Photo Credit: Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SPORTS
The Leafs are 10-1-5 this year when leading after two periods, and as a result of those six games that got away, Toronto’s inability to close out has become a hot-button discussion in town of late. I don’t have any significant answers on how to fix this, but just out of curiosity, I decided to look up how much time every NHL team spends with the lead, trailing behind, and tied in the league this year.
I took every team’s Time on Ice with the lead, tied, and trailing at 5 on 5 and split them into percentages. Here’s what that looks like:
As you can see, Toronto spends a lot of time with the lead; the third highest share of it in the NHL, with over 40% of their time spent up by at least a goal. They also have by far the lowest win percentage of anybody in the Top 10, no doubt aided by the fact that they’re slightly below average (19th) in time trailing and spend the lowest share of time at a tied score.
Interestingly, Toronto’s most dominant hockey on paper comes with the game evened up; they’re first in score-tied Expected Goals Percentage and fourth in Corsi-For percentage, which falls to a relatively average 15th and 12th when trailing. Interestingly, Toronto’s CF% is 14th in the league while leading while their xGF% remains top 5, suggesting that Toronto remains aggressive and continues to play in close when they have the lead.
Penalty differential hasn’t been helpful to Toronto when they need it to be either. Referees will always favour the losing team, but Toronto’s 10th place ranking in Penalty Differential rate while trailing is offset by being bottom half when leading and bottom ten when tied, often forcing the Leafs onto the penalty kill when they least need to be.
I was curious to see if there were any Leafs who played a higher or lower percentage of their minutes when the team is down than when they’re up, and here’s how that breaks down:
I don’t think anybody is overly shocked to see that Mike Babcock doesn’t really look to Martin Marincin to get him a goal, and that William Nylander isn’t seen as someone to bring out to defend a lead. Both of those disproportions fit the narratives we know.
It’s also not shocking to see Hunwick, Soshnikov, and Martin as players who would get lead defending duty more than others. That’s what they’re advertised for, and there’s also the simple matter of playing your time killing lines when the lead gets into the multiple goals earlier in the game.
That could be contributing a bit to the problem, though; all three are in the bottom five in penalty differential on the team when Toronto is up; perhaps a little over-aggression to hammer home the message isn’t helping them very much. Hunwick (along with Smith, Polak, and Marner) also has a sub-40 CF% while leading; though the fact that his tied numbers are just as bad and his trailing numbers are near the top of the team (59.4%) might mean that it’s a matter of assigned role rather than ability. Or it could be just small-sample noise.
Leaned on most disproportionately when trailing you’ll find Ben Smith and Connor Carrick. Carrick makes the most sense, given that he has offensive upside but hasn’t built up the rapport to be trusted with shutdown minutes (he plays the lowest share of leading minutes on the team). But even Smith’s makes some sense when you take into account occasional usage to win draws in late-game situations where the team needs immediate possession.
I don’t have anything close to a concrete one. To be honest, I don’t know what’s to be made of this data as it stands, but I figure it’s a nice little starting point to see where the Leafs are and who they’re using in certain roles. It’s interesting to see that they’re spending a lot of time ahead but aren’t capitalizing on it, but the next step will have to be figuring out why, or even if there is a why.