This is a common break whenever a great offensive team can win a string of high-scoring hockey games, because the style of that game does not fit the concept of what a “playoff hockey” looks like.
The idea is: “You can’t win the post-season like this.”
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, that claim has been true for years now, as they are considered an offensively talented team that “lacks defense and determination” – you’ll recognize them as playoffs – and we know they’re four consecutive post-seasons. Deciding is lagging behind in the game.
It’s a neat and tidy short story, and hey, not without a splinter of truth.
We associate play-off hockey with a strong turn towards defensive and physical play, and we all agree that referees “take the flute away.” No refs, though. In fact, high rates of penalties are called for in the playoffs, it is only the players who violate the boundaries so much that we see that potential calls are turned off and so we say that they “stop the whistle.”
I mention it only because it’s a great example of how our brains use confirmation bias about play-off hockey to create an easy-to-understand story for us, and in both cases we go with it despite the statistical truth of more punishment. On a raw total and per-60 basis.
Here’s the truth about the style of play and what wins the playoffs: no formula, nothing. GMs around the league don’t win any “type of team” every off-season trying to imitate the previous cup winner. Yes, almost every cup winner has a great 1C and 1D and 1G, or I would say to that trend, “the best team has the best players,” which is quite a revolutionary team-building philosophy. But beyond that the thread is less common.
I don’t want to go against the notion that play-off hockey is different, or claim that it’s not more physical, or that it’s not better defensively. It all happens though, because you have dropped one of the top 16 teams in the league, and those teams have a tendency to succeed because defense and physical play are effective features for winning hockey games, and winning is how you stay at the top. Start with -16. Combine that with each player’s level of effort rising to 100 percent, and we’re seeing better defenses and more injuries, just data.
Although we get off track when we make “defense and physical play” a top priority. Before Offensive game. Many big, average teams who try to play D are left to watch on TV in April. It’s not just the fact that the best teams in this division are the ones that carry the Stanley Cup (This is just a proxy for “physical play”, but will miss seven of the 10 most fought teams this year.)
Let’s go back to the defense, which is clearly about the cup winning teams. Here are the regular season rankings for direct goals against past five Cup champions in the regular season:
2016-17: Pittsburgh Penguin, 17M
2017-18: Washington Capitals, 16M
2018-19: St. Louis Blues, 5M
2019-20: Tampa Bay Lightning, 8M
2020-21: Tampa Bay Lightning, 6M
As you can see, they are rarely the best defensive team in the league, and when you dig deeper, there is some flattery in this total. ’17 Penguin was 22nd Expected goal against the league. ’18 Capital was 28M(!). ’19 Blues was 15M. They’ve gotten better post-season, but it’s really an argument that average defensive teams can find ways to sort it out rather than reverse.
If you look around this year’s league, the average rankings of winning the last five cups Aim for A hair was better than a seventh. On the contrary, the number of goals has increased to 10M And 11M. (And in the post-season period, their average goal tally was better than third, while their defensive rank was fourth out of 16 teams.)
“You can’t score a goal on the way out of trouble,” we said in an awful lot, but the teams that have won for sure seem to be stronger offensively than defensively, and that’s a decade behind.
I came back to one of my conversations with Brian Burke at Hockey Central, where we discussed the style of play, and he bluntly asked when was the last time a team won the cup without an elite D-core. It was ’17 Penguin when I volunteered. He wasn’t very pleased with me, but I’m not sure why we all pretended that year, or the year that Caps won with a not-so-non-defensive-expert. I agreed. Carlson did, as in their 1D. My point here is you can win in different ways. You obviously still want to be defensively proficient, but you don’t have to be like the 2012 LA Kings, who allowed just 1.5 goals per game on their way to the Stanley Cup.
Things are settled now after being involved in two games with a total of 23 goals scored in the state of Florida earlier this week, Leafs are second in terms of goals scored in the NHL (and still one of the best teams in that state in the last 25 years), and 18M Goals against the NHL. (Panthers 14 peopleM Goal against, Lightning ninth.)
Apparently 18M Not good, but it’s a number consistent with the Penguin and Capitol team that owns the rings with one big difference: I mentioned that the pens and caps were 22.nd And 28M Inside Expected Goals against that year, well, Leafs seventh-best in that division. Their actual defense was not as bad as their defensive results.
What a team like Toronto Maple Leafs needs is not to change their style of play like the Kings did a decade ago. They just need some ever-loving savingsThe Penguins, for example, got a .929 playoff save percentage in 2017 with Mark-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. The Caps even got .912 from their goaltending in the playoffs, which I think Leafs will resolve now.
My conclusion about the Leafs is quite simple: they are legitimate, and not made in any way that prohibits them from winning the post-season, as evidenced by recent history. In the last three weeks they have suffered losses to all their major competitors, Tampa Bay, Boston, Carolina and Florida. They are in a combination of teams who need some good luck at the right time, although this is not certain for anyone.
When I look at Leaf right now and evaluate “can you win by playing that way” (with offense as a force), one problem for me remains that they can clear.
This season (and over the years) Leifs plans to play defensively in the other team’s zone. “The best defense is a good offense,” and so on. Leafs have good twist moving d, they break out twists, and they play on the right end of the rink. This has led them to more favorable defensive stats (such as expected goals against), but also zone time. According to SportLogiq, only one team in the league gives their opponents less minutes to splurge towards their end than the leaf. You can see here, as well as a bunch of other decent Leafs defensive stats:
The problem that needs to be cleared up, or at least a red flag for Leaf, is that the possession advantage they have created is that they dry up something against the best team of the season and then they are left to defend further. You can see that they have graded well in contrast to the probability of the cycle, but this is mainly because they are not high in their own area.
Looking at this division, here are Toronto’s last five games against potential first-round opponents over the past few weeks:
Possibility of cycle at equal power:
TOR 5 – FLA 12
Gate 4 – TB9
TOR 9 – BOS 9
TOR 4 – FLA 6
TOR 4 – CAR 7
Lifs’ defensive stats are generally decent, and yes, part of it because they break the puck well and play at the right end of the rink. But that part is harder against the best teams in the NHL (and perhaps first-round opponents) and so it puts more pressure on their actual in-zone defense, where questions remain. What might help in this section, again, is to get a few more savings. Against Florida, many losing games along the walls ended in goals.
I understand why people look at the leaflets and question whether their style is “playoff hockey” or not, and I think you can fairly conclude that the consensus doesn’t believe in “playoff hockey”. They do not protect as a priority, or they are not physically as mental.
But teams like Leafs have won the Stanley Cup before – crime teams as their main weapon – and a big part of it clearly depends on: you have to go goaltending. If the Leafs get it, you can argue with their defensive metrics that they want to look as awesome as some very good playoff team who have done it.
Yes, Leifs lost a tough match against the Panthers on Tuesday, but getting a point at the back-to-back tail end of the road against a resting opponent who got a shot at the President’s Trophy is not a matter of terrible consequences. (I believe I mentioned goaltending?) Considering their recent game, there is good reason to believe that it is a Lifes team who did make-up to win the post-season, even if they did not agree. ‘Shape is supposed to be the “playoff prototype”.