– The Jays are done, now what?
– Gulp. How about the Argos?
– …I’m not familiar with the term. Can you use it in a sentence?
– Wait a second. Remember that other blue team in Toronto? What are they called again?
– OH! You mean the Leafs.
– Yeah, remember them? GOOD TIMES!
The above is a representation of the attitude of 99% of Toronto sports fans over the past week. There’s nothing like a long-term rebuild, a 1-7-2 start to the season, and a 48 year old Stanley Cup drought to get people fired up for some Leafs hockey. Ah, to be a Toronto sports fan!
With that being said, let’s turn our attention to the Leafs. It’s been about 14,000 years since we’ve written about them, so there’s a lot to say.
Despite the sarcasm-laden, passive aggressive introduction that you hopefully just read, I’m pretty happy with the way things are going right now, and there is certainly plenty of reason to be optimistic. *takes off rose-coloured glasses* No really, I think there is reason to be excited. How excited? Excited enough that I may or may not have purchased a Leafs onesie this past week. Worth it.
The Babcock Effect
Like pretty much every Leaf fan, when Babcock was hired, my mix of emotions included optimism, confusion, disbelief, optimism, excitement, and optimism. I am of the firm belief that sometimes the impact of coaches in the NHL is overblown. When a team plays badly, people tend to attack the coach, rather than the goaltending, the scoring, or what have you. Same often goes for the case of a team performing well. The fact is, no matter how good a coach is, no team with a first-line featuring Leo Komarov is going to do exceptionally well…sorry Leo. But that wasn’t the goal for this season, and probably won’t be the goal for next season either. This season is about finding a way to not get blown out of the water on a nightly basis while biding time for the young guns as they continue to develop, whether that be in the CHL, AHL, in Europe or with the Leafs. Whatever happens with this rather crappy lineup will happen. This may mean a low finish and a high draft pick, which would be just fine with me. But it’s plausible that the Leafs could end up in a higher position than most would have expected (whether you take this as good news or bad news is up to you).
It turns out Babcock is doing a pretty good job with this team so far. Despite their record, the Leafs have only been outscored 21-18 at even-strength, despite a cripplingly low shooting percentage of 6.45%, which is bound to improve. They have also generally dominated even-strength possession, something that Leaf fans are not used to seeing, especially coming out of the Carlilian era. The below chart illustrates this turnaround. (CF% refers to the percentage of total shot attempts that were by your team, as opposed to the other team).
|2015-16 (through 11 games)||53.7%||6th|
Data from war-on-ice.com
It’s very early so take this with a grain of salt for now, but Babcock’s teams have historically achieved success by controlling the puck. And interestingly enough, to start this season, the Red Wings’ possession numbers have taken a plunge with Babcock no longer at the helm.
|2015-16 (through 11 games)||46.0%||29th|
Data from war-on-ice.com
Almost a mirror image of the Leafs. Can you say #BABCOCKED?
Again, this is an incredibly small sample size, but if this trend can continue, and the Leafs can continue to control the puck effectively, this will mark an important step in the long-term success of the Leafs. This style of play does pay off.
Traditionalists may argue “so what, just because a team has high possession doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actually playing well.” The fact is, there has proven to be a correlation. Possession drives scoring chances, which drive goals. It’s pretty simple. Sure, luck may win out at times, especially given a small sample size (as we saw with the Leafs in the lockout shortened season of 2012-13), but in the long run, possession is a true indicator of success. In the below chart, I have shown the correlation between high possession numbers and team points using aggregate data from the previous three seasons.
Moving beyond possession, the problem for the Leafs so far has been goaltending and special teams. The extent of the awfulness in both of these categories would appear to be unsustainable. Bernier’s .899 save percentage through the first 7 games this season is well below his .915 career save percentage. Aside from the 4 games he played in the 2007-08 season, this is his worst season so far in his entire career. For Reimer, the start to his season has been especially rough. In his 4 games this season, he has achieved a save percentage of .876, as compared to his .912 career mark. The likelihood of both of these guys having career-low seasons during their prime years is very low. If they both performed just at their career averages, a very reasonable target, the Leafs would have already allowed about 6.5 less goals against this season. Considering the season is only eleven games old, this is a pretty substantial difference.
The special teams is particularly puzzling, especially given the relative success that the Leafs have experienced to this point at even-strength. To this point the Power Play has converted at a rate of 7.4%, and the Penalty Kill has been successful only 73.4% of the time. If you go back to the 2005-06 season, the first season after the infamous lock-out of 2004-05, no team has ever had a Penalty Kill worse than the 2012-13 Florida Panthers, who had a rate of 74.2%. The Leafs are pretty bad, but they probably aren’t that bad. Looking at the Power Play, the worst percentage in this same time period, by a landslide, belongs to the 2013-14 Florida Panthers, at 10.0%. So what’s the conclusion? Well first, the Panthers were embarrassingly bad at hockey. But beyond that, none of these special teams numbers are even close to being sustainable for the Leafs going forward. They won’t be at the top of the league, and they could even be right at the bottom, but it won’t be this bad. It may just be a matter of adapting to the new systems being implemented by Babcock and his new coaching staff.
If the Leafs can continue playing the way they have at even strength, and if their goaltending and special teams can improve just a little bit, we may well just see the Leafs climb in the standings.
You might be thinking this is way too optimistic a stance to take right now. But in the early going, the Babcock Effect appears to be real. Going into this season with basically no expectations, I have been pleasantly surprised. Maybe I’m just an idiot, but if the Leafs continue to play this way, even if the wins don’t come immediately, I see it as a positive step in their long-term success. As they rebuild over the coming years, and as the roster becomes less trash, it will be interesting to see the results. There is reason for optimism, Leaf fans. And with guys like Nylander, Marner, Kapanen, Brown, and Johnson on the way, there will be more reason to cheer soon.
Anyways, happy belated Halloween from one Leafs fan to another. And even though Phil isn’t technically on the Leafs anymore, I think you need this picture in your life.