How Good Are The Leafs: November Edition

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:15 am by Dom Luszczyszyn

Photo Credit: John. E Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

We’re now in the third month of the season, so it’s time to get an update on just how good this Leafs team is. I know some people are getting more pessimistic with each passing game as the Leafs dropped a winnable game to arguably the league’s worst team and then came up short again last night against a decent Wild team.

I understand the frustration and while I don’t think (right now at least) that #TheLeafsAreActuallyGood, I do think they are at the very least Actually Average and much better than their current 82 point pace would suggest. 

Let’s take a mini dive into their November and then check in on how good they really are.

We don’t really have to go over this in full detail because Jeff already did it last week. The basic gist is that the team in October was top 10 in everything across the board, from Corsi to expected goals, but was bottom five in turning those inputs into actual results, ie. goals scored. That was the reason for optimism after an October month where they had a pedestrian record. We expected better things in November, and while they got a few more wins, their underlying numbers weren’t as sparkling as they tumbled to a bottom 10 Corsi team. But as Jeff points out, they did a much better job at getting to the dirty areas of the ice, ranking top five in expected goals. That’s a good sign. There’s still a chasm between the team’s offence (elite) and defence (trash), but it’s still very early in the year.

The team is currently on the exact same point pace they were on when I wrote this for October so I’ll just copy and paste and make adjustments where I see fit.

The team is on pace for 82 points, and they probably deserve a bit more than that based on their play so far. Before the season started I projected that the Leafs would be around an 87 point team based on a model using Game Score which measures the value of each player in the league. That would put them in the middle camp: not quite playoff calibre, but not a flaming pile of garbage either.

Now that we’ve played some games, though, I wanted to check in to see how each player’s individual projections compare to pre-season expectations their end of October projections and how the team is likely to fair as a whole. This is especially important for this team specifically as many of the players are rookies and the initial projections for them didn’t have any NHL data to its name should tell us which players have improved the most and whose value has degraded. Here’s what it thinks right now.

(My goal was to do this at the end of every month, but I got busy/lazy so here it is on November 10 December 8)

How Good Are The Leafs?

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Before the season started we had an 87 point team. After October that was bumped up to 88. Now we’re at almost 90. Despite the point pace not really changing much over the last month, point projections moved up by almost an entire win and the reason for that is the team is slowly getting better. Over the next 57 games, my model expects the team to play at a 93 point pace. That’s despite having a true talent win percentage of 0.496, which would suggest that they should be playing at just over a 91 point pace. The reason for the discrepancy likely lies in the remaining strength of schedule, which should be easier going forward. A cursory look at the teams Toronto has played so far reveals that they’ve played very few games against the minnows of the league so far.

As for what’s driving the Leafs true talent up after this month, most of it is Frederik Andersen returning to form, but it’s also the emergence of Connor Brown and the play of the Leafs top three d-men. Most of the other changes have been marginal with Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk getting slight boosts.

It may seem that Matt Martin has improved, but what’s actually happening here is he’s gaining value from playing less. Because he’s below replacement level, the less he plays, the most valuable he is and sure enough, his GSAR/60 (Game Score Above Replacement Per 60 (GSAR/60) was unchanged for the month, but he’s playing fewer minutes.

While most players improved, there were some guys who aren’t as valuable this month as they were last month. Many probably assumed Auston Matthews would be one of them after a lengthy scoring drought, but he’s still right there at around 2.5 wins and already among the league’s best centres (for what it’s worth, Patrik Laine is around 1.5, I’m just saying). He did drop slightly, but not much.

The guy with the big drop though is William Nylander. He had a rough month and has found temporary residence in Mike Babcock’s doghouse. I’m sure he’ll turn it around eventually, but it also doesn’t help when he’s playing with guys like the aforementioned Martin as well as Ben Smith, two of the team’s worst players.

Overall this team is slowly making headway. The forward group is arguably a top 10 one in the league, and top five if you’re counting current healthy forward groups. We know defence and goaltending isn’t top notch, but the groups are slowly moving up and away from the bottom five.

I know it’s trendy to say this team is still bad and trending towards another bottom five finish, but I don’t see it that way. This team is better than what they’ve shown so far, and they’ll start getting the results they deserve sooner rather than later.