The 2016-17 Leafs were a team that exceeded the expectations of just about everyone. After all, it’s rare to see a team go from last place to a playoff spot in just one year. Of course, this massive jump in position usually causes suspicion from the people who doubted the team, since history usually suggests that the team’s success was a result of luck and not skill. Whether it be the 2013 Leafs, 2013-14 Avalanche, 2014-15 Flames, or this year’s Ottawa Senators, there’s always a team that was bad last year that manages to make the jump due to luck, so it’s natural to assume that this year’s Maple Leafs are the same. But, is this really the case? Were the Leafs lucky, or were they actually good?
It didn’t take too long after the Leafs season ended for fans of other teams to point out that the Leafs had 40 wins in 82 games, even though they made the playoffs. If the NHL’s point system just went by a win-loss system, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders would finish ahead of them, but because the Leafs had 15 OT losses, they made the playoffs.
Sometimes, this is an instance of a team getting points off of luck. The team is lucky enough that they can survive against teams for 60 minutes, keep it tied, and take it to overtime and get at least a point. This was something the Leafs seemed to rely on a lot, but in a different way, as the whole reason why the team was going to overtime was because the teams failure to hold a lead. Five of the Leafs top seven in Corsi Against per 60 had at least 400 minutes of 5v5 ice time while leading, something that only ten players met. So, half of the players that were getting the most ice time when the team was defending a league were some of the worst players defensively on the team.
This is on a team that was third in the league in time spent leading in a game while at even strength to only the Washington Capitals and the Minnesota Wild. So, this team isn’t going to overtime in the lucky way, by relying on strong goaltending to pull through in the final minutes to take them to overtime. The Leafs were going to overtime in the unlucky way, as a combination of poor performance from the players on the ice resulting in the goal, and poor player deployment from the coaching staff resulted in the team blowing leads more often than not. It was clear late in the season too, as they tended to take the lead, and then just sit back and hope for the best, a strategy that bit them more often than not.
Once the team improves, they’ll be less likely to be blowing leads in their games, and they won’t be going to overtime as much. Also, the Leafs had some poor luck in the shootout, which is usually a coin toss. So, while the Leafs will probably have less overtime losses, some of that will come from the fact that they’ll probably do better than 1-8 in the shootout next year, so the fact that they were “lucky” in terms of getting points in losses will counteract with the fact that they were “unlucky” in the shootout.
While it wasn’t a surprise that the Leafs had an increase in scoring this season, since they were injecting three top 10 draft picks, a full year of JVR, and a luckier Nazem Kadri into the lineup, but I don’t think many were expecting the Leafs to go from 28th in the league in scoring with 198 to fifth in the league with 251. So, many contributed this massive jump in offense to high shooting percentage.
Well, they aren’t TOTALLY wrong. The Leafs did have the eighth best 5v5 shooting percentage that year at 8.3%. That’s not absurdly above league average, but it’s also not league average.
Now, their generation of offense wasn’t by fluke. They ranked fifth in the league in 5v5 Shots For per 60 with 30.6, second in 5v5 Fenwick For per 60 with 44.4, and third in 5v5 Corsi For per 60 with 59.5. They also had some players who were really good at generating offense. They had seven players in the top 100 for 5v5 Shots For per 60 (Zach Hyman at 50, William Nylander at 56, Auston Matthews at 59, Connor Carrick at 74, JVR at 84, Tyler Bozak at 86, and Jake Gardiner at 93, with Morgan Rielly creeping just outside of that at 107), 10 players in the top 100 for 5v5 Fenwick For per 60 (Nylander at 18, Hyman at 27, Bozak at 34, Matthews at 36, JVR at 37, Gardiner at 42, Mitch Marner at 48, Carrick at 56, Kadri at 58, and Rielly at 62, with Nikita Zaitsev just outside of that at 104), and 10 players in the top 100 for 5v5 Corsi for per 60 (Nylander at 27, Carrick at 32, Hyman at 33, JVR at 43, Matthews at 45, Bozak at 50, Kadri at 60, Gardiner at 65, Marner at 73, and Rielly at 77, with Connor Brown just outside of that at 103).
