What happened in October?

What is going on with the Toronto Maple Leafs?

At first glance, something is very wrong:

The Maple Leafs came into 2019-2020 as a top-5 Cup favourite in most people’s eyes.  They have one of the best top-6 offensive groups in hockey and had locked in strong depth players on team-friendly contracts.  A full year of Muzzin and the addition of Tyson Barrie from Colorado turned a ho-hum blueline into a strong, skilled defense corps.  Frederik Andersen is coming off a season that had him in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy.

It’s hard to remember a time where the Leafs iced a better team.

Then, October happened.  The Leafs finish October 6-5-3, having lost more games than they won, and briefly outside the playoff picture looking in.  Calls for Babcock’s firing have been heard everywhere from TSN to “Joe from Scarborough” on Twitter. What is going wrong?

Injuries

The Leafs knew that injuries were going to be a problem for them to start the year.  Right out the gate, they were missing Zach Hyman – and it is difficult to understand just how important Hyman is for Marner.  The Leafs with Marner and Hyman out together in 2018-2019 controlled 52.67% of the shot-attempt share, with that number plummeting to 49.74% once Hyman leaves the ice.  With neither Tavares NOR Hyman out with him, Marner’s number drops down to 42.29%, so losing Tavares midway through the month meant the Leafs were chasing the play a lot when their leading scorer was on the ice.

As an aside, when Tavares and Hyman are out without Mitch Marner, they controlled a 57.35% shot-attempt share.  

Marner needs his regular linemates to work his “magic” – and only has four 5v5 points to his name through the end of October.

The blueline hasn’t been immune either, with Travis Dermott out for the entire month of October.  An injured Dermott saw an unprepared 19-year-old in Rasmus Sandin appear for 9 games to start the year.  After that, we were treated to a third-pair of Justin Holl and Martin Marincin.  

There has also been speculation that Rielly has been playing hurt, as well, since the slew-foot from Scott Sabourin in the pre-season.  He has not looked good this year, and has missed a number of practices.

 

Goaltending

Frederik Andersen has not been very good.  No team is going to win consistently with a goalie that hovers around a .900 save percentage all year long.  October Freddie™ is not the same goalie as we get the rest of the year, and that is well known, but this year has been particularly awful.  

A pet peeve of mine is  people considering “goals against” a defense-metric.  There is a trend among people to lump goalies in as part of the defense, which makes no sense.  

The Leafs currently rank 7th in shot-attempt share (52.48%), 5th in scoring chance share (53.22%), and 15th in goals share (47.89%).  Quite simple, the Leafs are winning the hockey-battle (everything NOT goalie), and losing the goalie battle.  And that cannot continue. The good news is: It won’t.

Andersen is a top-10, usually top-5, goalie in the league.  Even if Hutch is a “bad” backup (what does that even mean for a guy who gets less than 20 starts a year?), the Leafs will be fine.

Schedule

Here’s the big one:

The Toronto Maple Leafs played 13 games in a 24 day span to start October.  That’s a game every 1.85 days. Four back-to-backs in three and a half weeks.

The Leafs played 3.8 games per week.

That’s insane.  

And that’s going to affect their play.  The Leafs are 0-3-1 on those back to backs, and there has been no shortage of people who point out that “you need to find a way to win those!”

Here’s the thing: You don’t.

On rested days (ie, not the second half of a back-to-back), the Leafs were 6-2-2 in October, which is a 114.8 point pace.  That’s more than just good, that’s “fighting for the president’s trophy” hockey. The Leafs have been a powerhouse in October when they have a chance to sleep in a bed.  The Leafs have one of the most difficult Octobers in modern NHL history, and the fact that they came out of it even above .500 is something to be happy about.

Moving Forward

The biggest issues facing the Leafs are not systemic.  Injuries and goaltending slumps happen, and they are unavoidable.  And every team underperforms in the standings as a result. But the good news is: The Leafs are still dominating 5-on-5 hockey regularly, and the schedule is going to ease up (but not in November, when they still get a ridiculous number of back-to-backs).

More importantly, second-half record is a much stronger predictor of playoff success than the first half.  It is a good thing the Leafs are getting all of their bad luck out of the way to start the season, so they can finish it fighting for the Cup that is long, long overdue for the City of Toronto.