At the start of the 2016-17 NHL season we all knew what to expect from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not a lot. The main focus of the season was on the development of the Leafs’ talented group of rookies. So the idea of the playoffs or even being within reach of the playoffs were not even considered.
And yet the Leafs manage to find themselves just a few points out of a Wildcard spot and even a spot in the Atlantic Division’s top three. So now that the Leafs are two wins out of a playoff spot, it’s reasonable to think about the possibility of the playoffs.
Now this team has been in this exact position in previous years, but ended up imploding after Christmas and tumbling down the standings. So the question is whether this year is different. Are the Leafs a legitimate playoff team?
The Big Factors
The two main reasons for the Leafs’ success is goalie Frederik Andersen and the team’s rookies, specifically Auston Matthews.
Despite the problem of blowing multi-goal leads; Andersen’s play has been the only reason they’ve even had a chance to win in most games. His first seven games were not a great representation of just how good he’s been for the Leafs.
Andersen currently sits 18th in the NHL with a .920 save percentage. Another reason in Andersen being better than his stats is the amount of shots he’s had to face so far this season with a total of 1011 shots against. That is second-most in the NHL behind Cam Talbot’s 1064. And to truly see just how many shots the Leafs, and by extension the Edmonton Oilers, are giving up just look at the goalie with the third most shots against. Sergei Bobrovsky has 911 shots against, as the third most in the NHL, which is a hundred shot gap from Andersen.
For Andersen to still have a decent save percentage and face that many shots just shows how much the Leafs are relying on him to win games.
The second and most visible reason is the rookies. They’ve turned the Leafs overnight into a fast, energetic and high scoring team. The Leafs are seventh in the NHL with goals scored with 113, and for comparison, they finished last season third last in the NHL with goals scored.
The rookies are the reason for the jump in offense. The Leafs have the highest combined rookie points with 145 and for comparison, the Winnipeg Jets are next with just 50 (most of that is from Patrik Laine). Matthews has been the biggest contributor offensively with a team-leading 34 points and is fourth in the NHL in goals with 20.
The Leafs’ hopes of the getting into the playoffs hinges on Andersen and the rookies maintaining consistency to avoid any late-season collapse.
Better Than They Seem
The Leafs are actually better than they seem. Right now they sit three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers who hold the last Wildcard spot with 45 points. And even better, the Leafs sit two points out of both the second and third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division since the top three teams in each division are automatically in the playoffs. Both the Ottawa Senators and the Boston Bruins are tied with 44 points to occupy the second and third spot in the Atlantic Division.
With 42 points in 37 games the Leafs have an added bonus of having played four fewer games compared to Boston and three fewer compared to Philadelphia. So from just a points and games played perspective, the Leafs have a solid chance at a playoff spot.
Now in terms of more specific stats we’ll be looking at the Leafs compared to other teams in the NHL and also teams just in the Atlantic Division. This is so that we get a sense of where the Leafs sit in comparison to the league average and where the Leafs sit in comparison to their direct competition in the Atlantic Division.
Auston Matthews named the NHL's rookie of the month for December. Laine, Tkachuk, Aho and Murray given an honourable mention.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 3, 2017
In relation to how well the Leafs’ rookies are playing it’s no surprise that the Leafs are fifth in the league and tied for first in the Atlantic with a 3.03 average goals for per game. This is something we’ve seen throughout the season with the Leafs having many four-goal or more games. At the other end of the spectrum, the Leafs aren’t as bad as it seems with a 2.81 average goals against per game which puts them at 19th in the NHL and sixth in the Atlantic.
So that just reiterates the obvious. The Leafs are great at scoring, but bad at keeping it out of their own net.
Now in terms of special teams, the Leafs are about league average in their power play with 20.3 percent. That puts them 12th in the NHL and fourth in the Atlantic. So their power play isn’t amazing, but it puts them in the top half of the NHL. Their penalty kill on the other hand has been what’s keeping them in most games.
The Leafs are sixth in the NHL with a 84.7 penalty kill percentage and second in the Atlantic. Now the Leafs may get into trouble if their penalty kill percentage starts to decline because they are eighth in the league with penalty minutes per game with 10:55. This has been one of the significant reasons why they’ve been able to push towards a playoff spot.
There are lots of other stats that I could bring out, but they would all point to the same thing. The Leafs are making great use of their rookies and are out shooting and outscoring most of their opponents.
The problems arise defensively, since they have the second most shots against in the NHL and we’ve watched them lose a four goal lead countless times now. And the blame cannot be placed on Andersen as he is keeping the Leafs in most games despite being shelled with shots.
The Leafs are a young team and are continuously improving as the season goes on, and their stats are beginning to show that progress. Their stats put them easily above Ottawa, Boston and even Philadelphia so as long as they can maintain consistency going into the second half of the NHL season the Leafs will not only make the playoffs, but they will be second in the Atlantic Division.
Toronto Maple Leafs contributor for The Hockey Writers.
I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs since I was a kid and have always had an interest in writing. At The Hockey Writers, I get to enjoy both of my passions as well as writing about small convoluted details in player contracts and stats.