Twelve games into the season the young Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in the second Eastern Conference wild card spot with 13 points.
This doesn’t actually mean much, as eight teams are currently either tied with 13 points or within two points in the standings with varying amounts of games played. What is important, though, is that the underlying numbers suggest that not only is their play sustainable, but they may actually be much better than their 5-4-3 record suggests.
According to corsica.hockey, the Leafs rank eighth in the NHL in shot attempt differential (CF%) and fourth in expected goals for percentage (xGF%.) Expected goals percentage has been shown to be a better predictor of success than corsi, so the fact that the Leafs rank inside the top five in xGF% is very encouraging. Obviously, the biggest reason the Leafs haven’t had the results that we could reasonably expect to see is that Frederik Andersen struggled mightily out of the gate, posting an .870 even strength sv% through his first five games. In the five games he’s played since October 26th, he has put up a .946 5v5 sv% and the Leafs have been winning hockey games.
*visual by @SeanTierneyTss shows how far below their xGF% the Leafs have performed so far this season.
The Leafs have arguably been the most exciting team in hockey through the first month of action and there are no signs of that changing any time soon. The team is creating offence at a rate of 3.43 expected goals for per hour (xGF60) at 5v5, leading the second place New York Rangers in that department by .40 xGF60. That is a significant jump on the second best offensive team in the league. The JvR-Bozak-Marner line is performing at a rate of 4.36 expected goals for per hour and have a 57.77 xGF%. That is extremely good, especially when you consider that line only controls 49.4% of shot attempts at even strength. That line ranks first in the NHL in terms of xGF60 among lines who have played at least 60 minutes together, just edging Gallagher-Galchenyuk-Pacioretty by .01 xGF60.
After those two lines there is a significant drop off to the next best lines in terms of pure offence. Third best is Carolina’s Skinner-Rask-Stempniak line racking up 3.88 xGF60 and fourth best is the Leafs’ all rookie line of Hyman-Matthews-Nylander. Matthews and Nylander started the season on fire, but have hit a dry spell of late. There doesn’t seem to be much to worry about though, as they’re still creating offence like a top five unit in the league. Matthews in particular just can’t seem to buy a goal of late, but ranks fourth in the NHL in shots. While this line controls a significantly larger amount of shot attempts at even strength than the JvR-Bozak-Marner line, 57.11 CF% as opposed to 49.4%, their xGF% is lower. They boast a 53.81 xGF% and while the two lines are even defensively, 3.18 and 3.19 xGA60 respectively, the Bozak line’s insane offensive production boosts their xGF% way up.
The only other forward trio to play over 60 minutes together so far this season is the Komarov-Kadri-Brown line who have had very different results. This line has been tasked with being the “shut down line” so they’ve played against team’s top lines every night. Yet, in a much smaller sample size, they’ve still been much better defensively than the Bozak and Matthews lines. The Kadri line gives up 2.68 xGA60 and produces at a rate of 2.9 xGF60 which results in a 51.95 xGF%. This is a pretty ideal situation for the Leafs, as the Kadri line is still holding their heads above water against the opposition’s best players and the other two lines get the easier match ups which allows them to “run and gun.”
The obvious hole for the Leafs moving forward is their defence. While their defence has helped make the Leafs arguably the best offensive team in the league early on, they also give up a tonne of chances on their own net. The team ranks 25th in xGA60, which kind of puts into perspective how good they’ve been offensively. To rank so low in xGA60, yet the offence be so potent that the team still ranks fourth in xGF% is pretty amazing. They make some bad mistakes which allow for a lot of high quality chances against, but they nullify that by creating a lot more chances themselves. It’s the most fun kind of hockey to watch, even if it is a bit frustrating sometimes. The Dallas Stars played the same style last year, ranking first in xGF60 and 25th in xGA60 and the Leafs have the roster to continue this style. They’re an extremely young team and two of their best players are 19 years old, with another being 20.
Everybody knew the Leafs weren’t exactly going to be a defensive stalwart this year, but if their offence continues this potent pace they may be a playoff team anyway.
Unless Matt Hunwick comes back from injury and plays 20+ minutes a night again.
*all stats via corsica.hockey
*all stats are score, zone and venue adjusted and are 5v5 only