Apr 282010

Earlier today I posted an article showing how a goalies save percentage varies by age. It was pointed out that one of the flaws in that analysis is that I didn’t account for the fact that over time the average NHL save percentage has varied, and has generally increased over time. In fact, the change from the 1980’s to the 1990’s is quite significant. As a result I decided it was important enough to take the next step and account for variations in league wide save percentages.

To accomplish this I took each goalies save percentage and divided it by the league wide save percentage for that year which essentially tells us how much a goalie was better or worse than his peers in that given year. Anything greater than 1 meant the goalie was better than the average goalie and anything less than 1 meant the goalie was not as good as the average goalie that year. I then performed the same analysis using this ratio number instead of straight save percentage.

How do Goalie Age

The end result is that a goalies peak years generally start sooner than seen under the straight save percentage analysis and the drop off in a goalies latter years is more pronounced as well. Generally speaking a goalie will have his best years between ages 22 and 34 after which the drop off is fairly pronounced. This isn’t true for all goalies though as the truly elite goalies such as Roy, Belfour, Hasek and Brodeur played above their peers well beyond age 34 but for the majority of goalies it is downhill once you get past your early 30’s.

Note: In the above chart I only included ages for which data was available for at least 3 goalies and I only included years where a goalie played at least 5 games. This was done so as to not skew the chart at the edges and the result is only ages 19-41 are shown though Barasso played at age 18 and Hasek played until age 43.

Apr 282010

I was inspired to write this article by a post over at Behind the Net where they discussed goalie even strength save percentage by age. In that article they came away with the conclusion:

Analyzing the data every way I can think up, there is no evidence whatsoever of any relationship between goalie age and even strength save percentage.

But, as I pointed out in the comments there are two serious flaws with their analysis. The first is that they do a linear regression analysis which is probably not the best tool to use as one can reasonably assume that a goalies skills do not progress linearly as he ages. One would expect a goalie would improve early in his career, plateau for a few years, and then regress in the latter years of his career. A hypothetical example might see a goalie have the following save percentages for his 10 year career: .900, .905, .910, .915, .920, .920, .915, .910, .905, .900. Fitting that data to a linear equation would net a slope of zero indicating no relationship between age and save percentage. Clearly from the data though there is probably a connection between age and save percentage.

The second problem I pointed out in the comments was in the second part of the analysis where they just looked at goalies with 3 years or more of data. The problem with this is that one can probably expect the difference in a goalies skill level at age 26 and at age 28 to be minimal, if anything at all. Skill level variation by age is likely to take a lot more than 3 years to identify. The reality is if a goalie only played in the NHL from age 26 to 28 that was probably the peak of his career and he simply wasn’t good enough to make the NHL to have a save percentage to use before and after that point, but since only NHL save percentage was used we can’t know how the goalies skill level might have improved before age 26 or tailed off after age 28.

To fix these issues one really should only look at goalies where you have a lot of data over many years and not look at it using linear regression which isn’t going to work. So what I have done is identify all of the goalies that have played in the NHL for at least 14 seasons and whose careers continued at least into the 2000-2001 season. The list of goalies that meet these qualifications are: Curtis Joseph, Tom Barasso, Sean Burke, Ed Belfour, Dominik Hasek, Olaf Kolzig, Jocelyn Thibault, Chris Osgood, Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, John Vanbiesbrouk, Mike Vernon, Ron Tugnutt, Jeff Hackett, Craig Billington, Glen Healey, Kirk McLean, Mike Richter and Chris Tererri. That list includes quite a variety of goaltenders including hall of famers and career backups and everything in between. I then took averaged their save percentages by age and came up with the following chart.

Save Percentage by Age

From that chart there appears to be a very strong relationship between age and save percentage. Before age 22 and after age 40 there are only a small number of data points so the chart goes a little wonky at the edges but from age 22 to age 30 there is a fairly steady improvement in a goalies save percentage. Between the ages of 30 and 34 a goalies save percentage plateaus before starting a steady decline until age 40. This is very much as one would expect and it only takes looking at the data in the proper way to confirm our expectations.

