“The Toronto Maple Leafs are a weak team that are not built for the playoffs.”
If you’ve spent any time talking to people about the Toronto Maple Leafs online, you’ve no doubt come across such a sentiment.
Now you can’t blame people for thinking this, as we’ve been told since before time existed that to win in hockey, it’s not just enough to out-score your opponent, you’ve got to scare him, grind him, and hurt him if you want to win.
It is perfectly reasonable to think this, considering that the NHL is a hostile place for innovation and new ideas, and these ideas have been repeated like they are facts for years. For fans to be slow to get on board with a lot of the things that statistical data has taught us over the last decade is completely understandable.
It’s taking even longer than expected to establish statistical analysis as legitimate, and if I had to guess why, I’d say it probably has something to do with ex-players on TV obsessed with hating stats because they challenge their authority as experts.
Toronto Maple Leafs and the Stats Revolution
As the NHL has experienced a stats-revolution, we’ve learned things that go against the official dogma of the “real” hockey fan:
- Traditional Defensive defensemen are next to useless
- hitting and shot-blocking do not help as much as you’d think
- Slow players who do not score do not belong in the NHL.
- Fourth lines don’t need grinders
- Fighting does nothing except cause brain damage
- scoring and puck movement are paramount
- Faceoffs barely matter
Now, some people learn new information, change their mind, and get on with their life. Others hold fast to what they’ve always believed.
Still worse, others get angry that things are changing, and for some reason think bullying people online will give Brian Burke back his authority.
I wouldn’t have believed ten years ago that I would be anti-fighting in the NHL. I cheered the day the Leafs first acquired Roman Polak, and I thought Brian Burke’s “top six/bottom six” philosophy made a lot of sense.
I changed my views though, when it became evident that the game was changing and that the math behind these theories was solid.
Now I believe that fighting should be banned, Roman Polak is terrible (and always was) and Brian Burke is a dinosaur whose hockey opinion these days goes down about as well as expired yogurt.
Stats have changed the game, and they aren’t done.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had a physically weak team, and everyone on TV said so. They talked insistently about how the Bruins and the Blues “PLAY THE RIGHT WAY” and used their success to further their agenda.
It didn’t matter than neither team was particularly tough or grinder-y, or that it could just have easily been a Toronto / San Jose Final, but when you’re rocking a convenient narrative, what does that matter? (In fact, the Leafs got incredibly unlucky to lose to the Bruins, and only lost because about 12 whacky things happened to occur, so any narrative based on the Bruins beating the Leafs is laughable).
In response to calls for more toughness, the Toronto Maple Leafs let their three toughest guys go – Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown and Ron Hainsey. Not like those guys are all that tough, but it’s the best they had.
They added: Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot, Cody Ceci, Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza, Nick Shore and Kenny Agostino.
Not exactly a group of thugs.
The Leafs have not only eschewed enforcers from their lineup, they’ve all but done away with stay-at-home-defenseman, grinders, power forwards and pests.
The closest thing they’ve got is Ben Harpur, and he’s unlikely to make the team. I suppose in a pinch you could say Zach Hyman is a grinder, but he’s really more of an all-purpose tool (and he doesn’t even average one penalty minute per game).
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Essentially the Leafs heard your criticism and completely ignored them. They are doing something that, to my knowledge, has never been done: They are assembling a team featuring four scoring lines, zero toughness, barely any grinding, and six puck-moving defensemen.
It is all skill all the time.
I understand that people are and will remain skeptical until they actually win something. (And that, with Kyle Dubas out of their reach, they’ll yell at me for it) but I really do believe that they know what they are doing. They’ve looked at the numbers and seen that outside of the top two lines and the top two defense pairings, all the other players are roughly equal.
If that’s the case, why not try to take advantage of a market inefficiency and get an edge by playing skilled players against other team’s grinders?
The Toronto Maple Leafs have quadrupled down on their lack of physical toughness, while some people are laughing, they won’t be when the they completely revolutionize how hockey teams are built.