Losing...is a disease.
I have avoided commenting on the recent Leaf slump for a few reasons – first of all, since it’s close to Christmas, some of my free time has been wasted shopping for presents and doing the other usual things a person gets roped into at this time of year. Another reason is that I’m generally a lazy person, and sitting down at the computer to analyze Toronto’s futility looked like a boring, painstaking job. It’s way more fun to talk about your team when it’s kicking ass all the way down the rink and back again.
But after their latest loss, making it their sixth in a row, I knew I could avoid it no longer. The team is in trouble, and putting my head in the sand over it isn’t going to make it go away. So get ready to yawn, I went sorting the stats at NHL.com and crunched a few numbers.
A preface: In times like these, the tendency is to try and identify a single culprit, one guy who is generally perceived to be somehow failing the team in a key way, like, “Raycroft is letting in soft goals,” or, “Sundin hasn’t done jack since he came back from injury,” or, “Kubina is a waste of money.” Annoyingly, in today’s Toronto Star, Damien Cox had no problem pointing fingers at a few individual players in this fashion; for instance, apparently Darcy Tucker’s -10 stat is “terrible”, and an important indicator for how he is letting down the team. The thing is, plus-minus numbers are fundamentally related to the overall performance of a team; therefore, in his bungling attempt to put the goat-horns on Tucker, the individual, as a reason the Leafs are struggling, in reality Cox is identifying a team problem.
Because by definition, a team is a collection of multiple personalities contributing to the fortunes of the collective. So that means all Leaf problems are collective action problems, issues that cannot be pinned on a sole non-contributor, particularly with regards to the skaters on a team. At least with goaltending, one specific person is the guy who let in a bad goal, but even then, goalies are usually playing poorly at least in part because they are the victim of defensive breakdowns by the players in front of them.
And like I noticed earlier in the season, a look at the stats this morning for the team reveals extremities in many key areas, both good and bad, and they can only be the result of an aggregate compilation of a team’s contributions. Sorry Damien, you suck.
Is scoring the problem?
So far this season - not on the powerplay, at least. Before Friday night’s games, Toronto was 7th in the league in powerplay scoring. Looking good so far.
Toronto's ratio of even strength goals to PP goals is 0.89 - 19th in the league, which looks bad initially. This ratio means the majority of Toronto's goals are scored on the power play. Since about 70% of a game is played at even strength, it means for the majority of the time, Toronto’s level of scoring is rates among the worst teams in the league - by ratio.
However, this ratio aside, Toronto is still scoring plenty of goals in absolute terms - they are 10th in goals scored per game overall, at 3.07/G. And (surprisingly, to me) they are actually 9th in the league in 5-5 scoring, an area most people seem to perceive as an important problem, probably because the power play is so dominant by contrast. Any stat that is top-10 league-wide can't rate as a priority to worry about.
The Leafs seem to be trying pretty hard to shoot the puck, since they are 2nd in the league in shots per game with 33.8, on average. With regards to recent performance, over their last ten games, they’ve averaged 32.3 shots per game. So, we're still doing okay in this department.
But in those ten games, Toronto’s record is 29th in the league, at 2-7-1, and in that period, they’ve totaled 24 goals, 2.4 per game, far below their season average.
It gets worse. Toronto has not won a single game this season when trailing after one period (0-6-1), obviously one of the worst marks in the league. They have won only one game when trailing after two (1-9-2).
Continuing now with the period-by-period breakdown – Toronto scores most of its goals early in the game, and scoring trends downward after that point. They are 3rd in the league in 1st period goals, with 33. They are 7th in the league in 2nd period goals, 35. And they are 21st in the league in 3rd period scoring.
Since Toronto scores a lot of goals overall, this means they are crapping out at the end of games - arguably when it matters the most, especially when this stat is compared with the "wins when trailing after..." stat. This has to mean that Toronto stinks at clutch scoring so far this year.
With a lineup including the league's most expensive defensemen, Toronto is 24th in the league in team goals-against-average, at 3.20 goals per game. Andrew Raycroft is 24th in league GAA at 2.93.
Total goals against – Toronto is 26th in the league in goals allowed, with 96. In 5-on-5 play, Toronto is 28th in the league in goals against, with 62.
No team has allowed more 3rd-period goals than Toronto, with 41. That means, when it matters most to hold a lead - Toronto hasn't.
They are 17th in the league on penalty kill efficiency, at 83.8% (out of the top 16 – which could be thought of as, "the teams that don't make the playoffs.")
They are in the upper half, 13th overall, in shots allowed per game, 29.5, but more significantly, their starting goalie (Raycroft) has seen the 7th-most shots per game overall, with 660. This means that while their overall shots-against average is mediocre, since Raycroft has seen so much rubber, more often than not Toronto is getting blown out in shots against.
As I noted earlier in the season, Toronto continues its faceoff prowess, which is rated 4th in the league at 52.4%. And – interestingly, Toronto is also 2nd in the league at faceoffs taken, with 1849. I don’t know if this from Raycroft and Aubin habitually freezing the puck a lot, or Ian White shooting the puck into the crowd five hundred times this season to cause a penalty, or maybe it’s just a random thing, since a team has to place somewhere on the list. At any rate, Toronto has had a lot of faceoffs to deal with, and they are one of the best in the league at winning them, so I can’t help wondering if it’s a deliberate thing.
Toronto has the 3rd-most giveaways in the league, with 381. On the flipside, Toronto seems to redeem themselves a bit in pressuring opponents, because they are 10th in the league in takeaways, with 234.
Lots of shots per game? For sure – but Toronto is also the worst team in the league in missed shots – 426 overall. So while they are getting a lot of rubber on the net – even more doesn’t make it there to begin with.
Toronto has won only one game this season when they scored less than four goals.
To summarize, by the numbers, these are the most important points to take home:
1.) Toronto is a top-10 offensive team in both powerplay results and 5-on-5 scoring. The amount of shots unloaded at the net, whether they miss or not, is indicative of the fundamentally offensive nature of the team, even with recent (crappy) play taken into account.
2.) Toronto is a bottom-third defensive team in the major statistical categories.
3.) Toronto is decisively bad at scoring goals when it matters (when losing, or by period), and they are decisively bad at holding a lead when they need to, blowing more 3rd-period leads than any team in the league. Toronto has proven so far this year to be useless in any clutch situation.
4.) Based on the above, if I were forced to decide, I would say overall defensive play is the biggest problem of the team right now, a disappointing thing when John Ferguson’s greatest off-season priority was to upgrade Toronto’s defense, which he paid for like no other GM in the league decided to do.
All the above indicators are the hallmarks of a team lacking skill, heart, and experience, all things that can be improved upon given enough time.
In the case of the Leafs’ young team, John Ferguson and Paul Maurice have to hope that time heals all.