Johnston on Leafs: Recent numbers not flattering

Randy Carlyle is focused on making the Leafs a tougher team but is that the best approach in this series?

TORONTO — For the last three games, the numbers shown to Toronto Maple Leafs players have looked just as bad as the play on the ice.

Under coach Randy Carlyle, the team has taken to tracking its performance by measuring scoring chances rather than using the shots on goal statistic kept by the NHL. The internal stats — tracked in part to ensure consistency from building to building — are shared with the players by the coaching staff on a nightly basis.

“We’ll just go over the sheet and see what we’ve created and stuff like that,” forward Clarke MacArthur explained Friday after practice.

They haven’t been creating much during what is arguably their worst stretch of play this season.

While the Leafs have made a habit of getting outshot in games — 33 of 44 to be precise — Carlyle insists that the number of scoring chances generated by them and opponents has been “very close.”

At least it had been close prior to a week where they beat New Jersey 2-0 with just 13 shots, lost 5-1 in Washington and dropped a 5-3 decision to the New York Islanders on Thursday.

Interestingly, the margin in chances was slimmest in the most lopsided of those outcomes, with Washington edging the Leafs 16-13 by Carlyle’s calculation.

“(We were) a lot closer than we would have ever anticipated coming out of the game,” he said.

Numbers seem to have taken on a more prominent role in the discussion around the Leafs this season because those who track advanced stats believe the team’s record has been much better than that it should be based on the metrics generated by their performance.

In particular, Toronto has had a high shooting percentage as a team — one the advanced statisticians would argue is unsustainable over a full 82-game schedule — after scoring the fifth-most goals per game while sitting 27th in the league in shots.

The wide gap between their average number of shots for and against has also been seen by some as an indicator that they were due to start losing more games.

While Carlyle isn’t likely to become a convert to the church of advanced hockey stats, he did acknowledge prior to Thursday’s game that he would like to see the Leafs improve on both sides of the shot clock.

However, where he differs from the number-crunchers is in the belief that success will return if the team starts playing exactly as it was prior to the recent swoon.

“Everybody wants to keep the opposition in their zone as much as possible and we’re no different,” said Carlyle. “But we haven’t done a very good job (of late) in the neutral ice getting through what other teams have provided as far as a set defence — if it’s a trap or if it’s a 1-3-1, whatever system they put in place.”

On Friday, the predominant feeling from the Leafs players was that they’ve tried to be too cute during the recent slide. As a result, they’ve been unable to spend any meaningful amount of time in the offensive zone.

“The turnovers are what kill the flow in the game,” said MacArthur. “That Islanders game was like just a last year sleeper, wasn’t it? It was just a sleepfest out there. We’re just turning it over, turning it over.”

They were credited with 27 giveaways on the night.

Even upon further reflection, it was an effort worthy of a four-letter word. There were certainly a few of those tossed around the dressing room following Friday’s practice while discussing what went wrong.

It all seemed to come back to their penchant for turning over the puck.

“Even when we have momentum in the game, when we take it over with a couple shifts, then we’ll just put it right down the drain with a couple turnovers,” said forward Nazem Kadri. “It seems like a lot of teams we’re playing right now just strictly feed off transition and we’re letting them.

“We’ve got to make them work a little more for their opportunities.”

Added MacArthur: “We haven’t gotten enough of that grind time. We’ve been really stale.”

With the regular season winding down, the Leafs head to Ottawa on Saturday looking to rediscover the style of play that brought success throughout much of the season. It might be as good of place as any.

Toronto has taken two of three meetings with the Senators and was arguably last at its best during a 4-0 victory at Scotiabank Place on March 30. That game featured a James Reimer shutout and a hat trick from Kadri — not to mention the kiss Don Cherry planted on the young centre’s face — and was one of the high points of the shortened schedule.

It’s also just the kind of night Carlyle and his coaching staff reminded everyone about before boarding the plane on Friday.

The coaches have studied the numbers and the tape and don’t believe they’re asking the players to do anything they haven’t already done before.

“We think it’s pretty simple, but we have to live it now,” said Carlyle.

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