Bad luck or poor play: What’s behind the Maple Leafs’ recent struggles?

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joined Tim and Sid to discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With nine games remaining on their schedule, the Toronto Maple Leafs have the sixth-best record in the NHL. That’s one spot above where they finished last season, which also happened to be the best regular season in franchise history in terms of points accumulated.

And yet, despite their lofty position in the standings, the fanbase has been a little upset lately. Part of that is likely due to the fact that, despite their high place in the standings, Toronto is set to face the third-best team in the first round. And if they get through Boston, they’ll face the regular season’s best team in the Tampa Bay Lightning. But there is more to the fans’ worrying than just the tough playoff road.

The Leafs have been dealing with some injuries on defence, but their struggles go back further than that. Since the calendar turned to 2019, the Leafs have just the 18th-best record in the NHL at 17-14-3, a stark contrast to the 26-11-2 record they carried out of 2018 that was bested only by Tampa Bay.

Part of that change is going to be random variance, as data scientist Peter Tanner pointed out from the Money Puck Twitter account.

The Leafs were very fortunate earlier in the season by the percentages and that has flipped on them in two separate stretches, one of which they’re mired in right now.

An average team can expect their shooting percentage and save percentage to add up to 100, though the Maple Leafs are not an average team in talent. Tanner’s expected goals metric is attempting to tease out some of the noise there and account for team performance to see how lucky or unlucky they’ve been.

Let’s do something similar. We’ll split the season at the New Year and look into some important metrics to see how differently, if at all, the Leafs are playing. We’ll stick to 5-on-5 hockey because special teams performance hasn’t changed a lot — the power play is slightly less lethal, but the penalty kill has improved.

Wait a second…I had to go back and check to see if I had put things in the wrong slot, but I didn’t. Turns out the Leafs are dominating shots at a significantly better rate since the New Year. In the first half they scored at will, but were barely better than average in terms of actual chances and shots created.

The passing dominance the Leafs have exhibited for a few seasons did take a hit, but adding Jake Muzzin and getting William Nylander’s legs under him after a late start really helped Toronto’s ability to create its own high danger chances and limit opponents’.

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The drop you see in passes to the slot is mostly due to the Leafs focusing a bit more on defence. They’re not allowing as many passes through the slot in front of Freddie Andersen, but they’re also not generating as many as they did in the first half of the season.

Playing a lower event style doesn’t seem to be the right recipe for success with this Leafs roster, however when you’re missing Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, I think it’s easy to understand why Toronto might be a bit more conservative in its approach.

Still, the Leafs are generating more offensive opportunities for themselves at 5-on-5 than they’re giving up, just as they have all season long. That differential has actually grown over the past couple months, it’s just the results aren’t aligning with it.

There could be something in the details that we’re missing by taking a more general look, though. So, let’s examine the same splits, take apart for and against, and look at scoring chances that can create different types of shot quality.

The two main changes you’ll notice about Toronto’s attack in 2019 are more chances off the rush and off the cycle. Earlier in the season they were actually giving up more off the cycle than they got, despite having that dominance in slot passes. Now they’re ahead in both, which is a big deal when it comes to outscoring opponents at even strength.

The Leafs are outplayed a little bit off the forecheck, but considering that’s a smaller part of the game it’s not much to worry about — and the difference isn’t that large in the first place.

One area that is a bit concerning is that the Leafs give up way more rebound chances than they generate. This may be an area where they miss James van Riemsdyk on offence and where Mike Babcock misses Roman Polak on the defensive side. Polak was highly exploitable off the cycle and off the rush, but was better at closing things down in tight than he got credit for.

The Leafs rank 30th in the league in net-front defence all season, which at times makes things tougher on Andersen. However, the change from 2018 to 2019 is miniscule, so this isn’t the main problem either.

Looking at all the details of how the Leafs have played, there’s nothing that I can see to suggest they’re suddenly an average team after being a top contender in the first half. If anything they’ve continually played better as the season has gone on, but the good fortune they had early has regressed and hit them hard in the second half. When you add a couple of key injuries to the mix, things can spiral.

The question for the Leafs over the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs is whether they’re mentally tough enough to maintain a high level of performance and not panic even if the results don’t immediately materialize.

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