What We Learned: The Leafs are actually good

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(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

The Toronto Maple Leafs spent a good chunk of December in the midst of a rough stretch.

They suffered through a run in which they were 2-3-4, giving them just 31 points from their first 31 games. Since Dec. 22, though, they are 6-1-1 — the regulation loss came Saturday night against Montreal — and have outscored opponents 32-22.

As evidenced by the Blue Jackets, almost anyone can have a good run of several games or more. You need to get a lot of bounces to go your way, and if you’re a decent team you’re more likely to have that happen. It’s difficult to imagine too many people had the Leafs as any sort of tangible threat to make the playoffs this season; most probably had them improving but finishing just outside the money. After all, they’re not so deep into their rebuild that they were supposed to be able to come out the other side already.

But what that ignored — or perhaps still ignores, if you’re a skeptic — is that the Leafs enjoyed a significant talent infusion this summer. Auston Matthews, obviously, is having a whopper of a season and has already surpassed Patrik Laine as the Calder Winner In Waiting. Add Mitch Marner to the mix. Add William Nylander. That’s three of the Leafs’ top four scorers, all rookies. (James van Riemsdyk is the other.) The other younger, in-their-prime players on the roster likewise continue to round out their games. Nazem Kadri has been a strong two-way center. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly have been good defensemen.

And perhaps most important, after a dismal start, Freddy Andersen looks to be the kind of guy for whom you give up the No. 30 and a future second-round pick. Since he went .876 in October, he’s been a .930-ish goaltender. Obviously that’s a little beyond his talent level, but if we also accept his start to the year was well below his talent level — and consider his career save percentage is .919 — then everything kind of works out. Andersen has been exactly what this team needed to shore everything up a bit.

Last year they were a decent enough possession team, but didn’t have the talent to score or keep pucks out of the net at a level conducive to winning. Kadri led the team in scoring with just 45 points. For the season their goaltenders totaled .909. It just wasn’t good enough, even as newly installed coach Mike Babcock had them playing fairly effective hockey (often above 50 percent in a number of 5-on-5 metrics) until they sold off what older talent they did have at the deadline.

As each coach has his peccadilloes and blindspots, Babcock did tend to rely a little too heavily on the Leafs’ toughness left over from when they were still run by the previous regime, which didn’t help. That continues to some extent today; Frank Corrado spends the season unable to get more than a single appearance while Roman Polak (who is objectively not-good) has played nearly all of the team’s games.

But even despite a few issues Leafs fans alone are going to complain about, you have to say that process-wise, Babcock’s had the Leafs on-point all year. Ninth in adjusted corsi, 10th in adjusted shots on goal, 11th in adjusted fenwick and actual goals, third(!) in adjusted scoring chances and expected goals. They also have a strong power play and PK, which helps because they take too many penalties and don’t draw enough of their own.

So to be just outside the playoffs, now, halfway through the season after that terrible start says something for them, right? It probably doesn’t have much to do with “learning how to win” or anything like that, but rather a team with plenty of newcomers “learning how to play together” or rather “learning how to play in the National Hockey League.” The game has come more easily to Matthews in particular than expected, because despite his well-publicized scoring drought he’s been a play-driver all year and generates a ton of chances.

Learning how to win has this nonsense mysticism, ascribed to a much simpler explanation: There’s a learning curve in the NHL and teams with young players suffer through it en masse.

Teams are not just born good; which is why a team like, say, Chicago, went from no playoffs for five years to making a conference final to winning a Stanley Cup in the space of three years. Everything didn’t come together for Toews and Kane and Keith and Seabrook and Campbell and Ladd and Byfuglien and Brouwer and Sharp and Bolland and Versteeg all at once. Half the guys on that team were in their mid- or early-20s. The oldest big contributor was Campbell, at 29, but after that really only Martin Havlat and Sharp (27 at the time) were closer to 30 than 20. The addition of Joel Quenneville five games into the season didn’t hurt either.

That’s not to say the Leafs are going to be as loaded with high-level talent as those Chicago teams. It’s unlikely anyone will be in a cap universe any time soon. But they have a good amount of talent in all positions at this point, and more is likely arriving in the near future (the fruits of a few years of hard tanking). Moreover, they have a guy who is arguably the best coach in the world to guide them through whatever issues happen to arise.

To circle back to the reason the Leafs are winning right now after such a rough start, the answer shouldn’t surprise you: PDO went against them for the first few months, and has now reversed course. As long as they’re able to generate the most scoring chances in the league, it maybe doesn’t matter too much that they’re allowing the eighth-most. And anyway, that number should go down if they add a little more talent — especially on the back end — which by all accounts they mean to do at some point.