Apr 152010

I have always believed that goaltending is by far the most important position in hockey and have claimed it can make or break any teams season. I have claimed that the main reason that the Leafs have failed to make the playoffs post lockout is because of bad goaltending. Many others have scoffed at this claim blaming everything from bad defense to bad offense (which is mostly not factually true) to poor coaching, to a combination of all of the above. I have seen others claim that goaltending would account for at most four or five games a year. So, I have undertaken a bit of a study to attempt to figure out how important goaltending really is and how many points in the standings poor goaltending can cost you or great goaltending can gain you.

Most goaltending studies I have seen, and done myself, have to do with comparing goalies from one team to the next. The problem with this is people can easily choose to dismiss the study with claims like ‘but team x has such a bad defense you cannot blame the goalie for that’ and to some extent there is some validity in this claim (though I do not believe it to be as much as many do). There have been other studies that attempt to factor out the defense issue by coming up with some sort of shot difficulty rating based on shot type and defense. I believe that this has some merit and improves the validity of the study but people will simply jump in and claim that not all shots from the same distance are equal and teams with bad defense will inherently give up more difficult shots so the shot quality analysis is still far from perfect. Again, there is some merit to this.

So, with all that in mind I set out to study goaltending in a way that eliminates the quality of a team’s defense in a way that most sane people cannot dispute: compare goalies who play on the same team. If we are comparing two goalies who play on the same team we immediately eliminate the ‘but he plays on a bad team’ argument because they are playing behind the same players.

I collected all the goalie statistics from the 5 regular seasons since the NHL lockout of the 2004-05 season. For each team and season I identified each team’s starting goalie (the goalie with the most starts) and then grouped all other goalies who played for that team in that season and merged their statistics into a combined backup goalie statistic. For example, this past season Jonas Hiller was the starter for the Anaheim Ducks and JS Giguere and Curtis McElhinney also played for the Ducks so Giguere and McElhinney’s stats were combined into a single team backup stat. The statistics I am interested in are save percentage and points earned for their team and the number of games started from which we can calculate points earned per start stat for the starter and the combined backup. I next subtracted the backups points per start from the starters points per start and the backups save percentage from the starters save percentage. Here is an example for the Anaheim goalies.

Goalie Starts W L OTL PTS Pts/Start SV%
Jonas Hiller 58 30 23 4 64 1.103 0.9182
JS Giguere 17 4 8 5 11 0.9000
C. McElhinney 7 5 1 2 10 0.9167
Backups 24 9 9 3 25 1.042 0.9055
Starter-Backup 0.0618 0.0128

So, from that table we see that Jonas Hiller had a save percentage 0.0618 higher than his backups and produced more points for his team in the standings at a rate of 0.0128 per start. Now since that last stat is pretty meaningless I prorated it to 82 games and over the course of 82 games Hiller would produce 5.07 additional points in the standings over his backups.

Continue reading »

Apr 132010

Washington vs Montreal

Washington was the run away leader in the eastern conference finishing 18 points ahead of second place New Jersey and 33 points ahead of 8th place Montreal. Washington was a middle of the road defensive team but was a truly dominant offensive team scoring on average 3.75 goals per game, more than a half a goal per game more than the Canucks who were the second most offensive team and 1.24 goals per game more than the Canadiens who ranked 26th in the league. Montreal has next to no chance of winning this series unless Jaroslav Halak can outright steal it for them. As good as Halak is, that is not likely to happen and Montreal should just hope they can steal a game or two. Washington in 5.

