Don’t look now, but the 2016-17 NHL season has already reached its one-quarter mark.
In the blink of an eye, each and every NHL franchise has played their first 20 games, and what an incredible span of hockey it has been. Whether it be spectacular goaltending, the impressive display of rookie talent, or even the anticipation surrounding the newly minted Vegas Golden Knights, to say the current campaign has thus far been tantalizing would be a vast understatement.
Amongst all of the excitement the NHL has offered thus far, one of the key storylines has been the play of the Toronto Maple Leafs. After drafting Auston Matthews first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, the Leafs, long one of the most popular teams in the league, have once again risen in popularity due to their exhilarating youth movement. Alongside Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev, among others, have combined to produce a highly captivating brand of hockey.
What’s more is that through the Leafs’ first 21 games played, the team has found an incredibly surprising amount of success despite their immense quantity of young skill. Grasping a 9-8-4 record, Toronto has drawn results no one could have expected, and have many around the NHL questioning whether or not they could truly compete for a place in the 2016-17 NHL Playoffs.
Yet, before we begin to discuss playoff possibilities a mere quarter way into the season, let’s take a quick moment to look back on the Leafs’ first 21 games of the season. In particular, let’s take a quick look at five important statistics which Toronto has produced, as some are quite surprising while others, conversely, reflect the Leafs’ growing pains as a young team.
Head Coach Mike Babcock has long emphasized the need for puck possession. Simply put, if you don’t have the puck, you don’t retain the ability to generate offensive opportunities. However, it is what you do once in possession of the puck which really matters, and for Toronto thus far in 2016-17, the team has stressed putting the puck on net.
So, whether it be shocking or not, the Leafs, through their first 21 games, registered an impressive 1,013 shot-attempts-for during five on five play, a mark good for fifth best in the NHL in that time. In fact, the Leafs’ attempts on goal are greater than that of annual offensive juggernauts such as the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, and Washington Capitals.
However, where the Leafs have run into problems, and losses, is in the shot attempts against department. Yes, through 21 games Toronto attempted a ton of shots on goal, over 1,000 to be exact, but unfortunately, they allowed even more attempts against. The Leafs’ total of 1,021 shot attempts against ranked as the third most in the entire NHL in that time, highlighting Toronto’s defensive abilities as a team as a work in progress.
One interesting statistic which certainly hasn’t helped the Leafs reduce the number of shot attempts by opposing players is their capabilities, or lack thereof, in defensive zone faceoffs. Through the opening quarter of Toronto’s season, the team had the third fewest defensive zone faceoff wins in the league with 190.
Conversely, Toronto had lost 245 draws, a winning percentage which works out to a dismal 43.7%. If the Leafs hope to reduce the number of shot attempts by their opposition, emphasizing the importance of defensive zone faceoffs would do wonders. If Toronto can control the puck off of the draw, they will quite obviously stand a greater chance of successfully breaking out of their own zone, rather than allow further scoring opportunities.
He Shoots… They Score?
Given the Leafs’ incredible number of shot attempts thus far in the 2016-17 season, the next statistic should come as no surprise, as the two go hand in hand.
So, what does more than 1,000 shot attempts for in just 21 games give you?
Goals. Lots of goals.
For the Leafs, their work offensively, and particularly the play of their young stars, propelled them to a 3.14 goals for per game (GF/G) mark, a rate good for second best in the entire NHL. Who was the one team to score more you ask? Well, that would be the New York Rangers, whose 82 goals in 21 games provided them an outstanding 3.90 GF/G rate.
However, while the Leafs’ offense has been excellent a quarter-way into the 2016-17 season, it is their defensive game, which we have already seen based on shot attempts, that requires major work in the weeks, months, and years ahead. While Toronto does hold a stellar GF/G mark, their goals against per game played (GA/G), like shot attempts against, requires major attention. In possession of a 3.19 GA/G in their first 21 games played, the Leafs allowed the fourth most goals against on a given night.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) November 26, 2016
Quite clearly, this total is one that is far too high. In fact, in 2015-16, only two teams finished the season with a GA/G mark higher than 3.00. Those two teams were the Columbus Blue Jackets and Calgary Flames, who both finished in the bottom five of the overall standings, respectively.
The Leafs are rumored to be interested in acquiring a top-end defender. Having looked at these statistics, it is abundantly clear why.
Shoot to Win?
So, given what we have seen in terms of the Leafs shot attempts for, as well as GF/G, the Leafs quite obviously are more successful when they out-shoot their opposition, right?
Wrong. While Toronto has pounded opposing netminders with shots on a nightly basis, for whatever reason, the Leafs actually hold a better record in games in which they are out-shot.
That’s right, of the Leafs’ first nine wins on the season, just three had come when out-shooting their opponent. On the other hand, when out-shot, Toronto picked up six wins, seemingly defying the fact that through 21 games the team allowed the second most shots against per game at 33.3.
Score First, Win Often
In the 2015-16 season, the Leafs were the worst team in the NHL when it came to scoring goals in the first period. To be exact, Toronto scored a whopping 48 first period goals last season, while scoring 61 in second periods and 80 in the final frame.
Now, in 2016-17, the Leafs have amazingly reversed this odd trend. With 26 first period goals scored in just 21 games played, the second most in the league, Toronto has put this tough habit in their past.
Yes, it is nice to score the opening goal of a game, and when taking a closer look, grasping the first lead of a hockey game is vital to on-ice success. In fact, over the past five NHL seasons, the best teams in the league win the vast majority of their games when scoring first. Clubs such as the Rangers, Blackhawks, and Capitals all hold winning percentages greater than .750% when scoring the first goal, a trend which will be essential for the Leafs if they wish to become a truly competitive franchise in the near future.
— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) November 23, 2016
Think this statistic is an outlier? Well, don’t be shocked to learn that of the Leafs’ nine wins through their first 21 games, just one came when the opposing team scored the first goal. The other eight wins? You guessed it — they all came when Toronto netted the opening goal. If the Leafs hope to continue their magical run, they will need to emphasize scoring first on a nightly basis, despite their often overwhelming opposition.
The Leafs have long been no strangers to penalties.
In the past three seasons combined, ranging from 2013-16, Toronto recorded 2,619 penalty minutes, the tenth most in the NHL in that span of time alongside an ugly average of 10:38 of penalty minutes per game played. Further, the Leafs earned an immense 930 minor penalties, a total which ranked ninth highest in the league.
However, with former players such as Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren, and Mike Brown long in the rear-view mirror, the Leafs have become a much more disciplined team, and one focused on winning games on the score sheet, rather than with their fists.
So, with a new and highly skilled echelon of players donning the blue and white, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Leafs faced just 112:46 of penalty kill time in their first 21 games. The amount, good for the 18th least in the NHL, illustrates a highly disciplined roster which is well aware of the changes taking place within the game itself. No longer is the NHL defined by physicality, but instead, raw skill, speed, and ability.
Perhaps it is these traits which placed Toronto third-highest in takeaways at the quarter mark of the 2016-17 season. With a grand total of 196, the Leafs’ speed and skill has resulted not only in greater discipline but added on-ice awareness. Rather than sneak in a slight hook or slash, the Leafs have used their speed and kept their feet moving in order to legally strip the puck off of opposing players.
Curious as to who the Leafs’ leaders in takeaways are? Well, it should come as no surprise to learn that it is those who best define the traits of speed and skill. Marner, arguably the biggest surprise for the Leafs this season, leads the way, while Matthews, Nylander, Hyman, and Nazem Kadri trail close behind.
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.