst he has proven to be a high percentage shooter in the NHL, this is over 4% higher than his career average.  He is performing well in terms of shot-attempt-differential however, against tough competition too.  A good player, but playing above his talent-level.  James van Riemsdyk looks to be finally rounding into the player he was supposed to be when drafted 2nd overall in 2007 by the Flyers, proving himself to be a dominant possession player against tough competition, putting up a decent amount of points and goals, not shooting at a ridiculous percentage and not having a scarily high PDO number.  A nice pickup for the trainwreck that was Schenn.

Joffrey Lupul in full flight.  Image courtesy of the Globe & Mail.

Joffrey Lupul in full flight. Image courtesy of the Globe & Mail.

Joffrey Lupul has been out much of the season with injury, but when he’s been in the lineup he’s been dynamite.  Scoring on an out-of-this-world 28.2% of his shoots so far, resulting in 11 goals in 14 games, and with a PDO of 1100, do not expect this to be how Lupul plays for the next few seasons.  That categorically will not happen.  Over a full season these results would level out, and you’d likely be looking at a more reasonable, but still very good season from the veteran scorer.  Nikolai Kulemin rounds out the top 6, and as he has for the past few seasons takes on the toughest competition possible with unfavourable zonestarts, resulting in a poor shot differential.  He’s having an OK season in terms of stats, and whilst you’d prefer him to be outshooting the competition, given the situation he’s placed in I think it’s fair to say it’s not entirely his fault.

Clarke MacArthur is not the scoring revelation he appeared to be 2 or 3 years ago, but is still a capable third line, secondary scorer who doesn’t give up much at 5v5.  Slightly bad shooting luck is affecting his goal totals this year.  Mikhail Grabovski fills the “Horcoff” role on this team, i.e. the guy who gets the crappy assignments, is overpaid and doesn’t score as much as people want, but is absolutely invaluable to the team’s success.  Takes on tough competition with less than 40% offensive zonestarts and still manages to outshoot them.  Matt Frattin has performed well in limited time this season, but is also the beneficiary of a high shooting percentage; he has however managed to just about outperform relatively tough competition.

I’m not sure why Colton Orr still manages to cling to a spot on this team.  He takes on the dregs of the league and still gets outshot, barely scores, takes up a roster spot whilst averaging just 6:16 per game, and basically is just a boxer on skates.  That doesn’t help teams win, despite what Don Cherry says.  Jay McClement has been good for the team, helping it’s previously lackluster Penalty Kill unit no end, and taking on tough competition with by far the worst zonestarts on the team, whilst still chipping in some points.  Leo Komarov is proving to be a reliable NHLer in his first North American season; he hasn’t scored a huge amount, but outperforms middling competition and is useful on the PK.

Dion Phaneuf, Maple Leafs captain.  Image courtesy of fiveminutesforfighting.com.

Dion Phaneuf, Maple Leafs captain. Image courtesy of fiveminutesforfighting.com.

On defence, things are led as usual by Dion Phaneuf.  The much-maligned defender has actually proven over the last couple of years to be one of the better NHLers, and is a legitimate top-2 blueliner.  This season he’s taking on by far the toughest competition on the team with around 40% offensive zonestarts, so it’s no surprise that he gets outshot, but he still manages to put up respectable scoring totals – although his shooting percentage is extremely high for a defender.  Carl Gunnarson continues to impress, taking on tough competition with even worse zonestarts than Phaneuf, and managing to surprisingly outshoot it.  A very good two-way player.

John-Michael Liles is not having his usual high offensive output, but for his role – taking on middling competition with an offensive zone push – he at least gets the job done in terms of outshooting the competition.  Ryan O’Byrne has not impressed in limited action this year, taking on middling competition with a slight offensive push but not defending well and not scoring much.

Mark Fraser has surprised with his season, not scoring much but putting up an impressive +17 rating.  His PDO suggests that could be the product of good luck, as when he’s on the ice the team has an incredibly high shooting percentage of 14.63%.  He is however performing well in shot differential, outplaying middling competition with sub-44% offensive zonestarts.  Cody Franson is enjoying a great bounceback year, racking up points and outperforming middling competition whilst not having to thank luck too much for it.

Jake Gardiner, who inexplicably is not seeing much playing time this year with just 11 NHL games, is a far better player right now than the likes of O’Byrne and Fraser, and the Leafs would be in a much better spot with him in the lineup.  His CorsiRel number of 30.5 is second in the league of anyone with 10+ games played, and although it’s a small sample, it shows how effective he is at moving the play in the right direction when he’s on the ice.

 

James Reimer makes a diving save.  Image courtesy of torontosun.com.

James Reimer makes a diving save. Image courtesy of torontosun.com.

In goal, James Reimer is showing that he can be a number 1 goalie, shaking off the doubts that were cast after his injury issues last year.  He sports a 2.46 GAA and .923 SV% and 3 shutouts, and must be one of the primary reasons for the Leafs’ continued success.  Ben Scrivens has also proven to be a highly capable backup, posting a 2.74 GAA and .914 SV% with 2 shutouts, and seems to be able to step in to the crease without being too much of a liability.

STAR PLAYOFF PERFORMER

Phil Kessel keeps his head up with the puck.  Image courtesy of intelligencer.ca.

Phil Kessel keeps his head up with the puck. Image courtesy of intelligencer.ca.

Phil Kessel hasn’t seen a sniff of playoff action since joining the Leafs in 2009, but he did see two playoff seasons with Boston.  In 07/08, he put up 3 goals and 4 points in 4 games, and in 08/09 scored 6 goals and 11 points in 11 games.  Whilst this doesn’t make him an instant Conn Smythe favourite, it does show a past history of success, and establishes him as the Leafs’ most successful (and experienced, along with Lupul, Phaneuf and Liles) playoff performer.  For this reason, and the fact that he continues to be incredibly consistent year after year in the regular season on such a bad team, I believe he will not disappoint in however much playoff action he sees this year.

PREDICTION

Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

This isn’t going to be easy for Leafs fans to read, but this really isn’t a very good team.  They have a lot of nice parts, but they will be playing far better teams than them in the playoffs and I would be absolutely shocked if they made it out of the first round.  They might win a game, maybe 2 at a push, but an entire round?  Don’t see it happening.

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