New Jersey vs Philadelphia

Philadephia is one of the most inconsistent teams in the league, largely due to their suspect goaltending but Brian Boucher has in the past shown he can get real hot for short stretches (he had 5 straight shutouts a couple years back) and the Flyers offense is pretty good so it isn’t inconceivable that the Flyers could upset the Devils. Brodeur is still a very good goalie but has from time to time over the past couple seasons show that he can be beaten and the Devils defense isn’t quite as reliable as it was a few years back. All that said, Parise and Kovalchuk give the Devils two elite level offensive stars and they have an underrated complimentary group surrounding them so I think this series will go to the Devils. New Jersey in 6.

Buffalo vs Boston

The easy prediction is that there probably won’t be many goals scored in this series, especially on the Bruins side of the ledger. Boston was the lowest scoring team in the NHL and the Sabres were the fourth best defensive team in the NHL and the Bruins were second best. Buffalo clearly has an edge having a much better offensive production but the games should all be very close meaning anyone could win with a few lucky bounces. I’ll stick with the Sabres and their better offense though it will be a long series. Buffalo in 7.
Pittsburgh vs Ottawa

For the third time in four years Pittsburgh and Ottawa will meet in the playoffs with Ottawa winning the first series and Pittsburgh the second so this is a rubber match of sorts. Neither Ottawa or Pittsburgh are all that great defensively as these two teams ranked 19th and 20th in the NHL in goals against average and have the lowest goals against average of any of the playoff teams. In Pittsburgh’s case they have just been consistently mediocre defensively for much of the season and in Ottawa’s case it has been result of extreme inconsistency of their goaltenders. Pascal Leclaire has had a dismal season and while Brian Elliot has looked excellent for stretches he still has too many weak games to be considered a relaible goalie. If Pittsburgh gets on Elliot early this could be a short series, but if they let Elliot and the Senators gain confidence they could be a tough opponent for the Penguins and could very well take the series. I personally am not confident in Elliot and I think the good Penguin offense will get the better of him. Pengiuns in 5.

Continue reading »

Apr 082010

If you polled hockey fans who the top contenders are for the Stanley Cup, four of the most frequent answers you will get will be Washington and Pittsburgh from the eastern conference and San Jose and Chicago from the western conference. What these teams have in common are very good groups of offensive forwards with multiple star players and some pretty good defensemen to go with them. But what they also have in common are question marks in goal that they will have to overcome if they are to go deep into the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks
We all know about the Sharks playoff failures of recent years and much of the blame has been placed on forwards like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov has been an excellent regular season goalie and been OK in the playoffs but he hasn’t stolen a series for the Sharks and his post Olympic play has to be a concern for Sharks fans. As you are all probably aware, Nabokov had a poor Olympics, and in particular, a really bad game against the Canadian team that cost the Russians a shot at a medal. Since the Olympics he hasn’t been any better having posted an 8-7-1 record with a 3.11 goals against average and a very mediocre .897 save percentage and in 16 post Olympic games he has given up 4 or more goals 7 times (including 5 goals Sunday against possible first round opponent Colorado). That isn’t going to cut it in the playoffs. We know Nabokov can play better, but will he turn his game around come playoff time?

Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks goaltending is an interesting case study into inconsistency. They lead the league in shutouts and are 6th in goals against average but are 7th worst in the league in save percentage. Cristobol Huet can go on stretches where he looks solid and reliable (in his first 21 starts this year he only gave up more than 3 goals once) but then for other stretches he can look downright awful. The end result though is that he is unreliable. Then you have youngster Anti Niemi who has been the better and more reliable goalie this year and has a respectable .913 save percentage but he too has been inconsistent. In 33 starts he has 7 shutouts which is pretty phenomenal (Brodeur leads the league with 9, but he started 73 games) but in those 33 starts he has also given up 4 or more goals 8 times which is not so good.

Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals are not unlike the Chicago Blackhawks as they too have a somewhat unreliable veteren (Theodore) and a quality young goalie (Varlamov) that may or may not be ready to carry the load. I have a little more confidence in the Capitals goaltending though as they have been a little more consistent. As a group they only have 3 shutouts, but they have fewer disaster games too and with the Capitals offensive capabilities that might be good enough but it still has to be a concern for Capitals fans.

