Just How Bad is it?
Note: This article relies heavily on the “expected goals” model, which exists to reduce (or eliminate) the effect of player talent and goaltending on the score. It is an efficient measurement of team systems and chance generation, since coaching has minimal impact on goaltending or shooting ability.
The “expected goals” value of a scoring chance is the likelihood that the given scoring attempt will result in a goal. Every shot has a value between zero (will never go in the net) and 1.00 (is an automatic goal). For more information please contact the author.
Let’s start by stating a simple fact: Mike Babcock is not “washed up” and he is not “too old-school to win”. If you believe that, there is no point in reading this article.
The important question to ask is:
Would firing Mike Babcock actually accomplish anything?
First: Let’s see how the Leafs are actually playing, looking deeper than simple wins and losses.
The Leafs are currently generating 2.13 xGF per 60, compared to last year’s 2.55. In other words, they are generating 0.42 goals fewer than last year’s team for every 60 minutes 5 on 5. For a team that is built around outpunching their opposition and scoring their way out of defensive shortcomings, that is not acceptable
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Defensively last year, the team was giving up 2.48 xGA per 60 at 5 on 5. That number has gone down to about 2.29-per-60, meaning the Leafs are giving up 0.19 fewer goals worth of chances to their opposition per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.
In summary, the Leafs are faring slightly worse at 5 on 5. Their expected goal differential has dropped 0.23 goals per 60 minutes of five-on-five action. Despite the appearances, the Leafs are actually playing better defensively than they were last year, but the drop in their offense has resulted in a net loss.
The special teams situation is…strange right now.
The Leafs average 0.44 xGF per two-minute powerplay. By comparison, they are only giving up 0.23 xGA per two minutes shorthanded. In other words, the Leafs’ powerplay has actually been better than their opposition powerplay has, despite the appearances in-game.
The obsession over conversion percentage annoys me. A goal scored 12 seconds into a powerplay is weighted the same as a goal scored 1:59 into the powerplay, even though by all long-term projection models it really shouldn’t be. Yes, one goal is one goal, but when you only look at conversion percentages, you treat all powerplay TOI as equivalent.
What this does say is that PP1 is converting far more than PP2 – as the Leafs’ powerplay goals, when they score them, are scored very early in the powerplay, combined with powerplay goals against being scored late in the penalty.
If all powerplay time was treated the same, the Leafs actually have the 9th most efficient powerplay in the league, and they are 18th in the league in penalty killing (not great but better than the pure conversion % number would suggest)
Goaltending is black magic voodoo and has no business weighing in on coaching quality. Anyone who wants to fire a coach for a team’s record, when that record is being dragged down by goaltending (see, for example, , the Leafs in October), should be dismissed.
While Frederik Andersen has been rough to start the season (giving up 1.36 more goals than expected), he cannot be to blame for the Leafs’ early season struggles.
What does this all mean?
Back to the issue: Is it time to fire Babcock?
The Leafs xG share (as a percentage) at 5 on 5 is sitting at 48.38% (23rd), compared to last year’s 50.69% (13th). That’s…not good?
This could easily be explained away by roster turnover, a completely new coaching staff, or something as innocuous as an extended slump to start the season. However, if we ignore the quality of chances and look at straight shots at the net, the Leafs right now are sitting second in the NHL, with a 53.70% Corsi-For.
And yet despite the fact that they are dominating the possession game of the puck, behind only the Carolina Hurricanes, they are still getting out-chanced when you add in for quality.
This is what concerns me, more than anything else, as a fan of, and writer on, the Maple Leafs. The Leafs have the lowest quality-per-attempt in the NHL this year. And that is a system issue. The Leafs’ average shot attempt has a 3.37% chance of going into the net, compared to a league average 4.05%. While that seems like a small difference is actually massive when you consider the Leafs have attempted 1105 shots at the net this year. The coaching staff is creating a team that focuses on quantity of opportunities, at the expense of quality. And that is not how the team is built.
In other words, if the Leafs were taking league-average shots, they would have an extra 0.3 goals every game.
Would that make them a superstar team this year? No. But we sure as hell would not be having this conversation if 2 or 3 of those close losses were wins, and the Leafs were sitting at 12-7-3 (27 points, 100.6 point pace).
And the issue comes from the way the team is being coached. This also closely aligns with the eye-test: The defense are taking “safe” shots from the point, rather than working the puck low and working towards higher-percentage opportunities. This is at odds with the way the team has played under Babcock in the past.
(Unrelated: It’s okay to miss Jake Gardiner)
And that’s systems. I don’t know whether Babcock is giving the direction, or Dave Hakstol is coaching the defensemen poorly, but something is going to have to give.
Because for the first time since Mike Babcock came into town, cracks are starting to show in the system. The Leafs are too talented to be playing the game this cautiously.