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Despite recent struggles, Maple Leafs' process showing improvement

·Hockey writer
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Looking at their most recent results, it might seem like the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t made any changes in the middle of the season.

But, as everyone around the hockey world was made aware of, the team fired Mike Babcock and replaced him with highly-reputable rookie head coach Sheldon Keefe.

Since making the switch on Nov. 20, the Leafs are 4-3-0 with their new man behind the bench — a pace that would likely keep them out of the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.

Even if it’s a slight improvement on where the team was heading under Babcock, Leafs fans would surely expect more from Keefe, a coach that was heralded as someone with the potential to unlock Toronto’s offence.

Throughout their time together with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the Toronto Marlies, Keefe and Leafs GM Kyle Dubas were able to preach a style of play that kept possession on their side. And after promoting Keefe to the big club, it looks like the two have been able to convince the Maple Leafs brass to buy into the same ideal.

With this total acceptance throughout the organization, there was reason to be excited about the new-look Leafs, even though they hadn’t made many on-ice personnel changes.

Fast forward to seven games into Keefe’s reign, and the team is still facing harsh criticism.

In reality, those contests have been fairly close and were dependent on a couple of misplays or late-game collapses. Most recently, the Colorado Avalanche was able to squeak by with a 3-1 win with an empty net goal, and that came one night after the Philadelphia Flyers scored four goals in the final five minutes of a 6-1 over the Leafs.

Despite the two losses on back-to-back nights, Toronto entered the final 10 minutes of play with just a 2-1 deficit in both of those games. With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine that some of those scores will eventually turn in the Leafs’ favour.

Especially when you consider how they’ve been able to play under Keefe, a style of play that could spell out sustainable victories in the future.

all stats at 5v5
all data at 5v5/via NaturalStatTrick

In most metrics used to determine a team’s predictable success — expected goals and shot attempts are just a sample — the Leafs vastly improved under Keefe and sit among the top teams in the NHL.

Even if the Leafs led the league in shot-attempt rate and had a higher shot-attempt share under Babcock, they were nowhere close to getting a consistent quality with those attempts. Their expected goal rate was close to the bottom, and considering the talent they were able to put on the ice, it should have been in the upper tier.

The systems changed and so did the underlying results. More quality chances led to more expected goals, but the team did not have to sacrifice quantity for quality as the rate of shot attempts for the Leafs increased under Keefe.

This is especially true when it comes to attempts in the high-danger area, close to the opposing goal.

all stats at 5v5
all stats at 5v5/via NaturalStatTrick

An increase of almost two high-danger shot attempts per hour launches Toronto into the top-10 since Keefe took over as head coach. Getting shots off in areas that are more likely to turn into goals should lead to more goals — eventually.

But for now, the Leafs’ shooting percentage in those areas has sunk into something that is just plainly not sustainable. There is no viable way to see Toronto continuing to have only a 12.28 per cent of their high-danger shots end up in the back of the net.

Considering that teams like the Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators are just a couple percentage points away from the Leafs in this metric, Toronto is bound to bounce back.

The puck luck just isn’t on their side right now, but that should change by season’s end and the mass hysteria caused by just some fluke goals will subside.

Yahoo NHL Cup
Yahoo NHL Cup

The main takeaway should be Keefe’s relatively small sample size behind the Leafs bench. Even if seven games is enough to get a sense of how this team will perform, judging individual players on such a small stint with a new coach is hard to justify.

Take Auston Matthews, for example. When he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, the Leafs are having only 4.69 per cent of their shots end up in the back of the net — teams throughout the league have accumulated a 7.93 shooting percentage since Toronto’s coaching change.

To get a sense of how many pucks usually go in while he’s on the ice, Matthews averaged a 9.69 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 from his rookie season up until the end of last season.

The Leafs are trending in a positive direction, which is mainly because of their stylistic change, but they’re just not scoring as much as Toronto fans would like to see.

It might be hard to be patient after such a horrid start to the season, but under Keefe, this team is playing much better. The shooting percentages should return to normal and the Leafs will eventually win more games because of it.

Now, when those wins occur in the season could warrant some more concern, but with 52 games remaining on their schedule, there is more than enough time for the team’s results to normalize and end up where they should rightfully be.

I’m sorry to disappoint you if you’re looking to panic about the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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