It seems that the regression monster is finally starting to take a bite out of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it couldn't be happening at a worse time for the team.
Since the start of last season, through the power of stellar goaltending (James Reimer and Ben Scrivens last year; Reimer and Jonathan Bernier this year) and some smoke and mirrors acts with the puck, the Maple Leafs have been able to win a lot of hockey games while getting slaughtered territorially, getting badly outshot, and being one of the worst puck possession teams in the league.
That's not usually a recipe for success in the NHL.
The Maple Leafs found a way to make it work in the lockout shortened season, ending their seven-year playoff drought despite having the worst Corsi percentage (percentage of shot attempts that belong to the team during 5-on-5 play) in the league. Playoff teams are generally near the top of the league when it comes to winning the shot battle. Of the top-15 Corsi teams in the NHL last season, 12 of them made the playoffs.
After an offseason that saw a bad possession team jettison two of its best possession players (Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur) and then give out some controversial contracts (David Clarkson in free agency, re-signing Tyler Bozak) there were questions as to whether or not the Maple Leafs could continue their winning ways despite not having the puck anywhere near as often as their opponents.
The formula has been the same in Toronto this season, but the wins are starting to dry up. And fast.
After winning seven of their first 10 games this season with the old recipe, things have started to fall apart in Toronto over the past few weeks. After their loss on Tuesday, which extended their current winless streak to five games, the Maple Leafs are just 7-8-3 over their past 18 games, and it may only get worse from here.
The team is now entering the murderers' row portion of its schedule and will be playing some of the top teams in the league over the next month. It started on Tuesday night with their 4-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, and their next 10 games are as follows: Dallas, at Ottawa, Boston, Los Angeles, at St. Louis, Chicago, at Pittsburgh, Florida, Phoenix, Detroit. Including the Sharks game, that's seven of the top 12 teams in the NHL standings.
We're going to find out an awful lot about this team over the next few weeks.
What made it all work for Toronto last season was a team that shot the lights out and finished with a 10.5 shooting percentage at even-strength — by far the best mark in the league — and some all-world goaltending.
The problem is those numbers, particularly the shooting numbers, aren't built to last. Going as far back as the 2007-08 season only one team finished an entire 82-game season over that stretch with an even-strength shooting percentage higher than 10 percent: The 2009-10 Washington Capitals. The league average is typically about 8 percent. That may not seem like a huge difference, but it is. If the Maple Leafs had generated the same number of shots last season and simply shot at a league average rate they would have scored roughly 25 fewer goals at even-strength over the course of the season.
Those percentages usually regress to the mean. And guess what's been happening this season in Toronto?
Through the first two months this season the Maple Leafs are still struggling to generate shots on goal and, even worse, are starting to shoot closer to the league average. And, not surprisingly, the goals are starting to disappear. As of Wednesday morning they are 18th in the league in goals scored during 5-on-5 play.
The NHL is a possession game, and it's awfully difficult to consistently win when you're collapsing around your own net and allowing your opponent to dictate the pace of the game and where it's played.
The team that has the puck the most is going to score the most goals and win the most games.
The Maple Leafs simply do not have enough players that can do this, and it's starting to catch up to them. And it couldn't be happening at a worse time when some of the league's best teams are waiting for them over the next month.
Hey James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier...