Despite their long history, the league's largest fan base, a lot of money and access to the best hockey minds in the sport, the Toronto Maple Leafs are about to miss the postseason for the seventh consecutive time -- the league's longest active futility streak (assuming the Florida Panthers hang on). What gives?
Practically everyone has a theory about the cause of Toronto's struggles. Media pressure, a culture of defeat, poor front-office management, terrible coaching, underachieving on-ice play, even perhaps a touch of really bad luck -- the reasons are as numerous as the losses themselves. There have been countless articles and even entire books devoted to the subject, but do the numbers fit the narratives? The analytic take is that the team has suffered from mediocre goaltending, which is a big no-no for a team that invests in physicality instead of puck possession and strong defensive play.
Leaks Between the Pipes
Goaltending keeps coming up as one of the chief culprits, as Toronto has routinely found itself among the basement dwellers in save percentage. Since the 2005 lockout, the Maple Leafs have tried 14 goalies, and the best of the bunch is league-average James Reimer at .912. In fact, no other goalie beats Jean-Sebastien Giguere's .906, and just three more even topped .900 (Jonas Gustavsson and part-timers Ben Scrivens and Martin Gerber).
Is their goaltending really that bad? Bad enough to drag an otherwise competitive team out of the playoffs? After all, even statistics as reliable as save percentage can be skewed by such things as score effects, poor special-teams play, the way scorekeepers record shots and even the defensive system behind which they play. But yes -- famed hockey analytics specialist Michael Schuckers of St. Lawrence University recently developed Defense Independent Goalie Ratings (DIGR), which seeks to remove these influences from consideration, and still concluded that Toronto's goaltending has been significantly below average.
That isn't to say that the Maple Leafs' goaltending is entirely to blame for their failure to qualify for the postseason. After all, many of their goalies enjoyed more success elsewhere, much like Giguere in Colorado this season. Certain coaching systems, like Ken Hitchcock's, can either inflate or deflate save percentages, and Toronto's has clearly been in the latter category for quite some time. Since the lockout season, all six goalies who have played at least 20 games both for the Maple Leafs and for other teams have stopped far fewer shots while playing in Toronto. Simply put, playing as a Maple Leaf can shave 5-10 points off your save percentage.
Post-Lockout Save Percentages
Minimum 20 GP, both situations
Goalie Leaf Non-Leaf
J.S. Giguere .906 .914
Mikael Tellqvist .895 .899
Vesa Toskala .894 .905
Ed Belfour .892 .902
Andrew Raycroft .890 .895
Curtis Joseph .869 .898
While the Maple Leafs have clearly opted for below-average goalies, with the possible exception of Giguere and maybe Reimer, it clearly hasn't been their only problem, nor necessarily even their biggest problem. After all, by definition there are only so many above-average goalies in the league, and lots of teams find ways to be successful in their absence. Great puck- possession teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks can get by with below-average goaltending, but not Toronto, which will finish in the bottom six of close-game shot-based puck-possession rankings for the second season in a row.
A great defensive team can succeed with weak goaltending and poor puck possession, but the Maple Leafs are so bad defensively that their 24th-ranked penalty-killing team in 2005-06 is actually the best they've recently had, and they're about to finish in the bottom three for the fifth consecutive season. When your key go-to shutdown defensemen are rookies like Keith Aulie last year and journeymen like Carl Gunnarson this year, you can't expect to compensate for poor puck possession and inadequate goaltending.
Even up-front teams like the Vancouver Canucks can successfully protect weaker defensive players with elite defensive talent like Ryan Kesler and Manny Malhotra, but when you've had the likes of Colby Armstrong, Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb, Fredrik Sjostrom and Wayne Primeau hopping the boards to shelter Phil Kessel's ice time, you're going to need far better goaltending.
Follow the Money
If the Leafs have so much money, and they haven't been spending it on elite goaltending, puck movers or defensive wizards, where has it all been going?
Unfortunately, they've chosen to favor physicality over these other attributes, which once you get past a certain toughness threshold has a strong negative correlation with puck possession, as Iain Fyffe studied in Hockey Prospectus 2011-12.
Regardless of where their money has been spent, Toronto hasn't been getting enough bang for the buck. Hockey's 3-1-1 rule states that you should get roughly three goals of value and one point in the standings for every $1 million you spend, but of the 32 players in whom Toronto's invested most since the lockout, just 10 have done so.
The hopeful sign is that recent pickups Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul are among them.
Bang for the buck?
Minimum $10 million total cap space invested
Player $Millions GVT GVS
Tomas Kaberle $22.3M 57.6 -0.7
Mats Sundin $19.9M 50.7 -4.6
Phil Kessel $16.2M 38.6 -5.5
Dion Phaneuf $15.1M 20.3 -21.5
Pavel Kubina $15.0M 24.4 -16.1
Bryan McCabe $15.0M 34.1 -6.3
Mike Komisarek $13.5M 0.3 -35.7
Luke Schenn $12.5M 17.6 -14.0
Jason Blake $10.7M 23.4 -4.8
Darcy Tucker $10.2M 16.7 -9.4
$Millions: Total cap space invested since the lock-out, in millions
GVT: Goals of value provided since the lock-out, above replacement-level
GVS: Goals of value provided relative to cost, above league minimum
Two things stand out when studying the list of players in whom Toronto has invested at least $10 million of cap space since the lockout -- the complete absence of overachievers, and the four overpriced defensemen, who together have cost them about 87 goals for the dollar. Toronto's been paying a premium for every goal scored or prevented, while true playoff teams find players who provide discount value for the dollar.
Bottom Line for the Buds
There are many different ways to succeed in today's NHL, but if you're not a puck-possession team and you let your opponents control the play, then you need elite goaltending to be successful -- just ask the Nashville Predators.
Of course, elite goalies don't grow on trees (except in Finland), so to be successful with more mediocre netminding, a team needs to invest in strong defensive play instead of physicality. The bottom line is this: If Toronto shifts investments to good puck-possession players who can effectively play the tough minutes -- at even strength but especially when short a man -- the Maple Leafs will again play hockey in May, for years to come.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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