And let’s not forget also that Toronto’s previous administration was so inept that the Leafs currently carry tons of money either buried in the minors ($8.3 million), retained from previous trades ($1.2 million) or bought out ($683,000) that hampers their ability to spend this year.

Despite that issue, they have the profile of a club that can make trouble for anyone they draw, but if you’re skeptical about them due to their youth or their ability to hold onto third-period leads against mediocre clubs — let alone playoff teams — that seems fair as well. They seem only likely to get better, but for now they’re a hard team to figure out because their PDO has been all over the place and those many mitigating factors might not be going anywhere any time soon.

With that having been said, whether the Leafs make the playoffs this season is immaterial to the brightness of their future. We have occasionally glimpsed what this club could become, and it’s very promising.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Know what would be even nicer than being on good terms with Bruce Boudreau? If he was still their coach.

Arizona Coyotes: Oh uhh, congrats?

Boston Bruins: Don Sweeney talking publicly about firing Claude Julien because the power play sucks. What a world.

Buffalo Sabres: Yeah playing the Jets will often cure what ails ya.

Calgary Flames: The Flames snapped the Canucks’ six-game winning streak. Now that’s some kind of sentence.

Carolina Hurricanes: It’s hard not to like that Ty Rattie waiver pickup. Good player.

Chicago: Right before he signed his big extension, Artemi Panarin changed agents to a guy who speaks Russian. Why didn’t he have one of those in the first place?

Colorado Avalanche: I don’t know why a local columnist from St. Louis is weighing in on this, but he’s not wrong.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Wow, two losses in a row? These guys are the worst team in the league!

Dallas Stars: Be nice if John Klingberg were just reliably good most nights this season. Instead, he has been extremely up and down.

Detroit Red Wings: The Detroit Red Wings lost to a much better team and looked bad doing it? You don’t say.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers won the trade.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers are 0-4 against the Bruins this year, and more problematically they’re making the Bruins offense look good.

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings scored four goals for the first time in weeks for a nice little OT win over Minnesota. Guess who wasn’t in net for the Wild.

Minnesota Wild: Oh and just in case you were wondering if the Wild have a good pipeline for the future: They do.

Montreal Canadiens: The Habs have won 13 straight against Toronto. Seems like a lot.

Nashville Predators: That’s a tidy little extension for Matt Irwin, who didn’t get a fair shake in Boston but has been a very good depth defender with the Preds.

New Jersey Devils: Please bless nice boy Taylor Hall with your kind thoughts.

New York Islanders: Well, that’s one reading of Kieffer Bellows’ performance. You might also say he had two goals in the gold medal game and none in the other seven he played.

New York Rangers: Guess the honeymoon’s over. Vesey has 4-4-8 in 26 games since the start of December. Guess that’s what happens when you stop shooting 26 percent and your shot rate drops off.

Ottawa Senators: Here’s nice Jonathan Willis saying the Senators aren’t for real. You know it’s true because Willis says it is.

Philadelphia Flyers: Michal Neuvirth is back from injury and apparently still good.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Watch the Pens lose three of four right after this bye week and everyone in Pittsburgh start saying how dumb the bye week is and we should get rid of it.

San Jose Sharks: Joe Pavelski very quietly has another 30-goal pace going for himself. Few are talking about this.

St. Louis Blues: Gotta love a nail-biter I guess.

Tampa Bay Lightning: This is why you don’t give out NMCs to just anyone: Tampa has to protect four players in the expansion draft, and two of them are Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan. You have to think the other four guys they protect include Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Drouin. Still leads Vlad Namestnikov, JT Brown, and Alex Killorn exposed.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Speaking of the bye week, Mike Babcock hates it.

Vancouver Canucks: No. 1: “They’re not in last place.”

Vegas Golden Knights: The Knights have their preseason schedule “90 percent complete.” It’s wild that there will be 31 NHL teams next year if you think about it!

Washington Capitals: That’s 500 assists for your little pal Nick Backstrom. Wowie zowie that’s a lot of assists, baby.

Winnipeg Jets: I’m truly surprised Paul Maurice hasn’t been fired yet. Potential Laine injury aside, this team just stinks.

Play of the Weekend

What a freakin’ goal by Michael Grabner. Good read, great speed, perfect finish.

Gold Star Award

This guy right here? This is the guy.

Minus of the Weekend

The idea of Patrik Laine being out for any length of time is galling and I hate it with my life.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Neutrinos” would like to ask who says no?

Oilers < Tavares and Hamonic

Islanders < RNH, Puljujärvi, Nurse and a 1st round pick in ’17

Signoff

I’m missing the cook-off. It’s going on right now and I’m missing it!

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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