Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it. Our friends over at bestbettingwebsites.org.uk have reported that betting sites are slashing their odds on the Maple Leafs current squad collapsing in the 2016 – 2017 Season.
With a 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames in the books, the Leafs are now one period shy of the one-third mark of the NHL regular season. The team has been winning and winning regularly since a couple of embarrassing losses to the Buffalo Sabres and Nashville Predators. The Leafs’ 15-9-3 record has them two points ahead of their 27-game pace over each of the last two seasons:
But is their position in the standings masking poor underlying play again?
There’s no doubt that the Leafs’ overall possession game is better. They’re getting outshot far less frequently, and their possession metrics (Corsi and Fenwick) have both improved.
|Leafs 5v5 Shot Data by Season [% of Games Played]|
|Season||Leafs Outshoot Opponent||Opponent Outshoots Leafs|
There are a couple other key differences in the way the Leafs have played this season compared to the past two. Possession-wise, the Leafs pretty much got buried in all score situations over the past two seasons. Leading, trailing and tied – the Leafs never came close to controlling the play.
There’s been a perception this season that the Leafs just “don’t show up” some nights to play. And the stats may actually bear that out a little bit. This season when the Leafs are trailing hockey games, they’re possession metrics are only better than those of the historically-outpossessed Buffalo Sabres. In a sense, they pretty much pack it in once they’re down a goal or two. But when tied or leading at 5v5, the Leafs are actually close to an average possession team. Small sample sizes may play a small role in these numbers, but this will certainly be something to keep a close eye on as the season progresses.
Back to the original question – are the Leafs due for another collapse?
The above graph shows the Leafs’ cumulative PDO by season since the lockout year. While their PDO has been trending upwards over the past few weeks, they’re still riding the percentages to a lesser extent than they were …
Since the first NHL lockout, Leafs’ fan have been subject to mediocre teams (at best) that frequently teeter on the edge of making the playoffs, but generally fail to do so. It has now been a decade since the first lockout, and the Leafs are on their third General Manager and fifth Head Coach. Although to be fair, John Ferguson Jr. and the late Pat Quinn had to endure the beginnings of the post-lockout world in which free-spending was prohibited, and the Leafs’ already-bare prospect cupboard would have taken a full re-build to replenish.
A decade should have been more than enough time to put together a perennial playoff team, and recent departure of Randy Carlyle has placed a lot of scrutiny of the Leafs’ players; most notably, the players who make up the core of the team.
However, should blame not be placed on those who put the players together, those who chose the coaches, those who drafted the prospects, and those who were tasked with developing the prospects? The media continues to put blame on a lack of leadership, poor culture in the room, and the capabilities of the core players. Perhaps it is not the fault of the players, but the management who has assembled said group of players who may not be capable as a group to compete in today’s NHL.
It seems that every year the goal is to make the playoffs – the GM goes into a press conference stating his expectations, trying to correct the ship quickly, and turn a mediocre team into a playoff team with few negative consequences for the long term with every move made. While being bad and accumulating high draft picks can lead to building a good team (don’t tell Craig MacTavish), being bad at the right moment is equally important, as is uncovering serviceable players later on in the draft. Herein lies the current Leafs conundrum – to continue trying to improve the current squad and turn them into a playoff team, or to blow up the team and start from scratch?
Let’s start by looking at the average age of the current Leafs team versus the average age of teams who have won the Stanley Cup since 2000.
|Average Age of the ’15 Leafs vs. Stanley Cup Teams|
|*2014-15||Toronto Maple Leafs||28.3|
|2013-14||Los Angeles Kings||27.4|
As soon as Frederik Gauthier’s name was announced as the 21st overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the term “safe pick” was used for him. He wasn’t the highly skilled player you would expect out of the first round, but he comes with less risk from some first round draft picks.
Gauthier is a 6’4” 215lb natural left handed centre, who “combines a great size with a mature game at both ends of the ice.” In just over two seasons in the QMJHL, he has scored 49 goals, and assisted on 78 for a total of 127 points in 133 games, which is nearly a point a game clip. Not exactly lighting the lamp in the Q, but he isn’t a slouch either.
Gauthier has won a gold medal in the U18 World Junior Championships (2012-13) and one in the U20 World Junior Championships (2014-15). What is really impressive about his most recent World Junior Championship is his role on the team and how successful he was with it. Gauthier paired with Lawson Crouse and Nick Ritchie were tasked with being the key shutdown line in the tournament, and they did a really good job of it. Playing some of the toughest minutes on the team, he put up some of the most impressive puck possession off all the Team Canada players. The only player better than him was Braydon Point, who was sheltered and not used much until Robbie Fabbri went down with a high ankle sprain.
In the NHL we shouldn’t expect Gauthier to be a top line scorer, which I think is what irritates some given where he was taken in the draft. What we can expect him to do with the Leafs is be a strong puck possession third line centre who can kill penalties. When I look at Gauthier, I see him similar to a Rob Niedermyer type player – he isn’t going to be the best player on your team, but he won’t hurt the team either.
At the end of the day, the Leafs picked a guy who will be playing in the NHL within the next couple of seasons and he should do a great job in his role as a third line centre. And that is better than swinging and completely missing on a prospect in the late first round.…