To many in the advanced hockey stats community, the success of the Toronto Maple Leafs last season was a fluke. Their Fenwick Close, measuring the percentage of shots they attempted in games when the outcome was not yet clear, placed the Leafs ahead of only Buffalo, as they were the authors of a paltry 44.0 percent of shots in those situations. Only one of the top 12 teams in that metric did not make the playoffs, while only three of the bottom 10 did, and none of those made it past the first round.
Through 35 games in the 2013-14 season, the Leafs are actually worse. They are still the No. 29 team in Fenwick Close, still ahead of only Buffalo, but have lost nearly a full percentage point on the shot counter. Their result last season can be largely attributed to shot outcomes, as the team scored on an inordinately high number of their own (an NHL high of 11.5 percent success rate across all situations) while finishing seventh in the league with a team save percentage of 91.7 percent. The resultant PDO of 103.2 (a summation of those two figures) was the best in the league.
This season, thanks to a strong early-season run, their team-wide PDO is still among the league leaders, currently tied for sixth, at 102.1, attributable to above-average shooting and stellar goaltending. And just like last season, the Maple Leafs are simply horrible at puck possession. In spite of it all, Toronto still clings to a playoff spot, even though it has only one regulation win in its past 14 games.
Although it would be tempting to throw in the towel and push the team to angle for a better position in the upcoming draft, the weak state of the Eastern Conference strongly suggests that this season should be salvaged. Furthermore, the squad has also shown some recent signs of life, including a phenomenal 7-3 victory over the Blackhawks. That game, in which only one of their seven goals came from their vaunted first line, deftly illustrates the first thing the Leafs need to improve upon to re-consolidate their position as a playoff team.
Let's run through three changes that can get Toronto into the ranks of the contenders: