The Leafs aren’t that concerning, and the wins will come

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:30 am by Jeff Veillette

Photo Credit: Matt Marton/USA TODAY SPORTS

The Toronto Maple Leafs are 1-1-3 to start the season. They have lost 80% of their games this season. They had the lead in every game that they lost; sometimes by as many as four goals. Many have taken this as a sign that this is the same ol’ Leafs as last year, with a couple of more promising kids to keep fans entertained but the same general results. I’ve even seen the t-word used again by those who want the Leafs to add another blue chip prospect.

In a weird way, it feels like people are getting carried away by not being carried enough away. The end result of these five games has been about as close as you can get to a worst case scenario, but the process is light-years ahead of anything the Leafs have shown in a very long time.

1. Toronto have five points in their first five games. Last year, it took 11 games to hit the five point plateau.

2. Through these first five games, Toronto has coughed up seven individual leads in four games. Last year, it took the Leafs until the fourth game of the season to get ahead in a game, and until November 15th to get their seventh lead of the season.

3. Rookie phenom Auston Matthews has blessed our hearts and our souls by being dominant to the tune of eight points in his first five NHL games played. The last time a Leafs rookie made the team out of his first training camp, Luke Schenn picked up his eighth point of the season on March 14th.

4. In fact, last season, it took until November 3rd for any Leafs player to score 8 points; Morgan Rielly being the one to achieve the feat.

5. Keeping on the subject of Auston, let’s look at his line. The trio of Zach Hyman, William Nylander, and Himself currently sit sixth in the league in team-relative shot attempts, with a Corsi-For percentage of 55.74% that ranks 5th if you don’t adjust for those around them. Adjust for score effects (the Leafs have blown a bunch of multi-goal leads, after all), and they move up to fourth while the JVR-Bozak-Marner line sneaks into 8th. Presently, the kid line has more goals than any other in the league at even strength, with 5.

6. In fact, the team on, the whole, has been a bit of an offensive juggernaut of late. Even without adjusting for score, Toronto is one of the most lethal even-strength teams in the game to start the year, but once you do that, Corsica has the Blue and White in 2nd in the league in rate of shots towards the net (2nd unadjusted), 2nd in unblocked attempts (9th), 1st in shots on goal (4th), 3rd in expected goals (7th), 2nd in scoring chances (4th), and 3rd in actual goals (4th). 

Shot Attempts For Percentage, By Score Situation, Even Strength

Up +3 Up +2 Up +1 Tied Down -1 Down -2 Down -3
39% (11th) 43% (14th) 54% (6th) 55% (5th) 53% (19th) Hasn’t Happened

7. Defence appears to be the major concern, though. But even then, score adjustment ranks the Leafs 15th in shot attempt against rate (26th), 12th in unblocked attempts (19th), 4th in shots against (10th), 10th in expected goals against (8th), and 9th in scoring chances against (15th). That’s an above average defensive team to start the year, and that’s despite certain shot-bleeding defensive defencemen existing. The areas where they’re weak un-adjusted align with the idea of team’s attempting riskier shots while trailing against Toronto (score effects), which suggests that the team is, by and large, doing the right things.

At the end of the day, there are still some concerns. I’m not sure how many minutes this new fourth line of Martin, Smith, and Holland should realistically play. I’m not sure why Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak are in the lineup instead of Martin Marincin and Frank Corrado. Frederik Andersen and Jhonas Enroth are surely better than this, but right now “this” is the 6th-lowest save percentage at even strength in the league. Figuring out what’s wrong with Andersen, in particular, is a big thing; is it a change in style? Is it an injury? But until it’s fixed, it’s a drag.

But once you get past that, it doesn’t matter very much that the Leafs have lost 80% of their first five games. They’re a team that’s played all of those losses on the road, had leads in all of them, sometimes large ones, and have had a combination of iffy goaltending, bad luck, and a few mistakes that happen to most clubs come back to haunt them in uncanny fashion. That it has happened repeatedly makes many nervous, but the odds of it continuing are super slim.

Through five games, the Leafs have been one of the most dominant offensive teams in the league and are just fine as a group defensively. Certain mistakes have been evident, but the reality is that the team has spent the bulk of their games in a leading position, often by multiple goals. That’s a great sign, and if they keep doing that, they should start winning a lot of hockey games.