20 in the books: Is it sustainable?

Photo: Associated Press

The looming question mark below the surface of a good first 20 games (12-8-0) in the 2013 Leafs season is the fact that the Buds have been pretty consistently outshot (30.8 SA/G, 22nd in the league, versus 28.3 SF/G).

Now, teams that play good enough team defence, control the main areas of the ice consistently enough and get solid enough goaltending can manage to make the playoffs despite losing the shots battle. Ottawa made the playoffs last season despite allowing the second most shots in the league per game; Phoenix was third last in the regular season, made the playoffs easily and went to the Conference Finals; Nashville allowed over three more shots against than for on average, and Florida and Washington were the other two teams to allow more shots than they produced while still making the playoffs. 5 of 16 playoff teams total. I’d say there were elements of good luck, good coaching and good goaltending at play to varying degrees with those teams.

The big question of whether or not the Leafs’ play over 20 games is sustainable over 48 comes down to which of those is playing the biggest role(s). The Leafs have the most wins of any team while getting outshot with 9. The best team in the league by a big margin last season when it came to winning while getting outshot was Nashville, with 32 wins out of their 48 coming while outshot. That’s quite something, and a testament to the league’s best goaltender in Pekka Rinne and a system under Barry Trotz that seems to suppress shot quality. But that’s only 66% of their wins. 75% of Leaf wins have come while getting outshot this season, and I don’t think the Leafs have a Pekka Rinne or the equivalent of Suter-Weber on the backend. This 75% number is almost, though thankfully not quite, reminiscent of the 2010-11 Minnesota team that won 36 of its 39 games while getting outshot, and that Wild team ultimately fell short of the playoffs.

So we can expect the Leafs to slow down if the pattern of getting outshot continues, unless, after looking through all the numbers dating back to 1998-99 on NHL.com, the Leafs are going to do something historically unprecedented. If they can improve in the shots battle (plausible with Lupul and Frattin returning fairly soon), and just how drastically they would slow down otherwise, are the big questions. Consider this – In Carlyle’s last full season in Anaheim (2010-11), his team was outshot in 68% of its wins and Anaheim wound up with 47 wins that season. Last season, Phoenix (60% of wins) and Ottawa (59%), like Nashville, won the majority of their games while getting outshot. Is it possible Carlyle’s system of team defense is on a level with Trotz, Tippett, or increasingly entering the conversation – Paul McLean? And can the Leafs continue to get the consistently good goaltending these teams received last season?

Carlyle has pieced together a lineup, scratching veterans in the process, that fits his system and it seems to be working. To me, good goaltending is a big part but isn’t a sufficient explanation on its own when you consider, while a year older and more experienced, both Scrivens and Reimer have been equally fantastic, and Scrivens seemed to pick up right where Reimer left off. I’ve noticed the Leafs D is doing a better job at clearing the crease and this is helping to provide their goalies better views at the puck while allowing fewer second chance opportunities. Watching Scrivens in particular, he’s definitely more confident, aggressive and on point when it comes to his first save… but I’m not sure he’s kicking out any fewer bad rebounds, and he seems to be getting more help in getting them cleared out of danger. While the merits of this argument have been challenged statistically, observationally I think the Leafs are allowing fewer high quality scoring chances, as well; better support play, less of the complete breakdowns and horrifying giveaways that leave the goalie out to dry. What I think – and hope – is happening here is this: Carlyle has his Leafs playing his system well, helped by some surprising defensive depth players that were developed and coached in a similar system under Dallas Eakins, and it’s helping to put the goaltenders, who are responding admirably to the opportunity and the competitive environment, in a better position to succeed.

The Leafs have 24 points at the 20 game mark and will need 30 more over their final 28 to make the playoffs. It’s certainly a good start, but these indicators suggest the Leafs can’t take the early success as a suggestion that what they’ve been doing is definitely good enough, or that improvement isn’t needed as we go along. I suppose, though, if there’s ever a season to buck the odds, this one’s it.