Mar 302012
 

As we approach the end of the 2011-12 NHL regular season there will be a lot of analysis and looking back at the past seasons for the Leafs and then looking forward to the off season and beyond but before I get into that, I wanted to reflect how Leaf fans were feeling just one short year ago.

A good starting point for that reflection would be Michael Langlois’ “10 reasons why Leaf fans can feel either encouraged or discouraged” post.  Let’s take a look at some of the reasons for optimism Michael pointed out and how we might feel about them now because I think this time last year more Leaf fans were optimistic than pessimistic.

1. The team, as currently configured, has become a team that is hard to play against.  There are very few teams that are ‘out of reach’ for the Leafs, especially in the East where there is so much parity and talent-thin rosters everywhere.

Tough to play against?  Hardly.  Few teams that are ‘out of reach’ for the Leafs?  Hardly.  The Leafs have a dreadful record against good teams and there are few teams that they can actually expect to beat on a regular basis.

2. For the first time in 20 years, the Leafs have a young goalie who has emerged, with the mental make-up to handle the adversity that he will no doubt face next season and beyond.

Umm, yeah, maybe not.

3. A young defense corps with four emerging players all 26 and under—Schenn, Phaneuf, Aulie and Gunnarsson, with gardiner perhaps waiting in the wings before too long.  There is an almost ideal mix of skating skill, toughness and puck-moving ability.

Well, Gardiner has developed nicely, but Schenn has regressed (from a not very good starting point), and Aulie has been traded away.  And while we can talk about their skating skill, toughness, and puck moving ability, one thing the majority of them have lacked thus far is defensive ability.  Despite the youth, it is pretty difficult to suggest the defense has progressed at all, despite adding Liles and Franson to the mix.

6.  Nazem Kadri appears poised to take that next step, whether as a front-line center or, as Wilson has projected, a winger.  As importantly, he is no longer seemingly the “only” young guy who is in a position to take steps forward as early as next season.  The team is now filled with youngsters, so if one guy steps back or falters, there are others standing by to jump in and compete

Well, Kadri hasn’t taken that next step and it doesn’t appear management has even enough confidence in him to give him a reasonable opportunity to do so.  The team “filled with youngsters” is now the team “filled with youngsters failing to deliver.”  Aulie didn’t show enough to management and got traded.  Kadri hasn’t shown he can take the next step.  Colborne has had an up and down year…with the Marlies.  The only guy who has really taken his opportunity and ran with it is Gardiner.  More and more now we are starting to divert our attention to the next wave of prospects, Blacker, Holzer, McKegg, newly acquired Carter Ashton, etc.

7.  The team should be in a good position, cap-wise, heading into free agency this coming summer.

We don’t know how much the salary cap will rise next year but the Leafs have nearly $58M in cap space committed with Kulemin, Frattin, and Franson to sign as RFA’s.  Cap space will depend on Burke’s ability to trade away some salary or his willingness to dump salary in the AHL.  There isn’t a lot of free cap space available to fill holes in the lineup, and there are plenty of holes to fill.

8.  The re-built Leafs are now one of the youngest (second-youngest, is it?) teams in the NHL.

Their players are a year older now, and very few of them have progressed any.  Plus, it is a bit of a myth that the Leafs are young.  Mostly they are lacking of old players.  The majority of their roster is between age 25 and 30, the prime of their careers.  It’s difficult to suggest that Phaneuf, Lupul, MacArthur, Grabovski, Connolly, Lombardi, Gunnarsson, Kulemin, Komisarek, Crabb, Brown, Steckel, or Liles will improve with age.  More likely the majority of them will regress over the next couple seasons.  Even Kessel is probably approaching his peak and after 4 seasons of being in the League Schenn isn’t showing any signs of improvement.  Any improvement from this team is likely to be coming from external sources (trades, free agent signings, new prospects coming up) and not from natural progression.