Pittsburgh Penguins
There may be some that are surprised to see the Penguins make this list but lets look at the facts. As a team the Penguins have the worst goals against average of any playoff bound team and have the fourth worst save percentage in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury has a very mediocre .904 save percentage over the course of the season and a pretty bad .892 save percentage since the Olympics. Since February 1st he has started 20 games and given up at least three goals in 14 of them and four or more goals 6 times. We know Fleury can play well enough to win a Stanley Cup, but his performance this season, and over the past couple months in particular, has not been good enough. To make matters worst for Penguins fans, yesterday on TSN it was pointed out in 17 games against division leaders the Penguins have just 3 wins. Of the top four teams in the east, I think the Penguins are the one team most likely to face a first round playoff exit.

(cross posted at HockeyAnalysis.com)

Mar 052010

The Olympics are over and the trade deadline has come and gone without any hugely significant trades made on deadline day. With every teams rosters set I figured it was time to take a look at the remainder of the season and into the playoffs. Let’s start with the Eastern conference and next week I’ll tackle the west.

Washington Capitals – The Captials appear to be the class team in the east as they currently hold a 14 point edge on second place Penguins. They added some role playing depth up front and skilled Joe Corvo on defense. I thought they could have used more of a shut down defenseman but I guess that isn’t the style of game the Capitals play. They are definitely an offense first team and Corvo fits more into that role. The questions I have are, can that style of play win in the playoffs and can their goalies give them enough consistencty to win. The 2010 Capitals are much like the 1980’s Oilers.

Pittsburgh Penguins – I think the Penguins are clearly the second best team in the eastern conference and adding Ponikarovsky and Leopold only solidify that. They are probably a better defensive team than the Capitals and have more reliable goaltending but may not have the scoring from the wings that the Capitals have which is where Ponikarovsky should help.

New Jersey Devils – New Jersey made the big spash before the Olympics by adding superstar Ilya Kovalchuk which will give them a much needed boost in the offensive zone. He and Parise give opposing teams two extremely skilled players to worry about which should open up more room for the Devils second tier forward. For me, the Devils defense is just average but they play such a good team defense that maybe that is good enough. The key for the Devils come playoff time is Martin Brodeur who is still a great goalie but has shown a bit of his age recently. Does he have enough left in the tank?

Ottawa Senators – Coach Cory Clouston has the Senators playing pretty good team hockey this year and it shows in the standings. I honestly don’t think they are this good and am still a little skeptical at their success but they haven’t fallen apart yet. They came close in November/December when they went through a lengthy slump and fell back into the playoff bubble crowd of teams but a superb January and early February led by stellar goaltending and a hot Spezza gave them a comfortable lead on the chase pack of teams. But, I am still not sold on their goaltending and we have seen how fragile that can be as Elliot and Leclaire have each been pulled in the Senators past 2 games. In my mind the Senators are an average team which if some things go right could pull a first round playoff win, but aren’t a true contender.

Buffalo Sabres – When it comes to the Sabres, success or failure usually begins and ends with Ryan Miller. So long as Miller is playing at the top of his game, the Sabres will have a shot at winning any game. Their offense is adequate as is their defense but there isn’t too much special there.

Philadelphia Flyers – The above 5 teams barring a significant slump are likely to be playoff teams. Starting with Philadelphia I think we are getting into bubble team status. As far as the Flyers are concerned, I think they have to be the big losers of the trade deadline because they didn’t address their most glaring need, goaltending. Now they didn’t really have the cap space to do so nor was there necessarily any quality goalies available but I just don’t think you can be that confident in having Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher as your goalie tandem. Leighton has been great for the Flyers so far this year, but he is Michael Leighton. The Flyers should make the playoffs but I am not convinced they can be the serious contender they hoped they would be when they acquired Chris Pronger prior to the season.

