To put the Toronto Maple Leafs analytics-defying season into perspective, consider the following: In the past 15 NHL seasons, there has been one team that has finished the season being outshot by a wider average margin than the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres are in 2013-14.
Think about that for a moment. If you multiply the number of teams in the NHL by those 15 seasons, you come up with 441 total teams. And just one of them - or just 0.23 percent - was outshot by more than the 9.7 shots per game by which opponents are outshooting the Maple Leafs and the 10.8 by which the Sabres are being outshot this season. The ’01-02 Atlanta Thrashers, who finished dead last in the NHL that season, were outshot by an average of 11.3 shots per game.
The results have been predictable for the Sabres. They have 30th place overall all but wrapped up a quarter of the way through the season despite the fact that their goaltender has been their best player on a nightly basis. The Maple Leafs, however, continue to defy logic by basically having a playoff spot wrapped up by the quarter mark of the season. The Leafs are six points ahead of the ninth-place New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference. Over the past five full seasons, only three times has a team with a six-or-more-point bulge in the playoff race after American Thanksgiving weekend ended the season outside the playoffs.
The Leafs are 28th in the league in shots per game, 29th in shots against and 25th in faceoff winning percentage. With numbers like that, it’s a wonder how the Leafs ever even have the puck on their sticks during a game. But they do and when they have it, good things usually happen. There might not be a team that is more opportunistic than the Leafs have been and by making the most of power plays and shootouts – historically a deep, dark hole for this team – they have been winning games with remarkable regularity. (Actually the Leafs have been outstanding on special teams in general. One rudimentary way of assessing special teams’ effectiveness is to add their power play and penalty-killing percentages together. When you do that, only four teams in the NHL have a higher total than the 107.7 posted by the Leafs.
But more than anything, the Maple Leafs have been getting the kind of goaltending this season that has eluded them for the better part of a decade, speaking of dark, deep holes. Simply put, the Maple Leafs goaltending duo of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer is bailing them out night after night, a development that was no more prominent that Saturday night when the Leafs were outshot 50-28 by the Washington Capitals with Reimer in goal, but emerged with a 2-1 shootout victory.
Which brings to mind a couple of interesting questions. The first is a two-part query. The way Reimer has been playing as the backup, was it even necessary for the Maple Leafs to trade for Jonathan Bernier last summer? Or, is it precisely because the Maple Leafs have Bernier and Reimer no longer has to shoulder the goaltending load that he is excelling? In other words, is Reimer capable of playing the way he did against the Capitals only once a week instead of three or four times a week? I suspect the explanation is the latter, but it’s an interesting study.
The second question is, how much longer can this possibly continue? Logic would suggest that this way of playing is going to catch up to the Leafs, but we’ve already established that the Leafs are a team that doesn’t exactly conform to any kind of logic. The power play has to dry up at some point, right? The Leafs can’t expect to win three of every four shootouts, correct? Bernier and Reimer can’t possibly keep playing this way, can they? All good questions, particularly considering the Leafs haven’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut lately. Going into Monday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Leafs had scored 16 goals in nine games in November and their record in those games was a rather unspectacular 4-4-1.
So the Leafs are trending downward, which would come as no surprise to those who put a significant amount of stock in Corsi and other such analytic stats. Almost always, they will argue, when a team puts up bad numbers in analytics, their poor play catches up to them.
And there’s a good chance that will happen with the Leafs. But it might not happen until the playoffs. And again, we’ll have to look at history here. It tells us that you simply cannot play the way the Leafs have and hope to have any long-term success in the post-season. You might be able to win a round or even two, but it eventually catches up with you. Then again, though, the Leafs are currently getting the kind of lights-out goaltending every winning team needs in the playoffs.
The guess from this corner is that the Leafs are playing with fire big-time. And when you do that, you almost always get burned.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.