Where will the Leafs finish in the standings at season’s end?


Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Vollman is a well-known writer in the hockey world, mainly for his work in analytics. His work can be read on Hockey Prospectus, ESPN and many other websites. Vollman wrote a book that has received quite a bit of attention lately called “Hockey Abstract”, in which he seeks to answer questions regarding the game of hockey using a variety of statistical methods. If you want to learn more about his book, you can check out reviews at The LeafsNation, Sabre Noise, Pension Plan Puppets and many others which can be accessed from his website.

I haven’t read Vollman’s book yet, but one chapter I’ve heard of, which has stirred quite a bit of debate among hockey fans, is the one titled “Who will finish first next year?” Vollman attempts to predict what the final regular season standings will look like at the end of the 2013-14 season, and fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs may find what he writes surprising.

The Leafs, as everybody knows, made the playoffs for the first time in nine years last season and even came close to upsetting the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round. Most people would consider that to be a pretty successful season, and conclude that since the Leafs are the third-youngest team in the NHL, they should only improve on the success they found last year.

Rob Vollman is not one of those people.

As David Staples of the Edmonton Journal wrote a few weeks ago, Vollman comes up with each team’s “true talent” level by stripping away shooting and save percentage luck. Using this measure, the Leafs were actually the third-worst team in the league, finishing ahead of only the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. For the 2013-14 season, Vollman predicts the Leafs will once again finish third worst, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and the hapless Flames.

According to Vollman’s “Luck Analysis” on his website, the Leafs were extremely lucky in PDO (shooting percentage combined with save percentage), special teams (power-play percentage combined with penalty-killing percentage) and in one-goal games. The only factor in which the Leafs were unlucky were games that went to overtime or shootout, where they went 0-5.

Vollman goes into greater detail into the Leafs’ fortunate season on a post for ESPN. It’s blocked by a paywall, but I’ll share a couple of paragraphs which basically sums up how the Leafs were fortunate to make the playoffs last season:

"The team save percentage was .921, up from .900 the season before and the Leafs’ highest team total since save percentage was first recorded. In fact, Toronto’s team save percentage was below .900 in five of the six previous seasons. Even with a .900 save percentage, the Leafs would have allowed 165 goals against this season, second most in the league, instead of the 133 they actually yielded.Similarly, Toronto’s team shooting percentage was 11.5 percent, up from a six-season high of 9.8 percent and the Leafs’ highest since the 1998-99 season. Even with that generous 9.8 percent high-water mark, the Leafs still would have scored only 124 goals instead of 145. Put those two stats together and the Leafs would go from a goal differential of plus-12 to minus-41, a 53-goal swing that translates to almost 18 points in the standings. That would put them in the very heart of the draft lottery."

Vollman goes on to admit that not all of the Leafs’ success in shooting and goaltending can be attributed to luck. Anybody who’s watched Nazem Kadri play hockey for five minutes knows he’s an extremely talented forward, but he’s not talented enough to continue shooting at a 17 per cent rate. Simultaneously, James Reimer was a legitimate top-10 goaltender last year and his strong play was a huge reason why the Leafs were so successful, but it’s a little unreasonable to expect him to continue to play at that level, especially behind a weak Toronto defense.

Anybody who’s read this website knows these concepts aren’t exactly new. Mohamed wrote a while back that the Leafs are likely to regress this season. The simple fact is team shooting and save percentages tend to fluctuate widely from season to season. And when you look at the underlying possession numbers, the Leafs simply aren’t a very good team, and didn’t do enough to address these issues in the off-season.

A full season from Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner should help. David Clarkson could be a great fit with Kadri and Lupul on the second line, and a 20-goal season from him would be a nice boost to the offense. If Dave Bolland can rebound from a bad season last year to become an effective third-line centre, he could free up the Kadri and Kessel lines to feast on weaker competition. Jonathan Bernier could continue to develop into a very strong goaltender, and team up with Reimer to form a strong one-two punch in net. The problem is those are a lot of “ifs” and “coulds”, and there are still a lot more questions than answers regarding this team right now.

As for my take, I don’t think the Leafs’ fall back to earth will be as pronounced as some have made it out to be, but they’ll also be in a dogfight to make the playoffs in the new-and-improved Atlantic division. On paper, the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators all look better than the Leafs, which means they’ll probably have to fight with the Montreal Canadiens for a wild-card spot. Notice the use of “on paper” from that last sentence, but it’s all we have in August.

Hockey season can’t start soon enough.