Is David Bolland’s injury the reason the Leafs are losing so many games?

I’ve gotten into some discussions recently about whether the Leafs’ injuries provide a valid excuse for their recent record. The popular one is that the Leafs slide began at the start of November, after David Bolland went down to injury in Vancouver with the Leafs record at 10-4-0. Since? Toronto has gone just 7-12-3 with just three wins in regulation, and their lineup has been further exasperated with the removal of Tyler Bozak and the constant sufferings of Joffrey Lupul.


Well, not really. There’s been somewhat of a pattern in the Leafs’ injuries this season that make it fairly likely that one guy being out would account for a disproportionate share of team victories.

Let’s start with what hockey statistics, or generally, all science, can be used for, and that’s falsification. The philosopher Karl Popper believed the scientific theory had three elements: the hypothesis, the explanation, and then the testing. The idea is that the testing was never complete, as that our scientific laws can be falsified, but not verified. This is part of the core idea of Lebanese-American options trader-slash-philosopher Nassim Taleb, who pointed out that the (seemingly) factual statement “all swans are white” can be proved incorrect by the single observation of one black swan. Taleb’s philosophies descend from Popper’s, and in his most recent book Antifragile, he discussed the concept of via negativa, meaning you can’t prove what is, only what “isn’t”.

You cannot say what the Maple Leafs’ collapse is due to, but you can begin to disprove concepts out of hand. Is their record due to too many absentees from the lineup? Not really. While they have faced the extended absences of David Bolland, Tyler Bozak, David Clarkson, Joffrey Lupul and Nik Kulemin for various reasons, the team only has a significantly better record with Bolland in the lineup than not.

Here’s a chart of the Leafs’ schedule this season. Missed games are indicated by highlighted cells:

If you were to randomly distribute a 17-16-3 record across the schedule, I highly doubt that there wouldn’t be at least one player for which the Leafs would have a disproportionately winning record. This is just due to the staggered nature of the injuries.

More arguments in favour of the Leafs not falling apart without David Bolland? Their strong record last season (without Bolland) as well as Chicago’s strong record this season despite having lost him to trade. The Blackhawks remain the best team in the National Hockey League in both points and overall goal differential. The loss of their fourth line centre did not affect them as much.

My argument isn’t that the Leafs don’t miss Bolland, it’s that if the team had a brutal record during the 12 games Clarkson has been out (rather than 8-4-0 versus 9-12-3 when he’s in) or the 20 games Bozak has been out (rather than 10-9-1 versus 7-7-2 when he’s in) the story would change from “the Leafs miss [this player]” to “the Leafs miss [that player]”. Injuries are just a part of hockey, as we will see below with a quote from an NHL player.


It’s not like this was impossible to see coming. On July 29th I wrote this paragraph:

If you assume the Leafs won’t get hurt at all this season or tired, and two-thirds of the roster play 82 games, like Anthony Petrelli points out, the opening day roster can be seen as an upgrade to last year’s. Unfortunately, the team will have little depth if they fail to trade John-Michael Liles, and if Mark Fraser’s arbitration award comes in at more than $900K, any demotion of his will count against the cap a little. The team can ill-afford to see Franson or Kadri come in at more than our projected amounts (Franson was at $2.8-million and Kadri at $3.5-million, but Carl Gunnarsson’s deal was a little more than our $2.8-million projection, as was Jonathan Bernier) and every $100K counts during this season.

Now, both Franson and Kadri came in at below the amounts projected, with some excellent work done by Dave Nonis, which meant the team didn’t have to give up a roster player to keep either, but it also meant that they didn’t have a lot of space to sign depth. With an added centreman in Bolland and two new wingers, I agreed the opening day roster looked pretty good despite the (preventable) losses of Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur.

But that roster came at the expense of depth. You can’t expect two thirds of the roster to play 82 games a season. You just can’t. Over the last three 82-game seasons, 324 players have suited up for at least 80 games, about 3-4 on average per team. It’s the manager’s job to put together a roster with depth so that injuries don’t get nullified. Sometimes, injuries can have pleasant effects—just look at how the rookie goaltender Martin Jones is faring with the injury to Jonathan Quick. One of the Vancouver Canucks’ top pairing defencemen, Chris Tanev, began to be used back during the 2010-2011 season when the team hit its 13th man on the depth chart. Injuries to centremen forced the Leafs hand and got them to pick up Peter Holland, who has been excellent in blue and white. You can do excellent things when given the opportunity to experiment with roster spots when players are injured.

James Reimer touched on all this in his post-game interview after the loss to Florida. Do you know what he means?

There’s never an excuse. There’s never an excuse. Injuries, tired, it’s all BS. It doesn’t, you know, those are excuses, and they’re useless, and so what it comes down to is your will. It’s your heart and your character, if you know what I mean. We should able to win with half of our guys out, you know what I mean? Just look at exhibition games, you know what I mean, you’re playing with half your lineup and sometimes you’re playing against a team that has their full lineup, and I know maybe the game doesn’t mean as much, but there’s still ‘the underdog wins’. There should be no reason, there should be no excuses, you know, that’s negative stuff. All you can focus on is what you yourself can do to get prepared and then be your best, and trust that your teammate across from you is doing the same thing.

Part of the problem is that the Leafs have just two wins this season where their starting goaltending didn’t steal them the win. That was the home game against Edmonton early in the season where Joffrey Lupul tied the game with 19 seconds to go, and against Chicago when Jonathan Bernier had a pedestrian game in a 7-3 win.

