The Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a 6-1-0 start and sit alone in first place in the Eastern Conference. Yet, somehow, they can’t avoid criticism—including from their head coach. After winning 4-1 over the Minnesota Wild in a game where the Leafs were outshot 37-14, Randy Carlyle was blunt in his postgame assessment of the team’s performance:
Our level of play has to increase. We were on the receiving end. We can’t continually play that way and expect to have success.
Carlyle didn’t back away from those comments at Wednesday’s practice either; if anything, he doubled down on his criticism:
It's a nervous time in the coach's office because of the number of shots differential and the quality of chances we're giving up… We know that is going to turn against us at some point if we continue to play at the level we're playing.
Carlyle isn’t the only one worried despite Toronto’s record. He got some support on Wednesday in that position from Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry:
The win against Minnesota was the single-best example of a recurring trend this season: Toronto coming away with points despite losing the possession war to the opposing team. The club has been outshot in five of seven contests; as it stands right now the Leafs are on pace to finish with more than 500 shots fewer than their opposition over the course of the 2013-14 season.
Why hasn’t this supposedly massive imbalance cost the Leafs yet?
One big reason is the penalty kill. The only team in the league that surrenders more shots over an average four-on-five power play than Toronto is Buffalo; the Leafs are terrible at shot prevention when they’re down a man.
That plays into their massive shots disadvantage, but they haven’t paid for it yet because Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have posting 0.943 and 0.938 save percentages, respectively. That compares to the 0.865 save percentage posted in shorthanded situations by the average NHL goalie last season.
Another big reason is guys just making their shots. So far the Maple Leafs have a team shooting percentage of 17.8 and 9.4 percent in five-on-four and five-on-five situations, respectively.
For the sake of contrast, during the NHL’s last 82-game season, the best shooting percentage team in the league five-on-four converted 16.8 percent of its shots; the best team five-on-five managed a 9.9 shooting percentage. Toronto is sitting right at the top edge of what is possible for an NHL team over a full season.
There’s also the performance of Bernier and Reimer five-on-five. Toronto has a 0.933 save percentage in five-on-five situations so far this season. The best total over the NHL’s last 82-game season was 0.936. While there is a reasonable argument to be made that Bernier and Reimer are a strong goaltending duo, again we find a Maple Leafs team sitting right at the upper edge of what is possible.
Is Toronto as good as its record? Probably not. It’s easy to understand why Carlyle describes himself as nervous, and easy to understand why Cherry empathizes with him. The Maple Leafs have some good points (notably strong goalies and a wicked power play), but on the whole, to use Carlyle’s vernacular, they have been “on the receiving end.”
That has to change. Right now, Toronto’s record overstates its on-ice performance; that won’t last. If the Leafs want to stay near the upper echelon of the NHL, that performance has to improve.