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The biggest news event of the summer in the NHL, at least as far as on-ice things go, was Mike Babcock eschewing the Red Wings to move into the most lucrative coaching gig in league history with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This was noteworthy not just because of the money and the fact that this is the best-publicized team in hockey, but also because it was a guy with a reputation for ultra-competitiveness and a sizable ego going from one of the most successful coaching jobs in recent memory (he is currently 12th in win percentages among NHL coaches all-time) to a position that, while extremely beneficial financially, also might be the least desirable in the league.
The Leafs are a disaster in terms of what their roster looks like right now, especially because they just traded away by far the best player they've had in years. It's going to take a lot of digging to get out from under what Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis did to this club, and with that comes the very real prospect that a Mike Babcock-coached team misses the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time ever. Let's face it: No way the Leafs are getting in this year, and next year, who knows what the roster looks like? Lou Lamoriello and Co. almost certainly can't make enough changes to get this team playoff-competitive in one summer, and they sure have the look of a five-year-plan-having team instead of one rebuilding on the fly.
However, while it's fair to say a lot of Toronto fans were expecting this year to only be a slight improvement from last given all the changes, it's also fair to say the Leafs in some respects appear to be well ahead of schedule. The results obviously continue to elude them — the Leafs sit well outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture already and in fact have the worst record in the league — but the process has turned around quite quickly.
This is largely due to the team at long last tightening things up in its own zone. In a lot of ways, the Leafs are now playing in a way that, statistically, is not dissimilar from that of the Babcock-coached Red Wings. That this is even a conversation that can possibly be had at this point is mind-boggling. Babcock seems to have taken one of the worst systems teams in the league, without a ton of high-level NHL talent, and more or less instantly transformed it into one that plays like the Red Wings of last season.
To be clear: Last year's Red Wings were no great shakes overall, but again, you really couldn't complain about how they were going about their business. If you're regularly out-attempting, out-chancing, and out-shooting your opponents, the results are likely to follow in terms of goals and wins. When you do it by as wide a margin as the Wings did it under Babcock in even the fading days of their glory, that helps to ensure that you'll at least be among the top-10 teams in the league or so.
Now, there remain some obvious deficiencies where the Leafs are concerned here. Obviously possession, high-quality chances, and shots are all way, way up, but the goals aren't appreciably better than they were last year (when they were putrid), and the penalty differential is destroying the Leafs because their penalty kill is among the least-successful in the league.
As far as the goals at 5-on-5 are concerned, you can probably chalk a lot of it up to the Leafs carrying a very low shooting percentage and only a middling save percentage. Both, however, make some amount of sense to me given the quality of the overall roster (which doesn't seem to carry a lot of shooting talent overall) and the fact that a Jonathan Bernier/James Reimer tandem just doesn't seem as though it's ever going to bring its bearer a lot of positive results.
As to that rotten PK, which has made Bernier and Reimer look worse than they probably deserve, it gives up a ton of attempts, though has largely done a decent enough job of keeping things to the outside (Toronto is actually pretty mediocre and verging on good when it comes to limiting high-quality and overall scoring chances on the PK). Where Toronto has really struggled killing penalties is leaving guys unattended, as you might imagine, but the goalies are also giving up enough rebounds as to be concerning. That's not something to which Babcock can necessarily coach, but it is dragging the team down considerably.
Also worth noting, though, is that of the many power play goals conceded by Toronto this year, three came in one game against Ottawa, and two more each in single games against Montreal and Arizona. This early in the season, just three rough nights on the PK is going to sink your season percentage. You simply can't give up a goal every seven minutes or so of power play time and expect to be successful.
It's very clear that this team has to reduce the number of penalties it takes even if it can significantly improve its results, or simply draw more. The latter seems to be the bigger issue, because Toronto is middle-of-the-pack when it comes to committing penalties, but close to the bottom in drawing them. Either way you can work it out, though, you have to do it, and a team that seems to actually possess the puck this much should be drawing more than it commits, full stop. Getting anywhere near 50 percent would be a huge push in the right direction for the team overall.
This, too, is not necessarily something I think Babcock can coach out of the club, and it might be the result of the many low-skill guys on the roster not being able to keep up with other players, or not being elusive enough to force penalties by the other team.
But what I think is really interesting here is that while you'd clearly expect defensive efficiency to be a major problem for the Leafs, it's the only area Babcock seems to be having a major impact at 5-on-5. The club is attempting more shots to a slight degree (plus-4.2 per 60, an 8 percent improvement), but allowing far, far fewer (minus-8.1, a 13 percent improvement). Likewise, high-quality chances are up just 0.1 per 60, but those allowed have dropped 2.9. SOG-for is up 1.1, and against down 4.2. It can go on like this, but it goes to show that if you can make even marginal improvements in your “for” numbers, but significantly reduce “against,” your numbers quickly go from bad to good.
And it's not as though the Leafs are doing this against cupcake clubs, either. They've played their Buffalos and Arizonas and Columbuses, but there's also Montreal twice, Detroit twice, Pittsburgh twice, Dallas, New York, Washington, Winnipeg, and so on. This isn't a good team, but it's one that's faced a fairly difficult schedule so far.
To this point, you'd have to say that the Leafs have been what people thought they would be. But with Babcock as their coach, a lot of their underlying numbers are doing nearly as well as the highly praised Wings of last season. What that says for the future, when Toronto gets a few decent draft picks, signs some good free agents, and takes a blowtorch to the dregs of the roster left behind by the old regime, could be scary for the rest of the league.
And what it says in the meantime is that Mike Babcock really is a hell of a coach.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks having three straight wins helps them rebuild their credibility a bit here, and because of how, ahem, “tight” the Pacific is, they finished Saturday night only two points out of third in the division.
Arizona Coyotes: You don't say.
Buffalo Sabres: Wild finish in Buffalo on Saturday afternoon. Look at that zone entry by Tyler Ennis. Fun.
Chicago: Maybe this is like a Mike Richards situation where Bryan Bickell spends a bunch of time in the minors but then gets a call-up again at the end of the regular season. But also, maybe it isn't.
Florida Panthers: Tough to go 0 for 3 on a road trip, but when you play the Ducks, Sharks, and Kings, and you're the Panthers, it's also not that much of a surprise.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Bless you, Sidney Crosby.
St. Louis Blues: Jake Allen's save percentage went up 10 points with that 45-save shutout against Nashville. Ten!
Toronto Maple Leafs: That they even got to overtime against the Caps is a minor miracle.
Winnipeg Jets: Vintage Pavelec.
Gold Star Award
Sure was nice to see Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry actually show up on Friday night. Three assists each. Wow. And then on Saturday? Game-winner from Perry, primary assist from Getzlaf.
Minus of the Weekend
Giving up a goal like this must feel just awful.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “Hardworker33” is doing what the name suggests.
Montreal 1st 2016
Minnesota 2nd 2016
Oh I want to be in that rumba, when the saints go over there.