The Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in the Eastern Conference’s second wildcard position with only 11 games remaining, but are they better than their record shows?
The 2016-17 NHL season has been an exciting and surprising one for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In what was widely anticipated to be another throwaway year for the re-building Buds, their young roster has stunned both fans and hockey experts alike by remaining in playoff contention all season long.
We’re now two weeks away from the beginning of April, and with just 11 games remaining the Leafs are still clinging to a wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. Entering Wednesday night’s games, they find themselves three points ahead of The New York Islanders for that wildcard sport, but their eyes are still focused on the Boston Bruins who are now just one point ahead of the Leafs for third in the Atlantic Division.
In spite of how the rest of this season pans out, this has been a successful year for the Maple Leafs. Their three top rookies, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have all delivered and then some.
Their key off-season acquisition and new number one goaltender, Frederik Andersen, has proven to be a a steadying force between the pipes. Veterans like Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner have developed considerably under the guidance of Mike Babcock.
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Indeed, things have gone pretty well for the Maple Leafs this year, so what’s the problem? Well, things could be going even better.
The Maple Leafs are on pace to break a modern day record with 15 OTL/SOL already this year, and most of those have come in a heartbreaking fashion. Do you remember October 19 versus Winnipeg, where Toronto led 4-0 in the second period, only to have Patrik Laine lead the Jets back for a 5-4 victory?
Or how about October 22 versus Chicago where the Leafs led 4-2 with under three minutes to play, only to suffer a similar fate as three nights prior? Then on November 24 versus New Jersey, Toronto blew a 3-0 first period lead to fall in the shootout.
These are just three examples of the Leafs’s inability to close games this year, which have cost them valuable points in the standings. As the season has gone on, Toronto’s ability to get a lead has remained and they’re slowly figuring out how to finish, but those early season collapses may prove haunting three weeks from now.
Jeff Veillette, Editor and Leafs Writer at TheLeafsNation.com, tweeted after Chicago’s OT win in Toronto on Saturday, showing just how dominant the Leafs have been at gaining leads this year. They’re third in the NHL, trailing only Washington and Columbus in terms of time spent playing with the lead this season. That’s an astounding stat for a team still battling for their playoff life.
Similarly as impressive, Veillette points out that the Leafs are sixth in time spent trailing during games this season. It has become a rare occurrence for them to trail throughout the majority of a hockey game, and while that’s great for fans it has also meant that most of Toronto’s losses have come quickly and devastatingly, with the end of the game approaching.
Another interesting and perhaps vital stat comes from NHL.com, where we can see that Toronto ranks 26th in the league in shot differential when they’re leading, at -224. On the contrary, when they’re trailing they’re +228 in shot differential, good for fourth of the time, so herein lies the problem. One can certainly contribute this to an inexperienced team who are still learning how to play with the lead.
Scoring goals and gaining leads in the NHL are very difficult things to do, but this young Leafs squad seems to do it with ease. It’s a fair assumption to believe that if the Leafs had perhaps one more top-four defenceman to help protect those leads late in games, they’d have a cozier lock on a playoff position.
Alternately, perhaps some heartbreaking lessons were exactly what the youthful Leafs needed early on this season, and as their core gains experience we’ll start seeing less and less of these late game collapses. All of these late game collapses and their 15 OTL/SOL are certainly statistical anomalies, and in an alternative reality this team is probably four-six points better than their record shows.
As I wrote this article, the Leafs were defeating a competitive Bruins team in their most important game of the season and rather than blowing the game late, they actually scored with under two minutes to play, securing a massive victory. Perhaps this team is well on their way to actually securing each point they earn.
For the time being, we’ve been gifted with a very entertaining and ever unpredictable Leafs team that continues to battle for a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. They’re a better team than their current 33-23-15 record shows which is quite a statement at this point in their re-build, but for the players and their fans, their record is all that matters. Let’s hope it’s good enough.