Boston Bruins – I got a lot of flak before the season when I predicted the Bruins would take a significant step back from their 116 points and end up with just 98 this year. They are currently on pace for 88 so I may have underestimated their fall. Almost everything went right for them last season from stellar goaltending to far better than expected seasons from Krejci, Lucic and Wheeler. I figured that wouldn’t happen again and with the loss of Kessel it would hurt them significanty. All that and then some has come true and the Bruins have been downright dreadful offensively and Tim Thomas hasn’t been as good (though generally the Bruins have had very good goaltending). The Bruins are probably a playoff team, but that is far from a certainty with 20 games left.
Continue reading »

Feb 032010

We all know that Vesa Toskala had a bad season last year and is having an even worse season this year, but how bad is Toskala historically? The short answer is he is probably having the worse season by any goalie in recent history.

It is generally believed that the best simple statistic for evaluating how good a goalie is is save percentage because it factors out the quality of the team in front of the goalie more than any other simple goalie statistic (i.e. wins, goals against average). Save percentage still isn’t perfect because not all shots are created equal, but it is the best simple stat we have. So, in an attempt to put Toskala’s 2009-10 season into perspective I took a look at the past 10 seasons and which goalie had the worst save percentage in each of those seasons. Here is what you get:

Year Goalie W L T/OTL GAA Save%
1999-2000 Damian Rhodes 5 19 3 3.88 0.874
2000-01 Mike Vernon 12 23 5 3.23 0.883
2001-02 Manny Fernandez 12 24 5 3.05 0.892
2002-03 Arturs Irbe 7 24 2 3.18 0.877
2003-04 Sebastien Caron 9 24 5 3.74 0.883
2005-06 Andrew Raycroft 8 19 2 3.71 0.879
2006-07 Marc Denis 17 18 2 3.19 0.883
2007-08 Johan Holmqvist 21 16 6 3.04 0.889
2008-09 Manny Legace 13 9 2 3.18 0.885
2009-10 Vesa Toskala 7 12 3 3.66 0.874

Only Damien Rhodes, of the 1999-2000 expansion Atlanta Thrashers had an equally bad .874 save percentage as Toskala this season and I can guarantee you, as bad as you think the Leafs team is this season, they probably aren’t as bad as the expansion Thrashers which finished the season at 14-57-7. Aside from Rhodes, the only other two goalies with a save percentage under .880 are Arturs Irbe in 2002-03 and Andrew Raycroft in 2005-06.

Arturs Irbe’s 2002-03 season took place during the pre-lockout defense first era which likely means that he faced fewer tough shots than we would expect a goalie to face post-lockout when both scoring and power play opportunities have increased. In the 2002-03 season Carolina’s starting goalie was Kevin Weekes who posted a solid .912 save % which was significantly better than Irbe’s .877.

Andrew Raycroft’s dismal 2005-06 season came in the more offense oriented post-lockout era so we have to take that into account but it didn’t hurt Raycroft’s teammates all that much as Tim Thomas posted a .917 save percentage and Hannu Toivonen (what ever happene to him?) posted a nice .914 save percentage. We have since learned that Thomas is an awfully good goalie posting a league best save percentage last season but even so, Raycroft’s season looks awfully bad in comparison.

This season Toskala has shared dutied with Jonas Gustavsson who has generally been ordinary at best with a .899 save percentage But since Gustavsson is a rookie and we don’t really know how good he is it is difficult to evaluate exactly just how bad Toskala has been this season. I’ll be interested in seeing how Jean-Sebastien Giguere performs behind a Phaneuf-upgraded defense the remainder of this season as well as how well Toskala will do in Anaheim in what I expect will be a very small number of starts. This will help put Toskala’s season in perspective for us.

