The season is halfway over, and, still, the Leafs remain in playoff position, not only just 6th in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, but they are also one of just five teams in the conference with a positive goal differential. The time is right for the Leafs right now: beyond the top four teams in the conference, neither are very strong.
Of course, the unfortunate reality of this for Leafs fans is that one of the top four teams in the conference, Pittsburgh, are currently sitting in ninth place but are primed to make a run forward. Their +12 goal differential matched with the team being the best Eastern team in team Fenwick rank mean that they’re not likely to sit where they are.
Using Pythagorean Expectation, we can spitball where the Leafs rank through the first half of the season:
PDO, the addition of team shooting and save percentages at even strength, is a reliable indicator of luck, and slowly, team PDO begins to normalize over the course of the season. Pittsburgh is measured as the only team unluckier than the New York Islanders (shooting at a conference-low 7.1%) this season in the East and have still managed a +12 differential. Even with all the injuries, I think that’s a team that slowly creeps up into the playoff picture.
Going by points per 82, I’m assuming that the number for entry into the playoffs this season will be 92, as it does tend to be a bit lower than the Western Conference’s. Toronto, right now, are at 49 points, on pace for a little under 96. However, the team’s PDO and winning percentages are higher than the norm, so a bit of regression ought to be expected (not much in the way of xWP, mind you).
With Toronto being right on a normalized pace to pick up 10 overtime or shootout losses this season, I humbly measure the Leafs necessary record to make the playoffs from here on out as:
19 – 18 – 5
From a pessimist’s perspective, the Leafs should give up 123 goals the rest of the way going by the season average of 3.07 goals against. Now, Reimer is back and that helps the Leafs overall save percentage fortunes at even strength (although Gustavsson has been nails lately, Reimer is really going to have to improve his overall game if the Leafs want to stay in the hunt) but the penalty kill is still a problem. Toronto hasn’t been taking penalties lately, and if the $10 fine jar for a penalty is any indication, the Leafs are really going to work at keeping themselves out of the box, which is an effective method for killing penalties.
With 123 goals against, how many goals will the Leafs need to score to get 19 wins the rest of the way? According to Pythagorean Expectation, again, that number is:
Now, the Leafs’ shooting percentage can definitely be expected to regress. As 9.5%, the Leafs are shooting the fourth best rank in the league at even strength after shooting last season at 8.5%. Going by the 8.5% number, the Leafs, with their 28.3 shots per game at even strength, can expect just under 100 goals coming at even strength.
So the powerplay will be absolutely key for them. Having scored 33 goals in the first half of the season, so that would normally be a cinch to clinch the overall 117 goal marker. However, if the Leafs are going to be taking fewer penalties, that will also mean fewer powerplays (I found a correlation between penalties taken as a team and powerplays earned as a team. That post and its information should be published soon) so less of a chance for the Leafs to earn their 33 powerplay goals.
That said, over the course of 40 games, things don’t have to balance out. They could be an outlier either positive or negative, but I’m quite confident that the 19-18-5 record and 117 goals is the absolute minimum requirement for Toronto to make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.