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Are the Leafs living up to the ‘contender’ label at the half-way point?

A few things are going to transpire over the next few weeks as the NHL season settles into its second half and eventual stretch run. For one, the good teams will start to really break away from the bad, the latter folding up shop and looking forward to the draft.  With that, carcasses will be picked over and trade bait boards will start to be regularly updated – we see some of this already with teams like the Blues, Sens and Flyers. Players on expiring deals, most notably guys like Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, will dominate a lot of the trade talk leading up to February 25th. Nothing new.

We know what all this means for the Leafs: A lot of questioning if they need to make moves or adjustments, though this time with a real “Cup run” theme we haven’t seen the like of since 2004. But the key question is how much of this will be from a real place of concern. Framed another way, is this team, as currently constructed, good enough that you would be confident in a playoff run that started tomorrow?

The Leafs had a lot of wind behind their sails going into this season. So far they’ve definitely delivered in terms of results and points in the standings, but I find myself continuing to question whether this is a team strong enough to not waste a season of John Tavares plus Marner and Matthews on the entry-level contracts. I know this sounds unfairly urgent, but that’s not what this is about. This team will be fine for years, but it’s also worth pointing out they won’t really get another shot in this window with this much flexibility.

So, how good are they today?

Points% Adjusted CF% 5v5 GF% 5v5 SCF% 5v5 Team Sv% 5v5
Where the Leafs rank 2nd (0.692) 10th (51.2%) 1st (58.6%) 15th (50.5%) 5th (0.934)

I’m not going to get too stat-heavy here, mainly because I’m not smart enough to. But if we take a quick look at some of these team metrics we can see where the Leafs rank league-wide, and get an idea of where the team hasn’t put it together yet. For instance, at even-strength, through the opening half of the season the Leafs are 5th in scoring chances for, but give up enough to pull them back to 15th on balance. That’s, err, not great. And it shows that maybe they’ve been relying on special teams and an already-overworked Freddie Andersen to get them in the win column, at least more than a team this talented should.

Nervous about Andersen’s injury? Yes, you should be.

But something we shouldn’t be so nervous about is special teams. It’s no secret this team’s powerplay is another animal completely. Toronto’s extra-man units have generated 223 scoring-chances for, which ranks first in the league by a wide margin (Tampa has 200). As a rate, the Leafs are clipping at 77 scoring-chances per hour, the next best is San Jose with 58. And this is despite the fact the Leafs are 12th in shots-for on the PP, and rank 29th in terms of time spent with the advantage. Talk about finding your spots efficiently.

If you look at the powerplay heat map for the Leafs, it’s easy to see this bear out with what we’re watching from night to night. In the case of the first unit, we know how the team likes to swing the puck back to Rielly, he finds Marner, who then has the option to go cross-ice to Matthews or funnel the puck down low to Tavares for a re-direct and/or rebound opportunity. It’s like clockwork. Because of that, the most dangerous area of the slot gets a lot of work and below we see the team’s shot rates in that high-danger spot nearly burn a hole in the heat map. Seriously, this is insanity.

Sweet lord, it’s as if the Leafs do the exact opposite of what drunk fans and Don Cherry want when they yell “SHOOOOTTTT” at whoever gets the puck at the point. Again, this aligns nicely with what we see with the eye test. Marner in particular is just a wizard at feeding pucks to where guys can pound away with scoring chances or at least create a lot of chaos.

At the mid-point in the season we know a lot of good things about this team; The Leafs are getting the results we expected in the standings, they’ll likely coast to 2nd in the division, and the goals will keep coming. Players like Marner, Matthews, Rielly, and Tavares are all looking at career high boxcar stats and potential award nominations. But is all of this enough to ease our minds about this team over the next four months? If the standings shake out with a path to the Cup finals that looks something like Boston-Tampa-Washington, what kind of confidence level will Toronto, both the city and the team itself, have about their chances?

As they sit currently, the Leafs are a team that can win any game by turning it on offensively, especially if they’re given any opportunities at 5-on-4, but they have plenty of room to get better overall with stronger play at evens. With the injection of Nylander into the lineup, their shot-share at even strength has begun to climb and he’s been particularly strong in that regard despite the fact he’s so cold scoring-wise, but it can’t be said enough that the team needs to keep improving to get to a place where they don’t rely as much on goaltending. It would be a major shame to see the season completely derailed with a quick playoff exit if the team runs into injury trouble with Andersen, which is obviously a real possibility given his history and their lack of depth at the position.

As far as contending goes, the Leafs are about as much a Cup threat as anyone else in the league, but we probably could have said that last season as well. What’s scary is that Andersen has already run into injury troubles while enduring a heavy workload early on this season, and the right side defence is still a problem. Those two areas in particular are what completely unraveled the team early in the Boston series last spring, putting them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of. Ideally, they need to get to a place where they can absorb an Andersen injury or slight powerplay drought and still edge out a playoff series. I don’t think they’re there right now.

While the highlight reel moments and absurd powerplay performance in the first half of the season have helped the team deliver on the excitement around the team before it got going, I think a lot of those who follow the team closely are terrified of seeing this group go up against the Bruins or Lightning early in the playoffs and are still expecting a shoe to drop in the next eight weeks to shore up the key problem areas. I guess we’ll find out if management feels that same fear.

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