Cliches are the hallmark of lazy writers, but the Toronto Maple Leafs warrant an act of laziness, as one cliche fits too darned perfectly: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The front office makeup tells us the Leafs have changed. Brendan Shanahan, 29-year-old analytical whiz Kyle Dubas (who “politely passed” on participating in this story) and Mark Hunter now share decisions with Dave Nonis and had no affiliation with the franchise a year ago. The team makeup tells us the Leafs have changed, too. Randy Carlyle’s glorified three-line system, which gave fourth-liners Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren a few shifts a game, is extinct. Peter Holland gets full-time NHL work now and off-season additions like Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik have turned Toronto into a true 12-forward operation.
The standings, for now, emphatically tell us the Leafs have changed. They sit 19-9-3, seven points up on ninth place in the Eastern Conference and winners of six straight games. They lead the NHL in goals per game. They’ve beaten Chicago, Anaheim and Los Angeles this season, albeit at home.
The more wins pile up, the more difficult it is for even the Grinchiest of pessimists to write this team off and insist its almost-annual swoon is coming. That said, I encourage these Grinches to try, as they’ll find plenty of alarm bells to jingle.
The very reason certain pundits didn’t buy Toronto’s 2012-13 playoff run or fast start in 2013-14 was, of course, analytics. They had an artificially high shooting percentage. They ranked among the league’s worst teams in metrics like Corsi, meaning the majority of pucks, including those that were blocked and missed the net, went toward their own goal. They depended too much on goaltending.
Flash forward a year later to the piping-hot Leafs, and you get this friendly quip from center Nazem Kadri after Tuesday night’s 6-2 shellacking of the Ducks:
“Obviously the shot total’s got to get down, but the way Bernie’s been playing, he’s got those. (he laughs and smiles at Jonathan Bernier, sitting beside him). “So I don’t think we’re too worried about that. But I think coming back, we’re keeping them to the outside most of the time.”
It’s a funny comment, and you have to love Kadri’s honesty, but it’s telling, isn’t it? Allowing high shot totals. Relying on Bernier to bail the team out. Sounds. Familiar.