The most (and least) improved Leafs of November

Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY SPORTS

Yesterday, we went over the Leafs’ statistical progress as a team over the month of November. The overall conclusion was that they’re getting pucks closer to the net and that the spike in puck-stopping has gone a long way in making the team Actually Good (TM). Continuing the trend, I dove into just about every statistic that I could pull out for October and November for individual players at and came up with three names in each direction that deserve to be pointed out for their progression from month to month.

Most Improved

3. Nazem Kadri

Kadri is a fitting choice to have on this list, seeing as his universally-accepted Coming Out Party was on November 1st against the Oilers. That’s when people started to accept that his two-way game has come a long way from one that was already quietly decent in prior seasons, and that he could contribute as much defensively as he does on the scoresheet.

In November, Kadri scored 11 points in 14 games, while being played for a little under 16 minutes a night in a shadow role against opposing top lines whenever possible. Despite a drop in offensive-to-defensive zone start ratio from 46% to 33%, Kadri saw gains in every single relative shot metric, gained nearly a primary point per hour at even strength compared to the month prior, and generated more individual attempts, particularly in scoring chance areas. Many will dub him as the team’s best player in November, which is impressive given that he had the worst goaltending support on the team (his on-ice SV% was 0.882).

2. Frederik Andersen

We shouldn’t throw the goaltending completely under the bus, though; this was the month where Frederik Andersen bounced back. Many (myself included) were nervous for varying reasons after his first five starts in October, but it seems that the game on the 27th against the Panthers changed everything.

Since then, save for his role in the 7-0 Los Angeles blowout, he’s been nothing short of obscene. Andersen went from a 2-2-3 record and 0.876 save percentage in October to a 0.931 save percentage in November. Looking at the team numbers, I don’t think this is a matter of shot quality; opponents got more of their attempts on goal, and a higher ratio of them were scoring chances or deemed Expected Goals by Corsica’s model. More likely, Andersen is just healthy and confident again, and that’s a great thing to see.

1. Nikita Zaitsev

People have been hyped up for Nikita Zaitsev since, well, months before the Leafs signed him, and in the past few weeks, he’s shown why he was worth the wait and the investment. In terms of team-relative shot metrics, he was the most improved Leafs player in November and it wasn’t even close. He saw his Relative Corsi go up by 10%, Fenwick by 13%, Shots by 16%, Expected Goals By 12%, and Scoring Chances by 17%; highest of all roster regulars in every statistic (Marincin was higher in xG and Holland in SCF). This is despite his zone starts actually getting worse (down 4.2% to 43.2%), and being trusted as the team’s top right-handed defenceman on Pair 1.

There are probably a combination of factors going on here. Some of it is going from Matt Hunwick to Morgan Rielly, and some of it is likely just an adjustment to North America; he had the skating ability for NHL ice all along, but factoring for the narrower angles along the boards is a tricky thing for a defenceman. His production didn’t go up at all, but he put more pucks toward the net and at some point will get that sought-after first goal of his NHL career.

Least Improved

3. William Nylander

Look, we’re not going to spin a “he doesn’t care” narrative like much of the media has, or call him expendable, or any of that garbage. But the reality of the matter is that Nylander was extremely good in October and he wasn’t as good in November. Nylander saw his even-strength production drop to just 0.4 goals and primary assists per hour, and saw dips in every shot-based possession/play driving metric. His biggest drop was in team-relative Goals For Percentage (a disgustingly bad -31%), but the fact that the Leafs shot at just 3.9% with him on the ice likely doesn’t help much.

Nylander will no doubt recover, but a slip from a hot start combined with horrible puck luck has probably made all the recent gossip so much easier to push.

2. Connor Carrick

Here’s another example of a player who has seen big dips from the month prior, but only because they were fantastic in that previous month. Carrick’s primary point generation has dried up, even with the team shooting well with him on the ice (13.5%), to… well, he had no primary points at even strength in November. His overall production is actually up, but that’s due to an extra secondary assist.

On the other side of the game, Carrick is also down in every team-relative metric; Corsi, Fenwick, Shots, Goals, Expected, Goals, and Scoring Chances. But it should be noted that, despite this, he was a positive on the team in every single one of those metrics as well, and that his offensive zone starts are slightly down as well.

So this one, more so than any of them, isn’t a case of Carrick going from good to bad. It’s a case of him going from Toronto’s best play-driving possession in October, playing the best hockey of his career, to just being pretty good in November. I still think he’s for real, in any event.

1. Roman Polak

I hate to beat up on Roman Polak. Despite being a wannabe Computer Boy, there are few people I enjoy watching when I don’t have work to do more than him. He’s fearless, plays at 110% every night, and everybody I’ve ever talked to about him has said nothing but good things about him as a person. He’s someone you want to like.

But he was a polarizing player in October and just awful in November. There’s no way around that. Polak’s drop in shot-based metrics was very similar to Carrick’s, but rather than starting from Mount Everest, he was starting from something closer to that half-ski hill at Earl Bales Park. Polak had the worst relative Corsi and Shots For on the Leafs in November, had the second lowest Relative Fenwick to Ben Smith, and near the bottom of Relative Expected Goals (in fairness: so was Most-Improved Zaitsev, and both combined are still only halfway to Smith).

