The 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs were not as good of a hockey team as their record would lead us to believe. This fact is something that is well known to those of us that indulge in the occasional “advanced statistics” binge, but mostly ignored by the casual fan of the game (and seemingly the Leafs brain trust).
Many words have been written about the Leafs ‘luck’ in 2013 that led to their first playoff berth since 2004, but none that I have seen lay it out quite in a way as easily digestible as Mike Denroche over at Bleacher Report.
In this piece Mr. Denroche goes through the “big 3” in hockey advanced statistics Corsi/Fenwick, PDO, and Zone Starts. He effectively explains each statistic, and goes on to explain how the Leafs performance in this metric leaves them vulnerable for regression.
These advanced metrics have led many that subscribe to them (like I do) to write off the 2013 Maple Leafs as a fluke (which they may have been) and proclaim that the 2013/2014 Leafs will be hit full on in the face with a big ol’ pie of regression. These doomsday predictions will have us believe that the Leafs have no chance against the regression monster, and they are all but certain to come crashing back down to earth.
This doomsday theory, while on the surface seems logical, misses one very important thing of note: the Maple Leafs that rode their wave of luck into a playoff berth last season are not the same Maple Leafs that will be lacing up their skates for training camp in about 5 weeks.
If last season’s lockout shortened schedule had indeed stretched to 82 games, the anomalous numbers that the Leafs put up in these advanced statistical categories would have almost certainly regressed. Those Leafs however did not play 82 games, they played 48.
In order for the Maple Leafs’ record to regress to match the numbers they post in these advanced metrics, they will have to post similar numbers in these categories in the coming season. Quite simply, I do not believe that this will happen.
While the Leafs jettisoned one of their best players according to all of these advanced metrics in Mikhail Grabovski, they also added positive possession players in David Clarkson and David Bolland, which from a purely on ice perspective, marginally improves the team.
In addition to the marginal improvement provided by Clarkson and Bolland, the Leafs will also benefit from a more solidified blue line to start the season (Randy Carlyle willing). Last season saw all around awful (advanced metrics or not) defensemen Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer playing upwards of 25 minutes per game alongside Dion Phaneuf for much of the season.
With Jake Gardiner seemingly able to establish himself worthy of ice time in Randy Carlyle’s eyes during the 2013 playoffs, he should be able to slide in and provide some quality minutes that were sorely missing last season on the backend.
On top of the above additions, there will also be organic growth for the Maple Leafs. With one of the youngest rosters in the NHL, the Leafs have plenty of room to grow internally. It is impossible to say what kind of growth the Leafs will see from its young players, but it doesn’t take an NHL scout to see that Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri are studs that have the ability to blossom into stars.
Combine the new additions to the club, with the organic internal growth that is bound to happen with the team’s young players, and what will be a (hopefully) healthy season from Joffrey Lupul and we have a recipe for another playoff berth for the Maple Leafs.
This season’s Maple Leafs will almost certainly not be nearly as lucky as they were last season, but they may not have to be. Their roster has been improved, at least in the short term, and it is this improvement that negates this talk of regression.
The 2013/2014 Toronto Maple Leafs may not finish as high as 5th in the Eastern Conference, but they may very well be the 5th best team.