Monday, December 2, 2013

Weekend wrap: The inevitable crash-and-burn of the Toronto Maple Leafs

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

The Stats Guys Are Happy, So the Leafs Must be Losing

Early in the season, we presented the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs as the canary in the advanced-stats mine shaft — the ultimate test case of everything that hockey’s wave of new metrics and data-based analytics thought it knew about what drives success. We've learned the numbers point to the critical importance of possession. Teams that control the puck — and use that control to direct a lot of shots at the net — usually win. Teams that can’t do it usually lose.

But occasionally we see a short-term outlier, and last year’s Toronto team was one. The stats guys said they couldn’t keep winning that way. The Maple Leafs insisted that they could. And over the season’s first few weeks, it looked like Toronto was going to pull it off once again. Leafs fans rejoiced. Old-school media gloated. Celebratory T-shirts were, literally, printed up.

Those days suddenly feel like a very long time ago. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a free fall.

Last Monday, the Leafs were humiliated by the Blue Jackets on their home ice, dropping a 6-0 decision. On Wednesday in Pittsburgh, they suffered the embarrassment of failing to get so much as a single shot after the second intermission. On Friday, they faced the dead-last Sabres in a battle of the two worst possession teams of the advanced stats era and lost again.

Saturday night brought yet another defeat, this time to the Canadiens. Montreal jumped out to a 4-0 second-period lead before a pair of Leafs goals made the final respectable, but this one was never really in doubt.

Leafs fans won’t want to hear it, but the math is actually pretty simple: If they can’t fix their shot clock issues, the Leafs will need historically good goaltending to win. They were getting that early on, and it helped them start the season 6-1-0. But in recent games, with James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier looking merely good instead of excellent, the Leafs seem overwhelmed. In their last 20, they’ve been under .500 at 8-9-3. They can’t score anymore. The defensive system is a mess. The coach sounds like he’s out of answers. And the season is slipping away from them.

Or maybe not. This could just be a cold streak, after all, the kind that every team hits at least once or twice over a long season. It’s worth remembering that while the Leafs have dropped from the top of the Atlantic down to wild-card status, they’re still four points up on the ninth spot. Plenty of teams would love to trade places with them.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the December schedule is absolutely brutal, including several games with the top Western Conference teams that the Leafs have mostly avoided so far. If they’re going to turn their season around, they’ll need to do it against the league’s best.

Oh, and this is the month that the HBO cameras show up. No pressure, guys.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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