I pride myself in being very honest about expectations. In fact, it’s been my defense in many an argument. I’m not a pessimist. Rather, I’m a realist.
Keep that in mind, O Leafs faithful, as I speak to the following: this year’s iteration of the Toronto Maple Leafs is an historically awful professional hockey team that has somehow found their way into playoff contention, but will not come close to sniffing Lord Stanley’s mug.
I’m not a Maple Leafs fan – never have been – but it’s important to understand that my lack of faith in the Buds is based in fact. By fact, I mean not the trite 1967 digs that have been echoed for the last decade, nor do I point to one playoff berth in the last nine seasons. Rather, I point to hard statistical evidence that the Maple Leafs have found themselves on their way to the wrong side of the record books.
In the modern era, post-clutch-and-grab, no team has had a worse shot differential – number of shots on goal compared to their opponents — than this year’s squad. The closest comparable? The 2007-08 Atlanta Thrashers, a team that finished six games under .500. The Maple Leafs, a statistical anomaly to be sure, are an outstanding 10 games above .500 with a subpar shot differential, and somehow have managed to keep their heads above water long enough to sniff the postseason.
While Moneyball – or in this case, Moneypuck – and advanced statistics have their detractors, one needs to look no further than the teams that have hoisted the Stanley Cup over the past five seasons. One of the more popular statistics when it comes to hockey analytics is Corsi percentage, a measure of shots directed on the opposing goal (including those blocked on their way to the netminder) versus those directed at your own. An offshoot of Corsi, called Fenwick percentage, removes the blocked shots from the equation. In Fenwick lies the greatest argument against the Leafs chances, whether the faithful decked in blue and white are willing to admit it or not.
Since the introduction of Fenwick some six seasons ago, the work in tracking it has shown this: a team whose percentage falls below .500 has a 31 per cent chance of making the playoffs. Unfortunately for Leafs fans, the team’s current percentage falls well below that. In fact, it is currently at the lowest historical rate, an abysmal .424. Beyond that, only one team with a sub-.500 Fenwick has ever won the Stanley Cup: the ’08-’09 Pittsburgh Penguins, and Sidney Crosby isn’t walking through the door to Leaf Land any time soon.
So, what does this mean?
Fenwick and Corsi, more than a measure of shots, are a measure of puck possession. Possession equals wins – or it usually does. Simply put, it means the Leafs play more than half of every game chasing their opponents. It means the Leafs are, almost inexplicably, finding ways to pull games out of their, ahem, backsides. None of this is to discount the efforts of Phil Kessel, James van Reimsdyk, or Jonathan Bernier. They’ve all turned in tremendous seasons, but the team as a whole is underwhelming and, frankly, playing well over its head. After all, as the saying goes, that’s why you play the games.
While understanding that advanced statistics are not the deciding factor in all wins and losses, it would behoove Maple Leafs fans to understand that this team is a freshwater spring in the Sahara – a mirage. Enjoy this run, Leafs Nation, just as fans of any team would. But take a moment to be honest with yourselves: this isn’t a team destined to end the drought; this is a team waiting to turn into something other than a sitting duck.