Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY SPORTS
Since late last season, I’ve been of the belief that the Toronto Maple Leafs are actually good. More specifically, I’ve been of the belief that with the systems that Mike Babcock executes, the influx of young talent they’ve added in the past few years, and the continued growth of those players, the Leafs are now more likely to win X amount of hockey games than most teams in the league. It’s a belief that they are not Stanley Cup contenders just yet, but they are at least in the threshold for good.
Alas, the Leafs lost to the Vancouver Canucks in a shootout last night, thus throwing a movement that was well-accepted several days ago out the window. Or did it?
I understand the frustration. Saturday night was a very hyped up game and if the numbers are to be believed, the Vancouver Canucks aren’t actually good. Vancouver are currently a below-average 18th in Corsi-For percentage in even strength, but even that’s boosted by score effects; their 191 minutes with the lead is the lowest total in the league (Toronto is third overall at 489 minutes). Adjusted for score, the Canucks are 23rd in the ever-popular shot attempt metric (Toronto is 14th). Corsica’s expected goals model, which waits shot attempts by approximate value, ranks them 28th (Toronto is, again, third).
On paper, there was even less reason to believe the Leafs should have lost the game. The Canucks rely a bunch on slower, veteran players and stay at home defencemen. Their best point men, Chris Tanev and Alex Edler, are both hurt, while Toronto is largely healthy and had at least one high-skill forward on each line. The Canucks aren’t horribly dissimilar from where the Leafs were a few years ago, so its of no surprise that people are shocked at the final result.
But I think that discredits both teams. First and foremost, losing to a weaker team in your league isn’t exactly a black swan event. Last year’s Leafs were the worst team in hockey and still managed to win 35% of their games; a third of those wins coming against 100+ point teams, including a 6-0 record against the three best teams in the Western Conference. To assume that the Canucks are unable to pull out a win in a single game vacuum and that a loss in a bonus round is indicative of your team being bad a bit of a reach (especially when you consider they’re a month and a half removed from going 4-0-0 with ten minutes of lead time).
Besides, let’s be honest with ourselves; Vancouver really, really wanted that game.
Canucks treated this like it was a Game 7. Tossed TOI on their stars, barely played their depth. Leafs balanced minus sheltering Martin. pic.twitter.com/wtiTs9uGA3
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 4, 2016
Based on deployment, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the Canucks doubled down on trying to win this one out. They had nine players who played at least 19 minutes and played their two weakest forwards for fewer than eight minutes combined.
It’s hard to blame them for it either. Outside of the fact that the Horvat line was lights out and that the twins were themselves once Sutter was off the ice, the circumstances of the last game can’t be forgotten for them. We talk about the game in Toronto in November as a bloodbath, but it was also one where they gave up six goals and largely got chased out the building from a hockey sense as well. Everybody from management to the coaching staff to the players wanted to avoid having that happen again on home ice, especially with tensions as high as they were and the league warning them to not pull any funny business. This was an inspired Canucks team that treated this like their most important game of the season so far; a repeat of November’s result would’ve been inexcusable in the West Coast.
I don’t doubt that the Leafs tried to win this one too, but lineup deployment was much more balanced until overtime.
Despite all this, they also clearly outplayed Vancouver. From the van Riemsdyk point on, the Leafs went on a 40-14 shot attempt run. From Matthews’ equalizer on, the shots on goal were 17-5. If that game is replayed a few times over, Toronto almost definitely grabs one more goal in the third period; Ryan Miller was simply on form and negated the push.
Overall, I don’t believe this to be a game that gets in the way of progress or acts as a counter to the idea that the Leafs are a good hockey team in the present. It’s one where they heavily outperformed a motivated team that played its top players as much as they possibly could. Even the league’s weaker teams can squeak out points from time to time under the right circumstances; the Canucks have done that a few times this year. Consider this a lost point, sure, but beyond that, I wouldn’t consider it to be indicative of much else.