The Toronto Maple Leafs were Cup Contenders this past season, and will be next season.
Despite a disappointing and completely fluky loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting hammered in the media and by their fans. The frustration is palpable, and definitely understandable, but its completely misplaced.
As annoying as it is to admit, the results of the NHL are always going to be somewhat random, and the best teams don’t always win. The Lightning have gone to three Easter Finals in the last five years, but in the other two years they lost in the first round and failed to make the playoffs.
This year, the Islanders made the final four, after being one of the NHL’s worst teams from December to March. Had the season finished normally, they almost certainly would have missed the playoffs.
It is interesting to see how the Leafs stack up against some of these teams.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Successful Teams
Before declaring that “the Leafs style of play can’t win in the playoffs” I think its’ important to remember that the three teams who play closest in style to the Leafs (i.e teams built around speed and skill) are Tampa, Colorado and Las Vegas, all of whom had some degree of playoff success this year, and two of which made the final four.
Regardless of play style, the teams that are successful over the long term have solid team stats. The most important of which are puck-possession (Corsi), expected goals, and high-danger shot attempts. These three stats will better predict future results than play style, roster make up, or media consensus. That is an indisputable fact.
That doesn’t mean they will always get it right, it just means that teams with good stats have the highest probability to make it. Las Vegas, Tampa and Colorado all had great stats, and they all made it far.
So here are three interesting comparisons. On November 21st the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Sheldon Keefe and significantly changed their playing style. On March 10th the NHL season was put on pause. There were approximately 50 games per team during that stretch, so lets compare three of them.
Points Percentage: Leafs .628, Stars .596, Islanders .500
Goals For Percentage: Leafs 51.39 %, Stars 46.53 %, Islanders 45.79 %
Standings: Leafs 8th, Dallas 13th, Islanders 23rd
So forget fancy stats that try to predict the future, the Leafs just straight up had the best results over 50 games. Keep in mind that for half these games, the Leafs didn’t have Morgan Rielly, and for half those games, they also didn’t have Jake Muzzin.
But what about the predictive stats? Now, we all agree that a 50 games sample is way more predictive than a 20 game one, after a six month layoff, right? OK let’s begin.
Expected Goals: Leafs 52.73, Dallas 51.84%, Islanders 48.70
High Danger Scoring Chances: Leafs 52.03%, Dallas 53.16, 49.32%
Crazy, despite the playoff success of the other two teams, in a game that we know beyond any reasonable doubt gets random results, the Leafs are clearly the best team. (All stats from naturalstattrick.com).
In fact, during the Keefe portion of the season, the Leafs statistically were right on par with Vegas and Tampa. The fact is, the Leafs had the aforementioned injuries and they got goaltending the 24th best goaltending. It is a fact that any team outperforming their goaltending in the standings is going to do excellent in the future.
Emotionally, its easy to be frustrated with the Toronto Maple Leafs season. So much so that we forget that entering the season they were considered to be a Stanley Cup Favorite due to take the next step in the process of building a winner.
The fact that that didn’t happen shouldn’t sour us on the team. We know that hockey has random results, and we know that good stats win out over time. The Leafs are a victim of the former while being a strong candidate to benefit from the latter.
In conclusion: While the Leafs – like any team – should be striving to improve in the off-season, literally every single way in which we have to measure a hockey team against other team says they are among the best teams in the NHL.
Given they are something like the 4th youngest, we should all be extremely optimistic about their chances.