Polak did have above-water relative Goals-For numbers, which has led to a lot of arguments about whether he’s influencing opportunity beyond shot attempts, but I’d imagine that the fact that Andersen with from a 0.901 to a 0.950 with him on the ice probably makes the biggest difference. Maybe there’s something to that. I want to believe there’s a reason that he and fellow PDO Spiker Matt Hunwick had the goals go in their favour. But I’m not sure I see it, both in the spreadsheets and with the eyes.

Either way, he’s gone from “he had that one good night” to “oh no he’s chasing the puck again”, and gets the Wooden Spoon here.

  • BarelyComments

    When was the last time we had a legitimate top pair with two good players? It feels like it’s been so long since we’ve had anything other than Phaneuf and either Gunnerson or whatever that weeks marlie call up was…

    • Jeff Veillette

      I’d say the Leafs have 2 good pairs and one really bad one right now. Rielly-Zaitsev is getting better by the game, Gardiner-Carrick works well when sheltered, but Hunlak is obviously awful.

        • Stan Smith

          You simply cannot rate defensive players using the majority of advanced metrics. If you want to see Polak’s, Hunwick’s and Smith’s value to the team go back to the 5 on 3 penalty kill against the Caps. Those players are on the team for that reason.

          As for Gardiner, he has moved up to third in TOI but it wasn’t that long ago he was 5th, and i am sure that is what Jeff meant by sheltered. Gardiner has been playing with more “energy” lately, which has helped his game, and his ice time.

          The more I see of Carrick the more I’m not convinced he is ready to play a meaningful role in the NHL.

          • LukeDaDrifter

            5 on 3 against the Oilers as well. When Polack is out of the lineup Babcock is not happy with his choices for the PK. Rielly is getting time back there but I don’t think Babcock wants to overuse him by having to put him out there all the time, with some power play, regular shift and PK. I am not sure why but a lot of commenters here undervalue killing penalties. Marincin plays the PK when he is in the lineup. I don’t think Corrado does when he is in for Polack, and when he did he didn’t look good. Maybe Corrado will come in for Carrick at some point. That would leave Polack to continue playing the PK.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      If you wait until the Leafs have no chance of making the playoffs, then just like last year you will see Corrado and Marincin back in the lineup replacing Polack and Hunwick, every game. I think in the last thirty games with those two in on the back end we lost 25 of the last thirty games. Then we can have all the excitement of trying to be the worst team in the league and going for a top lotto pick again.

      • HockeyKeeperKit

        Man, it’s getting really tiring reminding you that the end of last year was not a good measuring stick. The Leafs didn’t lose 25 of 30 because of their 3rd pairing. The team lost with kids, injuries, and horrible goaltending. I’ve made this point multiple times and you have yet to address it.

        • HockeyKeeperKit

          No wait. I made the mistake of again believing your stats. You’re pulling stuff out of your ass again. Following the trade deadline (Feb. 29), the Leafs were 7-8-1 in March and 1-4-0 in April (good for 8-12-1). Prior to the deadline (and Corrado playing), the Leafs were 3-7-2 in January and 4-8-1 in February (good for 7-15-3). Neither are great but one looks worse than the other.

          The Leafs actually played near 500 hockey after the Polak trade with a bunch of kids before tanking the last few games. The Leafs ran Bernier (an NHL backup) and Sparks (an AHLer) after as opposed to Reimer and Bernier before. They actually almost played well enough in the final stretch to screw themselves out of Matthews or at least the better odds at getting him. Give your narrative of bashing Corrado based on his Toronto games played a rest. I used your narrative against you.


          • HockeyKeeperKit

            I did more research. I did some math and found out that prior to the trade deadline, the Leafs has a 42% points percentage prior to trade deadline and a 40% after. Of course, the Leafs must have played worse after the deadline due to Corrado!!! I guess you win. But wait, there’s more!!! February also saw the Phaneuf trade (Feb. 9) where despite his flaws, the team was marginally better with him than with the spare parts they got. In total at the Trade Deadline, the Leafs traded away NHLers in Phaneuf, Matthias, Polak, Spaling, Reimer, and Winnik and got NHLers Greening, Michalek, B. Smith and Laich in return. I’d take column A (even with Polak…) any day.

            Same as I’ve said since day 1. Develop. Your. Assets. Play Corrado. Not every game. Just play him.

  • #@RealDeplorableBill

    Draft and develop. Need a bunch more D and top end offensive players. If they stay the course in another 4-5 years the Leafs should be a contender year in year out.

    Hopefully the Leafs have a couple more years of good luck at the draft lottery too.

  • M@

    The defense is going to take some time… trades and development of the kids (specifically Dermott and Nielson). As long as they figure it out by the start of the 2018-19 season I’ll be happy.

    Are Polak and Hunwick ideal? Ofcourse not…. but they’re a stop gap. And quite honestly – look at the bottom pair defenseman around the league, there’s no studs there fellers.

    • M@

      I like the fact that he excelled playing with elite talent… I know some in the analytics crowd wouldn’t agree with that opinion (riding coattails etc.), but I personally think it’s a really good sign.

    • Jeff Veillette

      Again, this is more of a matter of him going from “extremely great” to “good” than it is a matter of him going from “good” to “bad”. That’s perfectly normal for a 20-year-old rookie and we’re not too stressed about it