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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Toronto's Truculent Turnaround

colton orr leafs fight
The Leafs have rocketed up the standings and it is all thanks to a Brian Burke-brand of truculence. At least that was the narrative on Saturday night’s Hockey Night in Canada telecast.

Unfortunately, it isn’t even remotely true.

The Leafs currently lead the league in hits, which is the main stat being cited for the Leafs’ newfound physicality. It must be the reason the Leafs currently sit tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference, unlike last year when the Leafs finished in the lottery. Except last year the Leafs finished fourth in total hits, so are the Leafs truly a different team?

Yes, but it isn’t really because they are tougher.

There is definitely a benefit to being a tough team that plays physically. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup two years ago after bullying the league into submission. But the hits stat isn’t a very good measure of a team’s physicality. During Boston’s Stanley Cup season they finished 21st in hits, behind so-called soft teams like Vancouver and Detroit.

What the hits stat is, in actuality, is a measure of which team doesn’t have the puck. Teams without the puck are going to have more opportunities to hit the opposition. And when you don’t have the puck you don’t have a chance to score, so saying having a lot of hits helps you win is like saying having a lot of credit cards helps you get rich.

Over the last two years, when the Leafs have been among the league leaders in hits, they have also been league laggards in puck possession. In even strength situations when the score in close, the Leafs are allowing more than 54% of all shots—fifth worst in the entire league. That metric, which is strongly correlated with the amount of points a team has, is about as bad as last season for Toronto, when the team finished with the third worst mark in the league.

So hits, which are being called the reason for the Leafs' transformation, are actually a better measure of how bad the Leafs are at controlling the play.

Furthermore, two of the four players being praised for infusing toughness into the team’s lineup, Colton Orr and Frazer McClaren, are actually two of the worst players in terms of puck possession and make the Leafs demonstrably worse whenever they hit the ice. Throw in Mike Brown, and the Leafs have a fourth line that performs a minor miracle each night they somehow manage to escape the rink without a goal against.

Randy Carlyle jumps through hoops each game to get Orr, McClaren, and Brown out against fourth line players, more often than not in the offensive zone, and still sees his team out-shot terribly when he does. Over 60 minutes, the trio allow between 15-25 more shot attempts than they take. You can see top-line players practically salivating whenever those guys get stuck out on the ice. In all likelihood, having those three players on the ice is going to end poorly.

Even worse, having a fourth line of players with one skill (punching faces) means the Mikhail Grabovski line has to face pretty much all the tough defensive assignments. Last year Grabovski was given a slight reprieve because David Steckel took most of the defensive zone face-offs, freeing up Grabovski for slightly more offensively advantageous situations (although he was still used as the primary shut-down centre). This year, however, Carlyle has smartly brought Nazem Kadri along slowly, trying to match him up against weaker lines and giving him more starts in the offensive zone. And combined with the need to do the same for Orr, McClaren, and Brown, albeit without anywhere near the same level of offense, means Grabovski faces off against the opposition’s top players and starts almost two-thirds of his shifts in the defensive zone, a percentage similar to checking-line players like Max Talbot, Eric Belanger, and Brian Boyle.

Essentially, instead of making the team better, Orr, McClaren, and Brown make the team worse when they are on the ice and when they are off. Just like the team’s inflated hit count, the truculent trio is not responsible for Toronto’s residence in the playoff picture.

What is responsible for the Leafs' turnaround, however, is extremely simple to identify.

First, the penalty kill has become competent. For the last seven years the Leafs penalty kill was at best bad and at worst historically awful. Competent was a dream. This year, however, Carlyle has coaxed a decent performance out of his short-handed unit, managing to get a PK that sits 15th in the league. It’s barely average, but at least now the impending doom of a goal against doesn’t wash over the whole team every time someone heads to the box. That in itself is worthy of a parade.

Second, and most importantly, is the inexperienced goaltending duo of Ben Scrivens and James Reimer. In front of the two goalies, the Leafs have enjoyed a .927 team save percentage, the third best in the entire league. In recent years, the Leafs were lucky to break .900. There is no way to win if your goalies can’t even provide average netminding. Elite goaltending cleans up a lot of mistakes and the Leafs can get away with giving up the majority of shots.

If the Leafs received the current level of goaltending last year, they would have allowed close to 80 fewer goals. That would have turned them from a team with a minus-33 goal differential to one with a plus-45 goal differential. That would have been third best in the league.

Unless team toughness has somehow inspired Reimer and Scrivens to play like world-class goalies, it isn’t responsible for Toronto's chance at the playoffs.

To be fair, the Leafs do seem like a tougher team to play against. Both Kadri and Leo Komorov have added a sandpaper element to the forward group and Mark Fraser has proved a tremendous, tough element to the third-line defensive pair with Cody Franson. The difference between these three players and the fourth line is that Kadri, Komorov, and Fraser can all play. You don't need to say a prayer every time they step on the ice.

Overall, however, the media is completely ignoring the true reason for the Leafs' improvement over last season, instead ascribing too much weight to a flawed, unrepresentative stat that helps support a narrative. Luckily, the media could get a second chance at identifying the importance of the goalies, because despite elite goaltending, the Leafs are no better through 19 games than they were to start last season. So if the goaltending goes south, expect the team to follow.

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