The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers have a lot in common.
The salary cap era has not been kind to either club on the ice. Since the 2005 lockout, Toronto has appeared in the playoffs just once, falling to Boston in the first round of 2013. Edmonton too has one appearance, which while more successful (they went to the Stanley Cup Final) is also far less recent (in 2006). Poor management and failed rebuilding efforts have been the shared experience of both teams.
Now the two clubs are turning the corner at the same instant in time. The Oilers will make the playoffs and perhaps even own home ice in the first round. The Leafs’ postseason hopes are less certain in the tougher Eastern Conference, but as of this moment it is probable that they will win one of the two spots being vied for by three bubble teams.
Yet there are differences, too.
Edmonton’s turnaround was driven more by luck than anything else. With their surprise win of the 2015 draft lottery, the Oilers landed Connor McDavid, the NHL’s best player since Sidney Crosby. With the arrival of McDavid, Edmonton overhauled its front office, turning the team over to former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. Chiarelli’s task was to take McDavid and then build a team around him using the remnants from failed rebuilds past.
The approach in Toronto was more deliberate. The architects of the 2013 playoff appearance were given some time to build on that modest success. After one bad year, Brendan Shanahan was hired away from NHL player safety to oversee everything. After the second bad year, Shanahan cleaned house, installing a hybrid management team that combined experienced hockey men (Lou Lamoriello, Mike Babcock, etc.) with an exceptional analytics group headed by Kyle Dubas.
That group conceived and executed a deliberate rebuilding strategy which has come together more quickly than could realistically have been anticipated. 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews has played a leading role in the recovery, but the Leafs’ rise is far less unipolar than that of the Oilers.
Which team is closer to winning a Stanley Cup today is a question which can only be definitively answered in retrospect. What we can do now is find some of the identifying marks of contending teams and see how the Oilers and Leafs stack up to them.
Even-strength shot metrics like Corsi and Fenwick have gained currency in recent years as ways to evaluate and predict performance at both the individual and team level. The downside to using them is that goals, rather than shots, determine the winner in any given game. The upside is that shots are far more frequent than goals and are thus predictive of future scoring over a much shorter period of time than goals themselves are.
Over the analytics era (starting in 2007-08), the best shot metric guide to playoff success has been a weighted one: event, score and venue adjusted Fenwick. Fenwick includes shots and misses, but excludes blocks, giving the defending team credit for getting into lanes. The adjustments are an attempt to compensate for some common distorting factors within games.
Since 2008, the average Stanley Cup finalist has had a 54 percent weighted Fenwick rating during the regular season. Only one club has won with a weighted Fenwick less than 53 percent, and there’s a caveat there. The 2009 Penguins had a midseason coaching change and over the 25 regular season games Dan Bylsma coached the team had a brilliant 57 percent weighted Fenwick rating.
There are no hard and fast rules here — a team with strong goaltending and superb finishing ability could conceivably perform well enough to win despite mediocre shot numbers. Over the last decade, though, the minimum has typically been around 53 percent and the average is over 55 percent.
Neither Edmonton nor Toronto is particularly close to that number right now, though the Oilers are currently in the lead there:
Goals are less frequent than shots, but have some obvious advantages as far as predicting the future goes. Goaltending, obviously, shows up in this kind of an analysis. It’s also helpful here to look at special teams, where shot quality tends to be more exaggerated than it is at even strength.
The numbers are pretty similar to Fenwick. Since 2008, no team has won without scoring roughly 53 percent of all goals during the regular season. The average is closer to 56 percent. When we look at these two teams, again we find the Oilers ahead of the Maple Leafs:
Edmonton is actually inching into potential champion territory here, thanks in large part to having three different seven-goal outings in their last six games.
Right now, neither team matches up statistically to past champions, but Edmonton is quite a bit closer than Toronto. Both teams need to improve, though, and the Maple Leafs would appear to have a little more room for growth.
Toronto’s core skews slightly younger than Edmonton’s does. The Maple Leafs have a strong prospect system and an AHL team led by up-and-comers. The Oilers’ pipeline is thin outside of Jesse Puljujarvi, while their farm club leans much more heavily on minor-league veterans.
The Leafs also have more cap flexibility. They have no long-term deals with a cap hit higher than $5 million, and the oldest player on a long-term deal is 27-year-old Matt Martin ($2.5 million through 2020). The Oilers have four long-term deals in the $5.5-$6-million range. They also have three veterans older than Martin signed to 2019 or beyond.
Both clubs have bright futures. Edmonton is closer to a championship right now, and in McDavid has the best player on either club. Toronto’s a little further back, but has the advantage of greater youth and financial flexibility. It’s close enough that this is a real race.