Playoffs? This team?
Yes, this team. They’re in the position right now and some people don’t seem to believe it or even understand how. The Leafs are not as bad as most people make them out to be after every loss and is better than last year’s version.
In the summer I developed a pretty simple algorithm for playoff success that combines possession, special teams and goals (methodology here) which I talked about in a post that looked at why the Leafs are nowhere close to contending for the Cup.
Basically, they’ve been really bad in the past, but we already knew that right? This year is their best mark ever, and there’s reason to believe they can continue at that level of play.
The method itself correlates pretty well with points, and the better team has won 77 percent of playoff series over the past five years. I’ve been doing some weekly power rankings and projections at my own blog every Wednesday (here’s this weeks) based on my playoff output projection (POP) and Justin has let me shameless self-promote my work here.
After Florida’s game last night, every team has officially passed the 20 game mark so I figured it would be as good a time as any to show where the Leafs are at this year. After the 20 game mark teams start to vary less and usually stay consistent for the rest of the season. At the 20 game mark last season, points achieved and points projected by POP had a correlation of 0.55.
The Leafs played their 20th game last Thursday against the Lightning, a huge 5-2 win that brought them to an even 10-10 record with 22 points thanks to shootout losses. It’s a 90 point pace which is pretty close to their projection for the season which is 93 points.
For the projections I use an adjusted version of the algorithm because it’s still early in the season and teams are more spread apart than they would be at the end of the season. So I looks at how far teams are away from average considering the distribution and compare that to past seasons.
It’s still early and a lot of things can change, but the reason for the Leafs’ playoff projection is the same reason most people thought they could squeak into a wildcard spot in the summer: improved, but still not good, puck possession that’s offset by good goaltending, and good special teams.
Bad puck possession buoyed by goaltending and special teams was the Leafs recipe for success in the lockout shortened season, but this time around the possession is much better so there’s hope that what we’re seeing is real and not a mirage.
Puck possession is the most important part of the algorithm and it’s where the Leafs have made the biggest strides and why there’s reason for optimism with this team. The Leafs puck possession, while still mediocre, has improved a lot year-over-year.
There’s still much to be desired, but they’re about break-even in close situations which is a big step up from last year’s woeful mark. You can probably attribute that to the analytics department as well as the forward depth added over the offseason which has done wonders for the bottom of the lineup.
The power play has been very good so far at generating shot attempts, but the results haven’t been there recently and they’ve run a bit cold. That’ll correct itself over time. Their PK is top ten, but it’ll probably regress a bit because it’s mostly due to a high save percentage. Those two should cancel each other out, but overall the special teams units have been decent.
On top of that, the goalies aren’t stealing as many games as they’ve had to in seasons past, and have actually not been their usual spectacular selves. That should bounce back up as well with the talent Bernier and Reimer have.
Those three skills are all a part of POP and can still be volatile this early in the season, but in the Leafs case there doesn’t seem to be a big concern for regression.
And really, those three things should be enough for a playoff berth. With the Leafs calling the Leastern Conference home, it’s not at all far-fetched to think that could mean playoffs this season. They’ve improved where they needed to and still have huge strengths in other key areas that’ll definitely put them in the mix. After all, there’s different ways to skin a cat.
But despite the positive changes, the way the Leafs are playing still makes them an average team. It may be good enough to make the playoffs, but it won’t be good enough to compete with actual contenders, and that should be the goal.
They’ve made some positive gains, sure, but the Leafs still have a long way to go. Getting to the playoffs is baby steps to the end goal, but this team still isn’t good enough.