Another way to look at it is to look at how much each goalies save percentage is below the second worst goalie in the NHL in that particular year. Of the 10 goalies listed above, Toskala trails the second worst goalie by the greatest margin trailing Pascal Leclaire and Steve Mason by .016. Next is Sebastien Caron who trailed Mike Dunham by .013 and Damian Rhodes who trailed Dan Cloutier and Rob Tallas (who?) by .011. Next were Irbe and Vernon who trailed the second worst by .006 while everyone else trailed by .002 or .001.

It is almost impossible to perfectly compare goalies from season to season on different teams but when all things are considered, if Toskala isn’t having the worst season by a goalie in the past decade, he is awfully close.

Feb 012010

It seems everyone believes that the Leafs newest goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, is being brought in to help ease Gustavsson’s transition into a starting NHL goalie and act as a veteran mentor and tutor for the remainder of this season and next. But should we really assume that both Giguere and Gustavsson will be Leafs next year?

Next season Giguere is set to make $7 million and will have a cap hit of $6 million. That is a lot of money to spend on a tutor and mentor. Today coach Ron Wilson said that Giguere will get the majority of the starts through the remainder of the year. If Gustavsson is the goalie of the future (and Burke yesterday said Gustavsson is still in the Leafs long term plans) then why give Giguere the majority of the starts? Wouldn’t a 50-50 split be more prudent if in fact Gustavsson is the long term answer to the Leafs goaltending woes?

My theory is that the Leafs management believes that Gustavsson hasn’t shown enough to be given the starting job (or even the majority of the starts) next season so they need a goalie capable of playing in around 50 or so games next year at a reasonably good level. That would give Gustavsson the opportunity to develop in a lower pressure situation than he has this year when Toskala just wasn’t getting the job done. But is Giguere that goalie? Is he good enough to give the Leafs average or preferably better than average, goaltending for 50 or so games next year? I don’t know and I am not certain the Leafs know either so that is why they intend on giving Giguere a lot of starts the remainder of the season.

The outcome of this third of a season stretch with Giguere as the Leafs starting goaltender will guide what the Leafs do with their goaltending in the off season. Based on this Giguere tryout I can envision three scenarios unfolding.

  1. Giguere plays great and shows he can be a top starting goalie in the NHL again. If this is the case, I can envision a scenario where the Leafs consider using Gustavsson as a tradable commodity to possibly acquire much needed help up front. Both San Jose and Dallas were highly interested in signing Gustavsson last year and both will potentially have goaltending issues to deal with this upcoming off season as both Turco (who won’t be re-signed) and Nabokov are set to be unrestricted free agents.
  2. Giguere plays well enough that Leaf management feels they can give him 50-55 starts next year and he’ll play well enough and consistent enough to give the Leafs a chance to win the majority of those games and in the process he can help tutor and mentor Gustavsson.
  3. Giguere doesn’t perform well and doesn’t look like he could even be a second tier starter in the NHL. In this scenario the Leafs might simply buy out Giguere’s contract for a cap hit of $1,333,333 next season and $2,333,333 in 2011-12. That would still present a significant savings over what Jason Blake’s cap hit ($4M in each of those seasons) or Jason Blake’s buyout cap hit ($2M in each of the next 2 seasons and $1M for the following 2 seasons) would have been so the trade still makes sense even in a buyout scenario. Alternatively they might hide his contract in the AHL (I believe he has a no trade clause, not a no movement clause) and have a full $6M in extra cap space out and find another goalie (Nabokov, Dan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, Turco, Biron, etc) to be the starter or a cheaper Gustavsson mentor.

Part of me really feels that scenario 2, where both Giguere and Gustavsson are Leafs next season, might in fact be the least likely scenario. It might cost $2-3 million per season to re-sign Gustavsson on a 2-3 year deal an does it really make sense to allocate $8-9 million in cap space to a pair of goalies where neither of them are really quality #1 goalies? No, it doesn’t, so I have my doubts it will happen. My belief is the Leafs might be hoping for scenario 1 but when they made the trade they were in fact expecting scenario 3 to be the likely outcome.

