Maple Leafs’ Tailspin Is Not Surprising

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a pitiful two regulation wins in their last 24 games and have slipped out of a playoff spot in the brutally weak Eastern Conference. A slew of metrics indicate that this iteration of the Maple Leafs is roughly what fans should expect to see going forward, as opposed to a return to the (apparent) “playoff-worthy” Leafs of last year/early this season.

Setting the Table For the Leafs’ Collapse

During the 12-13 season, the Maple Leafs were an astounding outlier in every tracked possession metric. The team qualified for the playoffs despite finishing last in the NHL in Corsi % and Fenwick Close and having the league’s worst shot differential (A Corsi and Fenwick overview for the uninformed).

This was, so it would seem, a striking blow to the predictive validity of advanced possession statistics regarding team success. As with any non-perfect correlational relationship, Corsi and Fenwick had their share of aberrations from the norm… but for such a gross outlier to exist in the form of the Leafs was indeed daunting.
During the offseason following 2012-13, the discussion began.

Proponents of advanced statistics bleated and blathered about unsustainability and the Leafs facing an inevitable regression to the mean
Those opposing them argued that these stats do not take shot quality into account. Others posited that puck possession is simply not very important (a dubious proposition).
The discussion raged on, and the 2013-14 season was primed to prove our stat-watching friends correct.

Why Is the Leafs’ Breakdown Unsurprising?

Because they are an appallingly bad possession team again.
Because they rank last in Corsi %, Fenwick Close, and shot differential again.
Because the Leafs’ shooting percentage has had a predictable drop-off to a realistic 8.28% this season, down from the bizarrely high 10.56% of 2012-13.
Because they signed this guy.

Leafs

Clarkson is on a legendary scoring pace this season, notching a titanic 8 points in 32 games (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Had to get the obligatory Clarkson cheap shot in there somewhere. Apologies.
While Toronto ranks the same (30th) in all of those aforementioned stats this year as they did last, the raw numbers suggest the Leafs have nevertheless managed to get worse.
Put bluntly, Toronto has made the jump from “horrific possession team” in ’12-13 to “hideously horrific possession team” in ’13-14. This season’s Leafs average 9 (!!!) less shots than their opponents per game and are a full 1.5 percentage points behind the next worst team in Corsi percentage. Statistics illustrate that the Leafs are outplayed by a whopping 60-40 margin in a typical game.

Admittedly, few saw Toronto falling off even further (from the ’12-13 performance) with regard to these metrics. But those who suggested that last season’s playoff team was incredibly fortunate to finish so high were clearly on to something, to say the least.

Can the Maple Leafs Rebound?

I suppose it’s not entirely impossible; stats such as Corsi and Fenwick have considerable merit, but they do not have perfect predictive power. Still, it is difficult to understate the importance of puck possession. At a fundamental logical level, it would be essentially impossible to deny that there is a powerful positive correlation between having the puck and creating scoring opportunities. Going a step further, the more a team maintains possession, the less its opponent will be able to create scoring chances.
Thus, it seems quite likely that we will see the Maple Leafs continue their spiral into the cellar.

Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu

Sean Sarcu

Sean Sarcu

Sean covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers and Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @seansarcu.
Sean Sarcu

2 Comments

  1. They deserve serious props for getting out of that slump.
    I suppose it doesn’t hurt to play in the weak East, but hey.

    Still, I’d be very surprised if they’re relevant in the playoffs.

  2. Whoops – collapse didn’t go exactly as planned…

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