When you’re in hockey for a living, it doesn’t matter if you’re a player or a coach or a GM, you have one thing in common when analyzing your team: you’re always looking for shortcomings to improve. That’s a polite way of saying you’re always focused on the negatives, because that’s where you find the holes that need plugging. A successful team is a lot like a big ship sailing for a destination, in that the fully operational parts simply don’t get the crew’s attention.
I grew up in that mentality, and in turn, my analysis tends to focus on what can be improved rather than applauding what’s working.
So, with the Leafs, my natural inclination has been to talk about how they’re probably two D-men short of a Cup contending corps, or how I’m not sold on their forward depth yet, or whatever the issue of the day may be.
What gets lost with that thinking, is that the Leafs are currently 10-5-2, in the midst of a four-game winning streak, and fresh off a fairy-tale road trip where William Nylander gave Sweden everything it could’ve hoped over two electric performances. They’re suddenly on pace for 106 points and have bought themselves time to work on plugging holes without the worry of imminently sinking.
So, today I’ll look at the bright spots for this Leafs team, and why — despite some issues — they’ve got a chance to contend this season.
The Core Four Forwards
If you sort the top-25 scorers in the 32 team NHL, it stands to reason that not every team will have a player on the list. Well, the Leafs have four players in there through 17 games, the exact players that are being paid to be there — Nylander (27), Auston Matthews (21), Mitch Marner (20), and John Tavares (19).
This will always be why the Leafs have a chance. The detractors don’t like the top-heavy nature of how they’re built, but when all four guys are playing well, as they mostly are now, they’re awfully hard to put away.
By “put away,” I mean getting a lead on them isn’t enough to have them start playing some form of ugly, desperate hockey. They just keep coming. Some stats on their unwillingness to roll over:
Most comeback wins this season
7 teams tied
Most wins when trailing after two periods this season
Most wins when trailing after one period this season
You just cannot go into a defensive shell against them and bank on all four stars failing to make one of those elite plays to help them strike back.
The Power Play
Pre-Ryan Reaves, the “toughness” plan was always to just bury teams on the power play, and this season that’s legitimately been happening. They’re just shy of a 30% success rate on the season, which is sixth in the NHL. Their PP “expected goals for” is third in the NHL, partially because of some other figures: they’re second in the NHL in PP controlled-entry success rate (an underappreciated stat, as watching teams fail to get set-up is painful), first in PP shots from the slot, and first in PP faceoff percentage.
Maybe their penalty kill needs work (OK, it does), but the standard metric of a decent special-teams showing is getting to 100, and the Leafs’ PP and PK percentages add up to 104.8.
Their overall offence is getting better
The Leafs’ ability to create chances lagged out of the gate, but it’s starting to heat up again. They don’t get a ton of shots (12th league-wide), but they get good ones. They’re fourth in slot shots off the rush, and fourth in slot shots off forechecks, and fourth in slot shots overall. They lead the league in “inner slot shots” as of Sunday morning.
Having tracked them on the SportLogiq graph from opening day, they’ve been steadily creeping from the below-average group back to where they typically are, with the teams who don’t have trouble scoring. And when you can score in this league, you’ve got a chance.
They do a couple things well defensively
It ain’t all roses in this department, but if we’re being positive, the team is top-5 in “odd-man rushes against,” which is a good sign they’re getting buy-in from their F3 on the forecheck. They’re also third in “shot attempts off the cycle against,” meaning teams may get O-zone possession time against them, but when they’re in their structure, they’re not giving up a ton of pucks from the most dangerous part of the ice. “Collapsing” can look like panic at times, but it often results in shots from distance.
The goaltending is showing glimpses
Maybe he won’t win the Vezina, but in 10 starts Joseph Woll has a .909 save percentage, and sits fifth in the NHL in “goals saved vs. expectation” via SportLogiq. He’s been really good, and seems confident enough to carry that play forward.
Yes, Ilya Samsonov has had a slow start, but is coming off a nice win and was good the season before, so it’s possible they could have two guys going at the same time here.
The reality for all teams in contention when the cap has been flat forever is that no roster is perfect. You want to be as loaded as possible, and hope that when playoffs start you’re healthy, and your goalie gets red hot (I see you Florida), and you simply get some breaks from there.
As I see them, the Leafs are just outside the elite group of teams comprised of Boston, Dallas, Colorado, and Vegas. Like everyone else in the second tier, they’ve got a chance to be Stanley Cup contenders. If they can keep the above on the right track, and add a few bodies — there’s already trade rumours, as Leafs fans know — it could bump them from tier two to the top group.
While they’ll be paying attention to their own leaky spots, their fans should sleep easy knowing that, six weeks into the season, the ship is at least sailing in the right direction.