The standings say that the Toronto Maple Leafs still have a very good shot at the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. History says otherwise.
Let’s start with what is happening right now. As of Tuesday, Toronto had 35 points in 31 games, which gives them a four-point lead on the Hurricanes for the final “wild card” seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The true picture is rosier still. Toronto would be second in the Metropolitan Division, so the Capitals, Rangers and Hurricanes would all need to pass the Leafs for the team to fall out of the playoff picture. And with Tampa Bay down Steven Stamkos and only a single point ahead of Toronto, the Lightning are an eminently catchable opponent.
With all that good news, why are the Leafs in trouble? League history offers a clue.
Toronto has been outshot, on average, by a rate of 37-27 per game. It’s the second-worst shot differential in the history of the 30-team NHL; only the 2001-02 Atlanta Thrashers were worse, and they finished dead last that year.
If we broaden the scope to include more clubs, we see that a terrible shot differential is a pretty good predictor of terrible teams:
Of the 13 teams on that list prior to this season, eight finished in the bottom five or lower; 11 finished in the bottom third of the NHL. Two teams made the postseason, and they are an interesting study: The 2001-02 Montreal Canadiens and last year’s Maple Leafs.
Toronto, of course, didn’t play a full 82-game season last year. The Leafs’ shooters, according to ExtraSkater.com, converted on 11.5 percent of their shots (the best total in the NHL), and with a .917 save percentage, Toronto’s goalies ranked seventh in the league. In other words, in a lockout-shortened season, Toronto shot the lights out and got exceptional goaltending and was able to get a first-round playoff exit for its troubles.
The only team to ever make the playoffs in a 30-team, 82-game season with such a horrible shot differential is even more exceptional. To begin with, the 2001-02 Canadiens barely made the postseason, ranking 18th overall in the league and only squeaking into the eighth seed in the weaker East by a single win.
The other reason the team was so remarkable was that Jose Theodore posted a .931 save percentage. He won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP for that effort and is the only goalie not named Dominik Hasek to do that since the days of the Original Six.
In other words: In a full 82-game season in a 30-team NHL, the only proven way to (barely) make the playoffs with such a woeful shot differential is on the back of a Hart Trophy-level goaltending performance.
Toronto’s recent performance reinforces the notion that getting outshot by a ridiculous amount is not a healthy way to operate. On November 22, we identified the Leafs’ 6-1-0 start as an aberration and noted that the club had gone just 7-7-1 since that point, and after looking in some detail at the club’s underlying numbers, we concluded that the team was slumping badly and that the slump was likely to continue.
What’s happened since? Toronto has gone 3-4-2 over a nine-game span and not one of the team’s three wins was recorded in regulation. Since that 6-1-0 start, the Maple Leafs have gone 10-11-3, a 79-point pace.
If the club doesn’t get its shot rates under control, and soon, it will slide out of the playoff picture. And there’s no telling when the descent down the NHL standings will finally stop.
Unless otherwise noted all statistics are courtesy of NHL.com and current through December 10.