To me the most disappointing thing about this season is while a year has gone by very little progress has occurred with the Leafs in any area.  The team is still searching for a goalie (or two), the team is still playing poor team defense, the team still lacks a true shut down defenseman, the team still lacks a #1 center, the team still lacks a dependable checking line, the team still lacks size up front, the team still doesn’t know what they have in Kadri and Colborne (they gave up on Aulie), and we have even less cap space to work with this  upcoming off season (not that any key free agents will view the Leafs as a desirable destination anyway).  In all honestly, I am finding very few reasons for optimism heading into the off season and looking forward to the 2012-13 season.  To me, you do what you can this off season to rid yourself of as many useless players as possible (if at all possible), try and find a reliable goalie, add a few role players to provide some size, experience and defensive reliability, and next season you use it as a true building season by inserting Colborne, Kadri, Ashton, Frattin, Holzer, maybe the guy we draft with a top 5 pick, and maybe others into the lineup and see what they can do.  At least we’ll have guys in the lineup that have a realistic hope of progressing and being around in 3-5 years when the Leafs might actually contend again.  Then we can get serious about free agents in the 2013 off season when the contracts of Connolly, Lombardi, MacArthur, and Armstrong come off the books.

Just to end on a positive note, let me point out three positives that occurred this season:

1.  Jake Gardiner.  He looks really good.  It’s still early in his career, but all signs point to him having a very promising future as a puck moving defenseman.

2.  Joffrey Lupul.  I know a lot of Leaf fans are pointing to Kessel, but the real key to the Leafs offense in my mind is Lupul.  He has overcome his previous health issues and is back, despite his late season injury.

3.  Mikhail Grabovski has shown that his 2010-11 season was no fluke and he is one of the few Leafs that actually seems to care about winning.  I don’t think he is a top line center, but he plays a hard and determined 2-way game (despite his size) and it’s only unfortunate unfortunate more Leafs don’t follow his lead.

 

Mar 022012
 

A lot has been made about Joffrey Lupul’s “career year” this year and some Leaf fans are even suggesting that now is the time to trade him while his value is at an all-time high.  While it is true that he is on pace for career high in goals and points I would like to suggest that this is not because he is having a ‘career year’ but that he is being given greater opportunity.  He has always been this good and there is no reason to expect that he cannot repeat this years performance next season.

When I analyze a player I like to look at “on-ice” stats because I believe a player can contribute to a teams success without generating individual goals and assists.  But, since on-ice stats are teammate dependent I like to look at how his teammates do with and without the player on the ice with him.  So, let’s look at some of Lupul’s linemates 5v5 close faceoff adjusted goals for per 20 minutes with and without Lupul over the past 5 seasons.

Year Teammate Together TM w/o Lupul % Inc w/ Lupul
2011-12 Kessel 1.418 0.789 79.7%
2011-12 Bozak 1.068 1.268 -15.8%
2010-11 Bozak 0.979 0.718 36.4%
2010-11 Kessel 0.989 0.769 28.6%
2008-09 Hartnell 1.61 0.659 144.3%
2008-09 J. Carter 1.627 0.73 122.9%
2007-08 M. Richards 1.718 0.683 151.5%
2007-08 Umberger 1.915 0.631 203.5%
2007-08 Briere 1.061 0.536 97.9%

The above table includes all players Lupul has played 100 minutes of 5v5 close ice time with over the past 5 seasons including their GF20 together and Lupul’s teammates GF20 when not playing with Lupul.  The final column is how much better the teammates GF20 is playing with Lupul compared to without Lupul.  As you can see, in every single season Lupul has made his linemates significantly better offensively.  This is a good thing.

So, why are Lupul’s individual offensive numbers so much better this year?  A lot of it has to do with greater opportunity and the most important factor in opportunity is ice time.   Let’s take a look at Lupul’s even strength goal production over the past 5 seasons and compare it to his even strength ice time.

Year ES TOI ES G Min. bt goals
2011-12 984:59 17 57.9
2010-11 688:23 10 68.8
2009-10 299:05 10 29.9
2008-09 1039:42 19 54.7
2007-08 744:47 13 57.3

The “Min. bt goals” column is the average number of minutes that he spent on the ice at even strength between his even strength goals.  As you can see, this season is pretty much on par with what he has done in the past.

Another interesting thing to look at is his on-ice shooting percentage in 5v5 close zone start adjusted situations.  Over the past 5 seasons, starting with 2007-08, they are 14.04%, 12.05%, 9.09%, 11.64%, and 13.73%.  These are exceptional numbers, and among the best in the league.  I know not everyone believes in shooting percentages but I believe they are an integral component of producing offense.  As a result, a corsi-based analysis of Lupul will fail to show his true offensive value.

