Monday, November 4, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Just how worried should Maple Leafs fans be right now?

Hey, remember a whole month ago when the Maple Leafs getting a shootout win over a non-playoff team wouldn’t have felt like anything noteworthy?

It’s been a rough month for the Leafs, who were hyped as a Cup favorite and instead have mostly looked mediocre. Getting two points out of Saturday’s shootout marathon in Philadelphia will quiet the criticism, but only ever so slightly, because this is Toronto and they don’t really do “quiet.” The Leafs get to be on the front page every time they accomplish anything vaguely positive, so it’s only fair that they get some attention when things are going poorly.

And they are going poorly, at least given expectations. Fifteen games into the season, the Maple Leafs have won seven games and lost eight. That’s not good. They’re on pace for a 93-point season, which also isn’t good for a team that was supposed to be a playoff lock. They’re sitting in the East’s second wild-card spot if you go by points, but if you look at points percentage the Habs pass them for that too. All in all, if you are what your record says you are, the Maple Leafs are just a middling team right now.

So what’s gone wrong? There’s no shortage of candidates. We can start with Frederik Andersen, who hasn’t looked sharp. Special teams are an issue, with the powerplay looking so-so and the penalty kill being downright bad. They’ve had some key injuries, especially to John Tavares. And they’re taking way too many penalties a year after they barely took any.

Then you’ve got the narratives. The Leafs can’t play defense. They can’t defend a lead. They’re not tough enough. They’re tuning out Mike Babcock, because the team threw an unprecedented amount of money at a bunch of kids who aren’t interested in doing the kind of hard work necessary to win the tough ones.

That’s a long list of problems. But if you’re a Leafs fan looking for positivity, you could point out that those narratives all seem a little too convenient, and that most of the real issues seem unlikely to continue. We’ve seen Andersen start slow before, and he always recovers to post the same .918 save percentage he’s had for four straight years, give or take a point. Special teams and penalties can be adjusted. They’re getting healthy, with Travis Dermott already back and Tavares and Zach Hyman on the way. Maybe the last month has just been pretty much the worst-case scenario and even with everything going wrong, the Leafs are still basically a playoff team. If that’s the floor, this team will be fine.

That’s the optimist’s view. And if you’re a Maple Leafs fan who’s good at optimism, well, welcome to your first day here, I guess. For everyone else, it’s time to worry. Or, if you’re a fan of one of the other 30 teams that might like some attention every now and then, time to grab some popcorn and watch the mess unfold.

It will not surprise you to hear that the Maple Leafs are not in this week’s top five. Let’s figure out who should be …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

As we’ve mentioned each week, the idea behind these rankings is to look ahead to who’ll win the Stanley Cup in June, as opposed to who’s playing the best right now. If you’d prefer the latter view, there are other rankings out there, including a group effort from Athletic writers that came out on Friday. That’s the one where you’ll find teams like the Sabres and Islanders ranked ahead of the Lightning, because they’re better at this moment in time. It’s a perfectly valid way to look at things; it’s just not what we’re going for here.

But what if you like the approach we’re taking here, but aren’t sure that I’m getting the rankings right? Is there somewhere else we can look for a quick sanity check?

As it turns out, there is, because there’s another group of people out there who are basically trying to do the same sort of long-term thing: the oddsmakers. Go to any sportsbook or online wagering service and check their Stanley Cup futures odds. That’s pretty much the same idea, albeit with a small degree of variance built in to account for public betting patterns. And unlike me, these are smart people who are putting money on the line.

As luck would have it, we got a look at some updated odds from one company on Friday. Let’s see where things stand:

Click to see the full list and a few interesting things jump out, starting with the Lightning still being ranked with the best Cup odds despite a significant drop since opening night. That’s a little bit of vindication for my insistence on keeping them in my top five – the oddsmakers not only agree, but they’re even more bullish on Tampa Bay than I am.

The rest of the top of the list looks at least a little familiar, although the oddsmakers have come around quicker on teams like the Sabres, Oilers and Islanders. Maybe more surprisingly, they have the Coyotes in that same log jam. (In case you’re wondering, the Predators were accidentally left off the main list that was sent around, but their conference odds place them in that group too.) The Avalanche seem low, although that’s probably factoring in their recent injuries, while the Golden Knights are higher than you might expect.

This is just one set of odds; anyone who was actually going to make a bet would shop around, since different books can vary, sometimes significantly. And it goes without saying that oddsmakers aren’t infallible; they can get it wrong just like the rest of us can. But it’s a data point to consider. And for now, at least, it proves that I’m not the only one left on the planet who hasn’t deserted the Lightning bandwagon. See let’s see where I have them this week …

5. St. Louis Blues (9-3-3, +2 true goals differential*) – It’s not often you can go 4-0-0 and still come out of it feeling like you had a bad week, but that’s where the Blues are at after losing Vladimir Tarasenko until at least March.

Injuries are tricky for these rankings. Our big-picture view means we shouldn’t worry too much about short-term injuries, and even something like Mikko Rantanen being out for several weeks isn’t a game-changer, as long as he’s back for the playoffs. Still, I’m slotting the Blues into the last spot instead of the Avs, even though it’s very possible we don’t see Tarasenko again at all this year.

Maybe that’s the wrong call. But I’m making it, partly because it’s too early to assume the very worst-case scenario here, and partly because Doug Armstrong is so clearly in a win-now mode that a move to replace his star seems likely. But it’s a situation worth watching, as the Central feels very volatile right now.

4. Nashville Predators (8-4-2, +13) – Speaking of the Central, we’ll keep the Predators in the top five by virtue of being the only contender that’s still running at close to full power, even though they’ve lost two straight.

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