Statistician forecasts tougher second half for resurgent Maple Leafs

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski waits for a face-off against the Buffalo Sabres during the second period of their NHL pre-season hockey game in Toronto September 27, 2010

(Reuters)

They are winning praise seemingly from all corners these days.

Last week, it began with the head coach of the top team in the Eastern Conference lauding the Toronto Maple Leafs as “a legit contender,” and finished with the top player in the league branding them “a playoff team.”

That’s heady territory for a franchise that hasn’t earned that designation in almost nine years, but with 31 points in their first 26 games, the Leafs entered Monday in fifth in the East as one of the NHL’s biggest first-half surprises.

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Where they haven’t been winning many converts, however, is in hockey’s budding statistics community – with many number crunchers pointing out Toronto could once again experience a fall like last year’s 7-18-4 collapse to end the season.

The Leafs have been lucky, in other words, to climb this high.

“They are actually in a more precarious situation this year,” said Eric Tulsky, one highly regarded analyst who writes at NHLnumbers.com and has done work for multiple NHL teams.

A few days before the Maple Leafs lost to the Bruins in Boston last week, the annual MIT Sloan Sports analytics Conference took place at the nearby convention centre, with the brightest minds in the business gathering to speak.

While many of the event’s headlines garnered locally went to former Leafs general manager Brian Burke and his denouncing of analytics, the most compelling presentation on the hockey side of things was made by Tulsky on his unique work on zone-entry data.

Tulsky is a Harvard University graduate with a PhD in chemistry from Berkeley and works as a nanotechnology researcher in California. In his downtime, however, he formed TZ Quantitative Analytics Group with partner Derek Zona and has been assisting hockey teams with advanced statistical analysis.

Tulsky’s work doesn’t generally focus on the Leafs, but a general survey of several analysts reveals most believe the second half of the NHL season may not be as kind to Toronto.

Whereas more casual observers see a team that is seventh in goals per game and has cut its goals against dramatically from last season, the statistically inclined point to the fact the Leafs are outshot more heavily than all but one other NHL team (Edmonton Oilers) and have a shooting percentage that’s abnormally high (10.3 per cent at even strength).

Both are considered indicators a team’s record will not hold up long-term.

“It’s a lot more likely the Leafs have been on an unsustainable hot streak than that this team is one of the best collection of snipers in recent years,” Tulsky explained of why shooting percentage can matter. “While anything could happen over the short time span left in the season, it’s reasonable to expect that their offence will fall off a bit and their results will fade with it.

“Last year, they were riding a shooting percentage that was a bit high, but the team was only outshot by a little. This year, they are getting much more badly outshot and are relying much more heavily on their hot shooting to keep them in it.”

Not that there aren’t also a few silver linings for the Maple Leafs as they begin the last six weeks of the season in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

No. 1 is that, as Tulsky points out, the lockout-shortened season is much shorter than normal and there is far less time for a team to regress than in an 82-game marathon.

No. 2 is that Toronto is almost fully healthy for the first time, with one of the team’s top scorers, Joffrey Lupul, set to return from a broken arm next week, after missing all but three games.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – head coach Randy Carlyle is well-aware his team still has deficiencies to work on and has made cutting down the chances against a key priority for the final 22 games.

“I would say we’d like to tighten that area up, definitely,” Carlyle said of allowing quality shots. “Because there are too many quality chances.”

Tulsky’s prediction for the Leafs the rest of the way, meanwhile, is they ultimately finish with roughly 55 points – in part because they have so many home games remaining.

“That’s probably enough to hold on for the seventh or eighth seed [in the East],” he said.

But their recent history – and the numbers – suggest they’ll make it interesting.