The Phil Kessel hot-start conundrum

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Thus far in the NHL regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are shooting at 12.1%. This can be interpreted as either a good thing or a bad thing. The good news is that the Toronto Maple Leafs are shooting at 12.1% and thus scoring a lot of goals and are 6th in the NHL in goals per game. They are theoretically on pace for 257 goals.

The bad news is that the Toronto Maple Leafs are shooting at 12.1% and are probably not a team capable of sustaining that rate through the full NHL season. In fact, no team really is. The 2007 Buffalo Sabres are the only post-lockout team to crack the 12% barrier over the course of an entire season, and they were a team loaded with players who had career seasons.

Short of the prospect of the Maple Leafs having the same good fortune, Toronto’s shooting percentage will probably regress over the course of the season, and since a good chunk of the shots are coming from Kessel, that is doubly a problem. Even without Phil Kessel (who, despite scoring in his last game against Winnipeg, saw his shooting percentage on the season drop from 45.5% to 33.3%) the Leafs forwards shooting at 11.4% through five games, despite just five forwards; Nik Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur, posting career shooting percentages higher than that clip.

Here’s one of my handy charts, including each forward’s career shooting percentage and the number of “theoretical” goals each player would have scored if they’ve shot at the same clip as their career shooting percentage thus far:

Player GP G S SOG% CareerSOG% Theoretical’ Goals
Phil Kessel 5 7 21 33.3% 10.7% 2.2
Joffrey Lupul 5 4 18 22.2% 10.9% 2.0
Matt Frattin 5 0 9 0.0% 0.0% 0.0
Mikhail Grabovski 5 1 8 12.5% 12.1% 1.0
Matthew Lombardi 5 1 7 14.3% 9.8% 0.7
David Steckel 5 0 6 0.0% 6.8% 0.4
Mike Brown 5 0 5 0.0% 6.0% 0.3
Philippe Dupuis 5 0 5 0.0% 5.0% 0.3
Nikolai Kulemin 5 1 4 25.0% 13.7% 0.5
Tyler Bozak 5 0 3 0.0% 13.2% 0.4
Colby Armstrong 5 0 3 0.0% 13.1% 0.4
Colton Orr 1 1 1 100.0% 7.5% 0.1
Clarke MacArthur 3 0 1 0.0% 13.2% 0.1
Jay Rosehill 1 0 0 0.0% 11.1% 0.0
Team 60 15 91 16.5%   8.4
Team Minus Kessel 55 8 70 11.4%   6.1

The problems I see here is that there’s little offense behind the “Big Two” of Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, and the second line has really struggled to create shots. While they combined for 6.9 shots on goal last season, they’ve only averaged 3 to start the season. That line had a very good first game against Montreal, but they’ve struggled since, and were really put on their heels against Winnipeg Wednesday night.

We can accept that the Leafs shooting percentages will regress, but we can also point out places where they can score more by increasing their shot count. The second line really has to play like the second line we saw last season for the Leafs to continue playing at a winning pace. Last season Grabovski was the best Corsi Rel players in the NHL (that meaning, he did far better than his teammates in shot attempt differential than every player in the league) but he’s dropped to a pretty average pace this season, putting up a Corsi Rel of just +1.0 as the Kessel and Lupul line has become a puck possession line as well.

Right now the Leafs have a terrific record; and wins are just as valuable in October or November as they are March and April, but the team behind Kessel, Lupul, and James Reimer, who has put up a .940 even strength save percentage thus far in the regular season has yet to pick up a bit of the slack. Once those shooting numbers from Kessel start to regress a tad, the team may be exposed. Hopefully for the Leafs, that’s when the Grabovski line can do as they did last season, step in, and start scoring some goals.

  • Danny Gray

    Great stuff here Cam. I think most, read:intelligent, Leafs fans are aware that Kessel’s run is unsustainable. I prefer to be happy that we’re winning these games as opposed to losing them. Once the MKG line gets moving it’ll make up for Kessel’s regression, hopefully.