Digging Into Toronto's Recent Struggles

DragLikePull
February 20 2017 02:03PM

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Photo Credit: Brad Penner/USA TODAY SPORTS

Just over a month ago, on January 17th, the Leafs looked to be in a strong position in the standings.  They had just won four out of five games and were 7th in the Eastern Conference, one point back of sixth with four games in hand.  The standings were tight, with four teams beneath the Leafs within one game of them, but based on the way the Leafs had been playing and the fact that they'd played fewer games than most of the conference, it seemed like the Leafs would be able to build on their recent success.

Instead, in the sixteen games since, Toronto has gone 6-7-3.  The Leafs briefly fell to ninth in the conference after Saturday's loss to the Senators but have climbed back into a playoff spot after last night's win against the Hurricanes.  However, with the surging Florida Panthers, suddenly hot New York Islanders, and climbing Buffalo Sabres all right in the mix behind them, the Leafs' recent struggles have understandably led to concerns among a fan base that was riding high only a month ago, as their strong position has slowly deteriorated.  But how much concern should there really be?  Is Toronto's play slipping, or is there something else that explains recent results.  I decided to dig into the numbers a bit to find out.

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Examining the Neutral Zone play of the Leafs' defence corps

DragLikePull
January 31 2017 11:36AM

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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Many of us who write about hockey from a statistical standpoint are fond of using Corsi, otherwise known as shot attempt ratio, to describe the general flow of play when various players or teams are on the ice.  The idea is that a team with a ratio above 50% is doing well at controlling the game, while a team below that mark is getting outplayed.  While Corsi is a good high-level indicator, especially at the team level, it does have problems in terms of evaluating individual players.  The biggest problem is that since Corsi takes account of all shot attempts while a player is on the ice, we don't have any indication of how much credit or blame to assign to each player.

The best way to tackle that problem is to build more granular data sets.  One of the most promising ways of determining individual player impacts is by measuring their performance in the neutral zone.  Neutral zone play has strong correlations to both shot attempts for and shot attempts against, which makes it a good way to assess some of the things individual players are doing well (or poorly) in the battle to outshoot your opponent. 

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The Maple Leafs are in a rather unusual salary cap situation

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January 26 2017 10:53AM

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Photo Credit: Raj Mehta/USA TODAY SPORTS

The Toronto Maple Leafs generate an outsized portion of the NHL's revenues.  The Leafs' impact on revenue is so great, in 2012 the former head of English television for CBC said that the most recent Hockey Night in Canada contract would not be profitable for the public broadcaster if the Leafs did not make the playoffs.  Because of the Toronto's financial muscle, they've typically been near the top of the NHL in spending on salaries.  And if you look at a salary cap web site, you'll see that the team is currently within about $1M of the salary cap ceiling this season.

But that number is misleading.  While the Leafs are indeed paying out quite a bit of money for salaries, a significant portion of that money is going to players who are not currently playing for the team.  In fact, it's pretty unusual just how the team's salary cap situation is structured once you look into the details.

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What Happened To Nazem Kadri's Penalty Drawing Ability?

DragLikePull
December 31 2016 08:42AM

Over the past few years, Nazem Kadri has been one of the best players in the NHL at drawing penalties.  This was widely talked about among hockey's analytics community for a while, but last year the idea really seemed to break through, as it became a topic of conversation in far more mainstream sources, including TSN and Sportsnet's national broadcasts.  It seemed like Kadri was finally getting credit for an under-rated skill that he was very good at.

But this year that ability has largely dried up.  Many nights it's seemed like opposition players are able to get away with murder against Kadri without the Leafs being awarded a powerplay.  So what's happened?  And how steep has the drop-off been, really?

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How Quality of Competition Has Affected Toronto's Corsi This Season

DragLikePull
December 27 2016 09:23AM

Over a large sample size, Corsi is one of the best measurements we have at the moment for team-level skill.  While it's far from perfect, once you get 20 or 30 games into the season it does a pretty good job of predicting future goal scoring, and it's a pretty stable stat, less affected by randomness than most others.  At the moment the Leafs are 12th in the NHL in score-adjusted Corsi with 52%.  In fact, they're just .1% out of the top 10, so the Leafs are playing like a top 10 team in terms of shot attempts this season.  That suggests the Leafs have been playing well at even strength this season.

However, their results have fluctuated quite a bit over the first three months of the season.  Let's take a look at five-game rolling average of Corsi (this chart is not score-adjusted):

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