Analyzing the Maple Leafs’ turnover rates and what it means for the team

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews avoids a check against Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin. CP/file)

If you’ve ever found yourself watching the Toronto Maple Leafs play while thinking “Gahd, they turn the puck over a lot,” it’s because they do. After one month of NHL action, they’re 31st in the NHL in turnovers as tracked by SportLogic. More on that in a sec.

“Turnover” is tougher to define than you’d think. For example, is a chip out of the D-zone to relieve pressure a turnover, even if it’s the smart play? Is a dump-in that gets quickly broken out a turnover? It’s all unfortunately subjective, as the NHL shows with their own tracking of the stat, which appears to hinge on the opinion of a single person at each arena on any given night.

Because of that, SportLogiq uses the clear explanation of “a change of possession,” which also gives us a much larger sample size, which helps us hone in on the answers we’re seeking. Further to the Leafs showing up at 31st in this stat (ahead of only the Winnipeg Jets, and just behind Vegas), the Leafs are 32nd out of 32 teams in the NHL in offensive zone turnovers.

So those turnovers you’re seeing, they’re very real.

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But they’re the ultimate “confirmation bias” team because if you love how the Leafs play, good news. This is strongly related to them having the puck all the time, as they sit third in possession time per game, meaning that even though you see lots of turnovers, it’s mostly related to them having the puck a whole bunch.

By turnover rate (as measured up against possession time), they’re actually eighth-best at taking care of the puck, turning it over just 15.5 per cent of the time. Their 21 per cent rate in the O-zone is 10th-best in the league, which brings me to my favourite Leafs turnover stat of all: in the neutral zone they’re FIRST in the NHL in turnover rate, handing it to the opposition just 6.4 per cent of the time, which is what directly leads to their huge O-zone possession totals. Only two teams in the NHL spend more time in the O-zone with the puck than the Leafs because of their great play through the middle.

I can’t think of anything that explains the Toronto Maple Leafs better than statistics that confirm both the people who see lots of turnovers, and the people who see a talented team that doesn’t seem to turn the puck over any more frequently than the next team.

Here are those numbers:

You can’t really ask the Leafs to take care of the puck much better than they have this season despite the sheer volume of turnovers. They’re supposed to be a creative offensive group that makes plays, and with making plays comes the odd turnover.

A peek at the individual players reveals some of what you’d expect – the top names on the team have the most turnovers, but good turnover rates. But there are some surprises in there too. Keep in mind when you look at the totals, the players who turn the puck over the most around the league are Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, and Mark Scheifele … i.e., good players. Auston Matthews headlines the Leafs’ list on the “totals” front, as you’d expect.

Have you got a friend who thinks Willy Nylander turns it over too much? I know I’ve heard that a few times, which is … flat-out wrong. He’s got the best “turnover rate” among all Leafs forwards. If you see a player who turns it over a lot, you may be subconsciously looking for it.

By rates, the forwards who turn it over the most are almost exclusively bottom-six players. Nick Ritchie is dead last, which won’t surprise anyone who’s been watching, followed by Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza (somewhat surprisingly), David Kampf and Ondrej Kase. Michael Bunting is the only top-six forward among the guys with high turnover rates at 20 per cent, and that might tell us something about where he’d be best suited on a team with better left wingers.

Here’s the list before I get into the D:

Now take a look at the D list, where the top red number will probably catch you off guard.

Jake Muzzin has the worst turnover rate among Leafs defenders. He plays against the toughest competition of any of the D on the team, so that’s no small consideration here. But it doesn’t square with his reputation for being so sound. I think it’s fair to say his year hasn’t been up to his expectations. (Copy and paste those sentiments for Justin Holl as well.)

What is notable to me is that the guy they just gave the big deal to, the guy who plays the most on the team, has got the best turnover rate. Somewhat surprisingly, Morgan Rielly leads the Leafs in total possession time – just ahead of Matthews – and yet he turns the puck over a bit more than a tenth of the time. Rielly is a major “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” player for Leafs fans, though internally they seemed to recognize how important it was to keep him around.

The Leafs may turn it over a lot, but they’ve also got it a lot. It’s a stylistic thing, and one I wouldn’t expect to change much barring significant roster changes.

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