Update: You can read a Ducks fans thoughts on JS Giguere here and you can read my thoughts on the Calgary-Toronto trade in an interview I did with Chiller Instinct.

Jan 282010

The Leafs, Hurricanes and Oilers are the only teams in definitive selling mode as we approach the Olympic break and subsequent trade deadline and with the way things are going there may not be all that many other sellers out there. So for now, let’s stick with these three teams and Ilya Kovalchuk and make some predictions on whether the following players will be traded and what kind of return they could garner. My predictions will be in the comments.

Atlanta Thrashers
Ilya Kovalchuk

Toronto Maple Leafs
Tomas Kaberle – one more year at $4.25M cap hit and salary
Alexei Ponikarovsky
Matt Stajan
Niklas Hagman – 2 more years at $3M cap hit and salary
Lee Stempniak
Jamal Mayers
Garnett Exelby
Wayne Primeau
Vesa Toskala
Jason Blake – 2 more years at $4M cap hit, $3M actual salary
Jeff Finger – 2 more years at $3.5M cap hit and salary

Carolina Hurricanes
Ray Whitney
Matt Cullen
Stephane Yelle
Joe Corbo
Aaron Ward
Niclas Wallin
Manny Legace

Edmonton Oilers
Sheldon Souray – 2 more years at $5.4M cap hit, $4.5M actual salary
Steve Staios – 1 more year at $2.7M cap hit, $2.2M actual salary
Shawn Horcoff – 5 more years at $5.5M cap hit, 6.5M,6.5M,6.0M,4.0M,3.0M actual salary
Ethan Moreau – 1 more year at $2.0M cap hit, 1.75M actual salary
Fernando Pisani
Robert Nilsson – Another year at $2M cap hit, $2.5M actual salary.
Lubomir Visnovsky – Three more years at $5.6M cap hit, $6.0M, $5.0M, $3.0M actual salary.

Jan 272010

I have been picking on Howard Berger a lot recently, but I won’t say much here. I think his words speak for themselves.

September 30th, 2009

My own sense is that the Leafs will improve, but not quite enough to sneak into the playoffs.

TORONTO… 90 pts (9th)

November 2nd, 2009

Exactly one month of the 2009-10 National Hockey League season has passed for the Maple Leafs and there’s already enough data to reasonably conclude that the franchise will extend its record absence from the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring. That shouldn’t come as a bulletin to any rational person that has watched the club stumble through its first 12 games, but common sense rarely prevails in our rose-colored city.

December 21st, 2009

In a season that looked, early on, as if it would have few defining moments, tonight’s home date with the Buffalo Sabres will speak loudest about the Maple Leafs. There are no extenuating circumstances heading into the match — neither club played last night; both are relatively healthy [though Thomas Vanek is out] – and it represents the most significant hour of the Leafs’ season to this point. If they can follow Saturday’s shut-out conquest of the Bruins by knocking off their prime nemesis of the past calendar year, there will be no reason to think the Leafs cannot remain indefinitely in the playoff hunt.

January 24th, 2010

Though I took a lot of abuse from wishful fans of the Blue & White for suggesting that making the playoffs was a “pipe-dream” after only eight games [and a 0-7-1 start], at least the word “playoffs” was still remotely part of the discussion with 74 games left on the schedule. Now, it will take a blazing streak for the Leafs to merely finish 13th in the Eastern Conference.

Interesting how playoffs after 8 games was a pipe dream but on December 21st there was no reason to think that remaining in a playoff hunt indefinitely was not possible. But that’s Howard for you (though this kind of goofiness isn’t unique to Howard).

The only suggestion I have from all of this is for everyone to remember that the NHL season is a long season and every team has its ups and downs and jumping to conclusions based on 10 or 15 game segments is pointless, especially in a league where there are so few great teams and a whole lot of mediocrity.