It’s been just over a week since the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock and named Sheldon Keefe as his replacement. A lot has changed since then, hasn’t it?
A Maple Leafs team that looked disjointed and disengaged under Babcock, on pace for just 78 points through 23 games, is now rejuvenated under their new boss. In the four games since Keefe’s hiring, the Maple Leafs have gone 3-1-0, employed a more fitting, high-flying brand of hockey, and finally look like they’re having fun.
But beyond the refreshing atmosphere and feel-good storylines, just how good have Keefe’s Maple Leafs been? Can we expect this level of play to continue moving forward? And most importantly, do they have a real shot at the playoffs?
Keefe Has Freed the Maple Leafs’ Offence
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the Maple Leafs’ offensive struggles under Babcock, which was really a strange phenomenon given their personnel and how dominant they’ve been in that area over the past three seasons.
Despite what some players have said, it’s clear that there was a change in systems where the Maple Leafs opted to shoot more from the point rather than the slot. Whether that was on Babcock or assistant coach Dave Hakstol remains to be determined, but the end result was far from ideal, ultimately hindering the team’s offensively gifted forwards, leading to fewer scoring chances and goals.
In the first 10 days under Keefe, we’ve seen a complete shift in how the team plays offence. Not only have they reverted to the philosophy of shooting from more dangerous areas, but they’re arguably doing it with more poise than ever before.
The team is playing as a five-man unit: defencemen are now pinching down the wall to make plays, while forwards hover up high and swoop in to create offence from unexpected areas of the ice. The new style has greatly benefited players like Tyson Barrie and Jason Spezza, and as general manager Kyle Dubas said, the team is now playing as it was designed to.
The numbers back it up, too: at 5-on-5 the Maple Leafs have been one of the most dominant offensive teams under Keefe, so it looks like his possession-based brand of hockey is paying off.
In short, the Maple Leafs have looked like a different team under Keefe. They’re shooting the puck more, getting the puck on net more, creating more chances, and scoring much more than before. Over the past 10 days, Toronto has the most potent offence in the entire league, averaging 4.5 goals per game – leaps and bounds above the 3.07 they were averaging under Babcock this season.
Toronto’s Vital Numbers Point to Sustainable Success
There are a few key stats that we can look at to figure out how good a team really is, and in the case of the Maple Leafs, those numbers look encouraging. That definitely wasn’t the case before the coaching change.
Some of the smartest people in hockey have figured out that there are a couple team stats that strongly predict future success: Corsi and expected goals. Corsi, sometimes referred to as possession or shot share, simply denotes the percentage of shot attempts that a team has at 5-on-5. Expected goals use shot location data to label each shot with a probability of going in, so the team that generates a higher quantity and quality of chances will be expected to score (and win) more.
While the sample size of four games is very small (arguably too small to draw any real conclusions just yet), the results are undeniably promising for the Maple Leafs. Keefe has taken a middling, underperforming offence and turned them into the juggernaut that they were expected to be. The Maple Leafs rank top-five in every vital underlying category at 5-on-5 since Keefe’s instalment as head coach – and remember, that’s without Mitch Marner.
Can the Maple Leafs Make the Playoffs?
Last week, prior to Babcock’s dismissal, I wrote about how much of a hole Toronto would have to dig themselves out of to make the playoffs. What it came down to was that at 9-10-4, the Maple Leafs would have had to play at a .635 points percentage pace for the rest of the season to reach 97 points and a chance at a wildcard spot (the Columbus Blue Jackets got in as the second wild card with 98, the Montreal Canadiens missed with 96). For reference, they essentially needed to be equal to the fourth-place Washington Capitals played at .634 to finish with 104 points last season. Under Babcock, that just wasn’t going to happen.
Toronto’s management team realized that and made the change – but were they too late?
With three wins in four games under Keefe, the team has improved in terms of both process and results; they look more like the dominant team that put up back-to-back 100 point seasons. But going by points percentage, they still have a tough hill to climb. If 97 points is the cutoff for a playoff spot, the Maple Leafs need 69 points through their remaining 55 games – equivalent to points percentage of about .627. Essentially the three wins have made things easier, but not by much. Put another way, if they followed Babcock’s formula of six points every five games – a .600 points percentage – they would end up with just 94 points and almost certainly miss the postseason.
On the bright side, Money Puck is relatively high on the Maple Leafs, giving them a 48 percent chance at the playoffs prior to Friday’s loss against the Buffalo Sabres. And even if that sounds low, it’s twice as good as where they were when Babcock was in charge.
It’s still relatively early in the season, but the Maple Leafs have got to reestablish themselves as an elite team if they want another chance at the Cup this spring. The good news is that they made the right decision of bringing in a new coach, and likely did it just in time to salvage the season. The team’s play and supporting numbers have been highly encouraging under Keefe, but the challenge now will be to maintain that level over the next four months.
Has the last week been a flash in the pan, or are these new and improved Maple Leafs here to stay?
Stats from http://naturalstattrick.com/
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.