And in terms of shooting luck, only Kadri really exceeded his shooting percentage, but considering that he only shot 6.5% in 2015-16, this season was his regression. It’s not like he didn’t shoot the puck either, as he was 26th with 236. Now, I’m not expecting Mitch Marner to shoot 10.13% at 5v5, but until we get enough sample size, it’ll be hard to tell if he can sustain over most of his career, or if he’ll drop down a little bit. Meanwhile, Nylander only shooting 6.57% at 5v5 while still scoring 13 goals at 5v5 shows some more promise for him, so his regression will counteract any potential regression from Marner.
As mentioned in the introduction, a lot of people assume that because a team has made a massive leap in the standings, it means that they are probably benefiting from a spike in their shooting percentage and save percentage. While there was a spike, it wasn’t because the Leafs were lucky this year, it’s because they were really unlucky last year. Aside from PA Parenteau and Leo Komarov, that team was snake bitten in terms of offense, and didn’t get much help in the crease, as Bernier was horrendous, Reimer had a great start, but tailed off, and Sparks was suffering from injuries during his stint near the end of the season, so he didn’t fair much better.
The 2015-16 Leafs were tied for last with a 98.3 PDO, including a league worst 6.36% shooting percentage, and a 25th place 91.93% save percentage. The team also had a 51.3% 5v5 CF% that year, which was 13th in the league. So, the team played well, but they weren’t getting results.
So, they just added a 40 goal scorer, three 20 goal scorers, and an additional 15 goals from both Kadri and JVR, while also adding more consistent goaltending. In fact, they’re possession dropped, as they became a 50.4% 5v5 CF% team, although having the third most minutes led at even strength contributes to that.
While most teams that make a massive jump like the Leafs do so because they did better than they should have, the Leafs did it because the year they tanked, they actually did worse than they should have.
Now, this is where the Leafs definitely saw some luck. The Leafs had nine players reach 82 game seasons, and William Nylander was one game short of reaching that as well. This came in a year where only 99 players had “perfect” seasons, which means had 9.09% of the league’s perfect seasons came from the Leafs, which is quite high amongst 30 teams.
Looking at the teams that were fighting with the Leafs for that last wild card spot, and you see the difference. The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t have a single player play a full season, and only Alex Killorn, Braydon Coburn, and Andrej Sustr played at least 80. The New York Islanders only had three players play a full season in Josh Bailey, Calvin de Haan, and Jason Chimera, and I wouldn’t classify any of them as difference makers for the Islanders, at least compared to John Tavares. The Carolina Hurricanes were similarly lucky to the Leafs, as they had six players play 82 games in Joakim Nordstrom, Brett Pesce, Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin, Lee Stempniak, and Victor Rask.
The Leafs saw a huge benefit from a relatively healthy team, especially considering most of their stars never got hurt either. Now, the Leafs are one of the few teams equip to deal with injuries, especially on the wing. Considering their press box is constantly rotating Kapanen, Soshnikov, and Leivo, with Rychel, Griffith, Grundstrom, and Johnsson sitting in the minors. While they’re depth in the other positions isn’t as good, they can probably survive in case of an injury.
But, that’s not saying they will. Odds are, the Leafs will suffer from several more injuries this season, especially a long term one or two. The big questions will be: who gets hurt, and who takes their place?
So, despite the belief of some people, the Leafs weren’t this absurdly lucky team like we’ve seen in the past, even from the Leafs themselves. This team is a team who actually has the talent and skill to compete in the league. While they benefited from a healthy squad, they also had a high octane offense, and average goaltending, all while dealing with poor luck in the dying minutes of regulation, overtime, and the shootout. Anytime they were lucky, they also had a part of the season where they were unlucky to counteract it.
Unless the hockey gods curse or bless the Leafs this season, they will be the same team as last year with a slightly better defense, another 20 goal scorer, and probably better luck in the shootout, while also dealing with a few more injuries. Leafs fans shouldn’t be worried about a negative regression, because they don’t have a whole lot to regress negatively.