As for now, I agree with Reimer. Injuries are not excuses. Injuries are injuries, injuries breed opportunity and teams have succeeded without star players before. The Leafs aren’t losing because they don’t have David Bolland, the Leafs are losing and David Bolland happens to be the lineup change that syncs up with the sudden slide. It’s confirmatory but doesn’t explain. Bolland didn’t blow up the ship, he was simply the last to get off of it before it exploded.

  • Bertly83

    other teams have even more injuries but find ways to win.

    look at that pens lineup from the other night.

    the problem with the leafs is that we have good depth, but those players don’t play/aren’t used to carlyle’s system.

    i’m all for systems in hockey, but his seems to take too long to develop and bringing in new bodies all the time doesn’t help.

    for what carlyle wants/expects, we should have the same full starting lineup in each game over 82. that’s what it would take for them to master his system.

    obviously can’t happen.

    so maybe carlyle’s system should “open up” a little.

    it ain’t working here.

  • No depth? Who could have ever predicted that would be a problem

    Depth: Despite never making the playoffs in between the previous two lockouts, the Leafs failed to accumulate the level of high-end prospect depth that would be expected. If the team struggles with injuries, they will rely on mid-level prospects to fill the gap. Any time missed by the team’s top six forwards or top four defencemen will have an outsized impact on the Leafs. Players like Jerry D’Amigo, Carter Ashton, Andrew MacWilliam and others on the Marlies may one day help the team fill out the bottom half of their roster, but they won’t be nearly enough to overcome any extended absences amongst the team’s most valuable players.

    Who indeed.

  • STAN

    Another great piece Cam.

    The analytics help reenforce what watching this train wreck indicates – dysfunction regardless of who’s suiting up.

    Three quick points.

    1. Do other fans wish the mic-holders would PLEASE ask a player, or a coach, after he has revealed that “we are working hard” and “coming to the rink everyday”… just what that has to do with actual success, or talent, or chemistry or playing a SYSTEM, or winning?

    2. David Clarkson. This Clarkson self-assessment shortly after Nonis made him a guaranteed multi-miolinaire should be pinned to every Leafs fan’s cork board:

    “When I was a kid, I ran around the house wearing a Wendel Clark jersey. I pretended I was him. My dad brought me up a Leaf fan. I play a style of hockey where I come out every night and wear my heart on my sleeve. That’s the type of player I am. I try to do different little things, whether it’s scoring, or hitting. The pressure, every game you go on that ice, you need to do well, you need to do something. Every night I’m going to go out there, put the hard hat on and go to work.”

    Ah yes. He was one of thousands of kids to idolize Wendell. But PLEASE, sports writers, never use the proper names David Clarkson and Wendell Clark in the same sentence.

    3. This will likely peeve off TLN’s diehards – Phaneuf needs to be moved. For SOMETHING. Soon. He’s been getting progressively worse for five seasons. His giveaways and senseless clearing have cost this team dearly, from the playoff loss to the Bruins to last night’s fiasco. I saw him as a Red Deer Rebels standout. He’s nowhere near that level of intensity and desire. Nor close to his first two seasons with the Flames (which I also saw a lot of, in person)

    Nonis should offer him up to at least see what comes back in the form of offers. I have my doubts that 29 other GMs thinks he’s worth much.

    • STAN

      I can imagine a scenario where Nonis won’t see much on the table for Phaneuf simply because:
      a) some teams won’t want him enough to pay for him

      b) teams that would like him, but don’t need him, will low-ball Nonis–reducing his stock and making contract negotiations more difficult because Nonis won’t be wanting to pay Phaneuf close to what he would ask.

      He’ll probably walk and go to a team that is willing to pay him good money and can put him in a proper d-system as maybe a 1B or 2A and he’ll play lights out hockey (and score against us next season).

  • This article is too long. You could’ve just said “Pittsburgh made the playoffs with Crosby out for a year with a concussion. Crosby > Bolland.”

    Other teams lose bigger cogs, and unless we’re going to argue that Bolland is worth a 9m+ cap hit, it’s insane to suggest he’s the reason they’re risking losing their playoff spot.

  • If you want to get to the bottom of the leaf shot differential problem then I wouldn’t look into injuries or other avenues . The best explanation I found supported by analysis is this offering from Burtch over the summer.

    Burtch shows that Phaneuf is just not that good as a shutdown defender. Gunnar and Franson are the leafs best shutdown defenders and Phaneuf tries but is misused in his role as a shutdown defender. And it appears Gunnar is the masking a lot of Phaneuf’s mistake and making Phaneuf appearing as an effective shutdown dman.

    If Nonis is smart he heed the lessons of advanced stats like SDI and avoid another potentially disastrous Clarkson like contract for Phaneuf. Trade Phaneuf or let him walk because he is a shot differential cancer just like SDI suggest.

    The leafs could simply pair Gardiner or Reilly with Gunnar. And Franson with the other puck mover and this will significantly improve the shots against the leafs.

    Check it out

  • STAN

    I keep hearing people dismiss the injury situation as just a mere excuse, citing that other teams have more man-games lost due to injury and suspension. However, I’d be curious to see the rankings with most man-games lost in one position on each team.

    I say this because many teams have injuries that are spread across positions in the line-up. Most organizations can easily fill holes across a line-up by shuffling players up and down while calling up rookies to fill in on bottom six lines.

    What we have here is a catastrophic gutting of the weakest position in our forwards. I can safely argue that EVERY center in the line-up is being miscast, which is costing offensive production and leaving lines vulnerable defensively.

    How do you patch those holes? This boat is taking on water. It’d be possible to win some of these games if you had a veteran D-core, but our guys just aren’t there yet. So if you can’t win a 5-4 hockey game because your offence gets stifled by a lack of depth at center, you’re going to lose more often than not.