Much has been made about the Leafs not being quite as good as they seem due to their division being categorically weak. But is this categorization fair? Certainly, Toronto has dominated each team in its division this year, and are now seemingly presented with an attainable path to a Stanley Cup semi-final, due to the divisional playoffs. The question everyone seems to be posing now is: aren’t the Leafs going to get demolished in this semi-final? Which is a question that, considering everything I’ve learned about being a Leafs fan, definitely puts the cart before the horse.
Regardless, it’s an interesting question, and one that we can reasonably answer with some numbers, and this post aims to do just that.
There are two ways to measure strength of opponent that I feel are simple enough to analyze. The first is by goal scoring. Goal differential is one of the most common ways to look at how strong a team is as they head into a Cup run. The second is by shot attempts, or Corsi. We’ve shown in our Advanced Stats Primer that Corsi is a really good predictor of future success.
With both of these, we’re going to calculate how strong each team should have been this year by using data from the 2019-20 season with how much of an effect the personnel changes from last year to this year would have had on the team. The specifics on how I did it are a little out there, but I’ve attempted to explain it at the bottom.
Even though shot attempts are a stronger dataset, we’re still going to look at goals because it probably will correlate most with our intuitive estimation of how strong each team is. Goals are easy for us to remember; teams that score a lot and allow not not so much, we’re likely to remember those teams as being good. And similarly in the reverse.
I’d like to point out that I wrote the paragraph above before I saw the results. Here are the teams in order of lowest strength of schedule (SOS) this year, in terms of goals.
|Team||Goals +/-||Goals SOS|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||10.3||-243.6|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||51.2||99.4|
|New York Rangers||24.4||275.1|
|St Louis Blues||33.0||276.6|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||15.0||389.3|
|Vegas Golden Knights||11.6||447.3|
|New York Islanders||-2.6||491.2|
|Los Angeles Kings||-22.4||719.7|
|New Jersey Devils||-37.2||768.2|
|Detroit Red Wings||-44.2||862.8|
|San Jose Sharks||-43.5||888.3|
I’d call that a hypothesis proven. As one might expect, teams in the North division seem to have it the easiest, because when it comes to goal scoring, 5 of the 7 teams might have had a negative goal differential this year, as shown by the Goals +/- column, based on their players’ data in 2019-20.
It’s abundantly clear that when it comes to goal differential, the North division is by far the worst. We also might expect that the Leafs would struggle against teams that have high a high goal differential, like the Avalanche and the Lightning.
What happens, though, when we look beyond goals and into on-ice strength? Here are the teams sorted by their strength of schedule (SOS), as per Corsi. By doing so, we’re doing two things: eliminating goaltending and goal scoring from the equation. Instead, we can see how strong teams are in terms of generating shot attempts. We’ve shown many times in the past that this is a more powerful predictor of playoff success than goal differential.
|Team||Corsi +/-||Corsi SOS|
|New Jersey Devils||-253.5||-1959.5|
|New York Rangers||-315.5||-1463.7|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||419.2||-1405.1|
|New York Islanders||-532.4||271.5|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||411.4||280.9|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||-101.2||2758.1|
|Vegas Golden Knights||662.7||4230.5|
|Detroit Red Wings||-570.5||6512.2|
|St Louis Blues||306.2||7082.7|
|San Jose Sharks||36.7||9238.5|
|Los Angeles Kings||8.6||9463.6|
Now, things look a lot different. We can see that by shot attempts, Toronto’s schedule is middle of the pack, and a fair bit more difficult than some of those top from the East and Central divisions like Boston and Tampa Bay.
Well, since these are numbers that I cobbled together by myself (huge thank you to www.naturalstattrick.com for the data), probably not much.
However, it does make some kind of point that perhaps the North division isn’t as weak as everyone is saying. When you look at on-ice talent, a team like the Canucks isn’t really that bad, it’s just that their goaltending is terrible. It’s a similar story with the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames. So, while that would inflate the points Toronto can earn against the standings, it wouldn’t inflate the kinds of statistics that we look at here, like Corsi, or the more advanced models.
One such model, the one used by Money Puck, has the Leafs as the most likely team to win the Cup. Now, we know that Toronto probably did better at scoring goals than they might have if they played against all the teams. But we also now know that Toronto had an average schedule in terms of opponents’ shot attempts numbers. That means that these models probably aren’t overrating the Leafs as much as public opinion would suggest.
That’s it for the content of this post, from here on I will just give a description on how I came up with the numbers in the above tables. If you have any questions about any of this, feel free to hit me up on Twitter (@ryandhobart) or comment here.
All of the data is from Natural Stat Trick, and is 5-on-5, Score and Venue adjusted.
I started with taking each player’s on-ice goals and shot attempts from the 2019-20 season, and then the same for 2021. For both, I set a cutoff of 300 minutes of ice time.
Then, I overlayed the player, team and ice time they played in 2021 with their on-ice stats for 2019-20. For anyone who didn’t meet the cutoff in 2019-20 but did in 2021, I used their 2021 stats. This made sense, since they’re mostly rookies, and the the 2021 effects on a dozen or so players of a few hundred would have minimal impact, since we’re only using this for team-level analysis.
With their on-ice goal differential (a.k.a 5-on-5 +/-) and their Corsi +/-, I added up each team’s players differentials from 2019-20 multiplied by their ice time in 2021, and then divided by the overall team’s time on ice at 5-on-5. This is the second column in each of the tables. That means that injuries, healthy scratches, and general ice time allotment was as it actually happened in 2021, because we want to see how hard the Leafs’ schedule this year actually was, when compared to other teams.
Then, I took each team’s schedule for 2021 and added up their opponents goal and Corsi +/- separately to get a Strength of Schedule (SOS). That’s the third column in each of the tables.
I would have liked to have shared the player data, but somehow, it got lost. It took me too much time to put together so I’m not going to recreate it at this point. Sorry about that! I wish that for transparency’s sake I could share it.