So, in conclusion, Lupul’s offensive production this season is not an anomaly, it is his ice time that is the anomaly.  He has almost as much even strength ice time this year than he has ever had and he has capitalized on it at more or less the same rate as he has in the past.  He is on pace for 32 goals this season and there is no reason to believe that he can’t be a 30 goal scorer next year as well.  The Leafs shouldn’t be considering trading Lupul this summer but rather they should be re-signing him to a long-term deal before his value really sky rockets in 2013 after putting up back to back 30+ goal, 70+ point seasons.

 

Mar 012012
 

I wanted to take a look at the Leafs record against various other types of teams so I took a variety of stats and looked at their records against the top 10 teams, the middle 10 teams and the bottom 10 teams in that stat.  Here is what I found.

Top 10 Middle 10 Bottom 10 Top 10 Middle 10 Bottom 10
GAA 5-9-2 11-10-4 13-9-1 61.5 85.3 96.3
GFA 5-14-1 13-6-4 11-8-2 45.1 107.0 93.7
GFA/GAA 6-11-2 7-11-4 16-6-1 60.4 67.1 117.7
SOG/Game 6-13-2 11-10-3 12-5-2 54.7 85.4 125.2
SOG Ag/Game 10-6-4 10-10-0 9-12-2 98.4 82.0 71.3
SOG/SOGAg 5-8-5 14-14-1 10-6-1 68.3 82.0 101.3
Save% 6-9-2 10-14-2 13-5-3 67.5 69.4 113.2
Sh% 10-11-2 9-9-3 10-8-2 78.4 82.0 89.1
PDO 8-13-1 8-8-4 13-7-2 63.4 82.0 103.1
PIM 10-14-0 12-5-5 7-9-2 68.3 108.1 72.9
Points/Game 7-10-4 7-13-2 15-5-1 70.3 59.6 121.0

The first three columns are the Leafs record against those teams and the last three columns are the expected point totals the Leafs would accumulate over 82 games making it a little easier to compare groups.

The group the Leafs play the worst against are teams that have a good goals for average (5-14-11, 45.1 points) followed by teams that generate a lot of shots per game (6-13-2, 54.7 points).  In other words, the Leafs play really poorly against teams that have good offenses.  A bad defense against a good offense is a killer combination.

They don’t play as bad against good defensive teams but they still do poorly.  Against teams that are really good in goals against average  they have a 5-9-2 record, good for 61.5 point pace.  Interestingly though they do quite well against teams that don’t generally give up many shots against (10-6-4, 98.4 points) and do much worse against teams that give up a lot of shots against (9-12-2, 71.3 points).  Not sure why this is as teams that do give up fewer shots do have better records.

The most telling stats might be the Leafs record against teams with the best GFA/GAA, SOG/SOGAg, PDO and Points/Game as these might be the best evaluators of a teams overall ability as they combine both offense and defense.  The Leafs 82 point pace against the top 10 in those stats are 60.4, 68.3, 68.3 and 70.3 respectively while their 82 point pace against the bottom 10 teams in those stats are 117.7, 101.3, 103.1 and 121.0respectively and their 82 point pace against the middle 10 in those stats are 67.1, 82.0, 82.0 and 59.6.  In other words, they are bad against good teams, still sub-par against middle of the road teams, and quite good against the worst teams in the league.  So from that we can probably deduce that the Leafs are probably ranked near the top of the bottom 10 teams in the league, or in around 21-23 league-wide.

Finally, the one category I was interested in was the Leafs record against big physical teams (since the Leafs are generally small at the forward position) and I used PIMs as a proxy for this.  The Leafs record against the top 10 teams in PIMs is 10-14-0 good for a 68.3 point pace.  Against the middle 10 they play at a 108.1 point pace and against the bottom 10 they play at a 72.9 point pace.  Interestingly, they play the worst against teams that don’t take many penalties and the best against teams in the middle.  I am not sure what this tells us other than maybe the least penalized teams are probably the teams that give up the fewest powerplay opportunities against and the PP is, generally speaking, one of the Leafs strengths.  The middle group are probably not big physical teams that fight a lot but are teams that take a lot of bad penalties and give up a lot of short handed opportunities that the Leafs can capitalize on.