Cancel the parade. I know The Hockey News just said to plan it, but now we have to cancel it. The Toronto Maple Leafs are officially in their biggest winless slump of the season, having lost their last four games in various circumstances.
As we all know, come playoff time, losing four games in a row is an extremely great way to ensure an end to your season. With that in mind, how can we expect the Leafs to have any shot in the playoffs if they’re going to play like this?
I’m not certain that it’s that simple.
The Art of Distribution
My first immediate question before getting into the nuances of this streak was to figure out if the best teams were able to avoid falling into similar ruts. There’s only one way to find that out, right? I pulled up every Stanley Cup champion in the Salary Cap / Shootout Era, and checked to see when the last four-game losing streak of their season was, if they had one at all. Here’s what came up:
|2013/14||Los Angeles Kings||28-Jan||03-Feb||4||130||94||58.0%|
|2011/12||Los Angeles Kings||16-Feb||22-Feb||4||118||95||55.4%|
|2007/08||Detroit Red Wings||22-Feb||29-Feb||4||132||112||54.1%|
As it turns out, basically everyone goes through these sorts of slumps, with a shocking amount of them happening in the back half of the season. Some of these are even crazier than they look; 2015 Chicago’s streak game in the last four games of the year, the Kings went on 9-in-10 and 8-in-10 losing streaks in their cup years, the 2011 Bruins lost 6 of 7, the 2007 Ducks lost 9 of 11, and the 2009 Penguins lost 12 of 18. Carolina’s losing streak included the first two games of the first round! In a league where being the best means being consistently slightly better than everyone else, it’s not shocking to see that, well, even the great teams go through ruts.
The two teams that avoided losing four in a row were the first two championship teams of the Chicago modern dynasty, and even they didn’t completely avoid adversity. The 2010 team, from the last day of January on, had three different losing streaks of three games. The 2012/13 team had the benefit of a historical point streak to start the year, and a lockout-shortened 48 game season, minimizing their available time to slump. But even then had a moment of adversity, losing three consecutive games in the second round of the playoffs, forcing them to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to advance to the conference finals.
That isn’t to stay that Toronto is definitely as good as these Stanley Cup winners, or even necessarily a favourite to win this year, but going on a 0-2-2 run in February/March doesn’t knock you out of the running automatically. If anything, not doing so was making them an outlier.
Buffalo's goals tonight:
3. Skate deflection
4. Referee deflection pic.twitter.com/E82eWryktt
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) March 6, 2018
This isn’t an attempt to pull a “well actually, Toronto should’ve won all these games”, but, it’s also difficult to assert that this is a case of Toronto getting their lunch fed to them over a four-game stretch.
If we want to take the eyes and simple stats test, it’s pretty easy to make excuses for how the stretch has treated them. The Leafs lost their first game in a shootout, their second in overtime, their third in an outdoor game on the road, and their fourth in a game where 80% of the goals against came off of awkward deflections and the final tally had somewhat (but in mine and the officials’ opinion, not enough) of a case for goaltender interference. Every single one of these games is the type that if they happened individually, we’d be happy to say “shit happens” to. Because they’ve happened in sequence, we’ve created a bigger picture for them.
Glancing at the underlying numbers, and adjusting for score effects so the Leafs don’t get too much of a boost for desperately trying to come back in games, you’ll find that Toronto had a pretty solid run. The first game against the Lightning was rough on them (39% shot attempts, 35% shots, 38% scoring chances at 5-on-5), but Toronto came out ahead in shot attempt differential in the last three, a feat that they haven’t accomplished in as many games in a row since a stretch in late-November/early-December (just before Roman Polak became a roster regular and the Leafs shifted to more of a shutdown/lead protection philosophy). Even with the Lightning came included, Toronto had 53% of the score-adjusted shot attempts, 51% of the unblocked attempts, 49% of the shots, 54% of the chances, and just two fewer high-danger chances in that stretch.
Yes, the games came with their fair share of frustrations; the usual wish for more discipline, for Frederik Andersen to stop a thousand pucks, for the “defensive” defencemen of the team to close gaps and stop dumping, for the “offensive” defencemen of the team to be less aggressive and dump the puck more… the team is still very much an imperfect picture, like most are, but there isn’t really much from these past four games that indicate fundamental collapse or deviation from what the team is.
Man Up / Man Down
Auston Matthews heads to the room after this double hit from Adam Pelech and Cal Clutterbuck. Suspicion is that it's a shoulder ailment. pic.twitter.com/VWtIlQUUhj
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) February 23, 2018
There are, however, two players that are notable for their presence and lack thereof in the lineup presently. Auston Matthews has been out for the entirety of this slump (and a win against Boston before it), and Tomas Plekanec is just stepping in after being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens.
While previous injuries to Matthews have been met with winning streaks, being without your team’s top player is far from a small loss. Not enough a big enough loss where never winning again without them would be acceptable, but when two of four defeats come in extra time while a player that’s been the league’s most lethal even-strength goal scorer since his career began recovers from an injury, you can extend a little bit of leeway. Not total, but some.
As for Plekanec, it’s easy to point to a new player as a reason for failure when his arrival coincides with a losing streak, especially when their impact isn’t sizeable. The ex-Montreal centre hasn’t put up a point yet, and the team has been (ever so slightly) outscored, outshot, and out-chanced with him on the ice.
But, as head coach Mike Babcock points out, an adjustment is a process, especially when you’ve spent a decade and a half with the same club:
“I’ve talked to him a number of times. In Detroit, we traded for guys like that a number of times. The biggest thing when you come and you’ve been in one place a long, long time where you’ve been doing things the same way, is suddenly you’re on the ice and you’re wondering why nohting is going right for you. You’re spending too much time thinking and nothing goes. It’s all going to work out perfect for him, he just has to be a little patient with himself. We are, there is no problem whatsoever, he’ll be a big part of our team. He just has to work through the process.”
(Quote via Kristen Shilton, TSN)
I do believe there to be some truth to this; Plekanec hasn’t switched organizations since he was a teenager, so there is a lot of routine and re-introduction to get used to. Toronto’s situation hasn’t helped much either; losing Matthews at the same time shakes up the centre arrangement, and playing all four games on the road hasn’t given him a real chance to get used to the total environment.
I also believe that our perception is a bit altered based on expectation. Brian Boyle wasn’t particularly dominant when Toronto acquired him in similar fashion last year, but the barometer for him was “be better than Ben Smith and Frederik Gauthier, and if we make the playoffs, sweet”, rather than “we need you to be Kadri-lite with weaker linemates, our top centre out, and Stanley Cup ambitions”. Boyle was able to play a simple game that cleared space for his linemates and get lauded for the improvement he brought, even if he never scored a goal in blue and white. Plekanec is a different type of player, who plays a different role, and just happens to play in the same spot in the lineup; he’ll have to get accustomed until it works. His little screen on the second Leo Komarov goal might be a sign of him getting the hang of things, but we’ll have to see.
So Is It Time To Panic?
I really don’t think so. The Leafs haven’t played without issue in the past week or so, but they’re not issues that go beyond the Leafs being themselves. There isn’t any major alarm-bell game, and if these were all spread across the calendar, or a few bounces go the other way, there’d be much less talk of them. Whether or not the Leafs are truly a “go the distance” team still remains to be seen, but this stretch is far too menial to consider pulling the plug on expectations for the year.---
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