During the third period of last night’s Leafs game against the Kings, the Leafs held a 3-2 lead and had a faceoff in the defending end of the rink, to the left of James Reimer. The Kings had Anze Kopitar on the ice, an elite forward and faceoff-man. The Leafs had Tyler Bozak and Jay McClement.
A discussion took place between Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro of TSN, discussing the merits of each centreman taking the draw in that situation: McClement is a better faceoff-man and had had an excellent night against Kopitar on the night, going 6-2 on draws. Bozak, on the other hand, is right handed, which makes it easier to tie up the opponents stick on the forehand when all you want to do is kill some time on the clock.
To me, the decision you make there is steeped in analytics.
Brian Burke talked during the Sloan Sports MIT Conference, predictably, about faceoff issues, and problems that arise when the NHL records the data. The NHL records a faceoff as a win or a loss for either centreman with no worry for the situation, whether his wingers helped him win the draw, or whether the player was tied up. Having a better idea of which faceoff men are better in which situation is important, to a degree, if it can help you go from a 50% faceoff team to a 52% faceoff team. Those marginal possessions during a game can add up to one or two goals over the course of a season, and the Leafs are in such a competitive conference that finding an edge in every aspect of play can help.
Unfortunately, analytics has taken a little bit of a hit over the last 18 months, and mostly due to the success of the Toronto Maple Leafs. This presents a very interesting conundrum not just for Leafs fans, but for Leafs management. As I’ve written before, there’s no worry for Dave Nonis to worry about what a Corsi number is until a Corsi number can tell him something about his team (despite the 2008 Vancouver Canucks suffering a precipitous fall similar to what most analysts like myself were predicting for the Maple Leafs this season).
We are also past a point of the season where percentages and shot differentials can tell us too much. Playoff races and playoff series are exercises in small samples. People weren’t lining up to pick the Maple Leafs to have a chance against Boston a year ago, and the Leafs came oh-so-close to one of the most stunning playoff upsets of the day. There are 14 games left in the season and I’ve resigned to lose my bet to Twitter dot com’s @hip2jive that I made during the preseason. What follows now is luck. Good teams usually win in the postseason, but there are usually six or seven good teams that have a chance. Last year I went all-in on Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles in my playoff pool and won big. I’m having a difficult time picking against either team this time around, and it certainly helps if there are no big upsets along the way, but those happen too.
Because… there’s still nothing I see in this Maple Leafs team that makes me believe they’re on the same competitive scale as the top teams in the conference or the league. Taking two wins in three games in four nights on that California trip isn’t something that many teams have done this season. Tampa Bay got slaughtered during their trip. Boston won just one of their games, as did Columbus. Montreal won a single game, in the shootout.
And yet, I watched that game against Los Angeles and again saw the same team I’ve watched for the last 18 months—they were hemmed in their own zone, and won thanks to 3 or 4 big saves from James Reimer. Blue & White Disease doesn’t yet have the scoring chance numbers up on their site from the game against the Kings, but in the 3-1 win against Anaheim the Leafs were out-chanced 28-12 and by San Jose 34-13, which gives you some indication of the troubles Toronto has faced this year. At 5-on-5, the Leafs have been out-scored by five goals this season. They have an overall goal differential (shootout-excluded) of minus-9. They’ve won a higher-than-expected number of close games and have relied on situational scoring and goaltending. They win games by an average of 1.7 goals and lose by an average of 2.2. They’ve picked up four more points than the average team in the shootout. Even if you aren’t looking at the Corsis or the PDOs, you’re looking at a team that is both hanging onto its position in the standings and somehow also making a charge. Tampa is struggling for wins since the Olympic break, and the Leafs are three points up on them.
The part of me that is entertained by the chaos is as frustrated as the weather researchers tracking Tropical Storm Epsilon back in the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. Via XKCD:
(This is just a snippit. Go to XKCD for the full comic. It’s an excellent online strip)
There’s a similarity here: conditions aren’t favourable for storms in the winter, and yet the storms persisted. There wasn’t much left to write about. That’s how it’s become with the Leafs. The Leafs approach their decisions so illogically compared to a team like Chicago or San Jose in regards to deployment and tactics, and yet are having similar success within their conference. You can’t turn around and say “oh, Jay McClement needs to carry the puck in more because X number shows that the Leafs are getting outplayed when McClement’s on the ice” because there’s a winning formula here the Leafs have somehow stumbled upon that can’t exactly be messed with this late in the season.
The team looks drastically different than it did in the fall, I would add. James Mirtle wrote up a post about how Randy Carlyle isn’t using his tomato cans as much, and got rewarded with an overtime goal from Troy Bodie, who isn’t a player with a whole lot of above replacement talent, but is the kind of player you want in the lineup: quick, with some skill, and potential for three or four goals throughout the year in the right situation. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly both have more freedom in the offensive zone.
If I’m looking forward to the future, I have to beat the same old drum. The Leafs have a disproportionate number of wins in one-goal games. They have the second-worst possession statistics in the league, ahead of only Buffalo. Jonathan Bernier is on pace to have the best season ever for a Maple Leafs goaltender, in his first season as a starter at any level since 2009.
So… despite disfavourable conditions, Hurricane Epsilon continues to roll. I can’t help but predict misery ahead, but they’ve seemed to do well without me. Not to say that forecasting hockey is as accurate as forecasting weather.
We have said this before at times during the past several nights… only to have Epsilon make a comeback the following morning… but Epsilon really does not appear as strong this evening as it did this afternoon.
Epsilon appears to still be a hurricane… but just barely.
The end is in sight. It really, really is. But in the meantime, Epislon continues to maintain hurricane status.
And so on and so forth.