Toronto Maple Leafs playoff autopsy: Part 1 – Speed

For me, the main thing was speed.

Getting the puck out of the zone with possession and getting the puck out of the zone with possession quickly are probably two different things, unfortunately my spreadsheet is ill-equipped to tell how quickly a team goes from touching the puck for the first time in their own end to getting the puck out of the zone, but I can try.

For one thing, when I record the timestamp of a play, I usually record the timestamp when a play was completed, not when it began. If Justin Holl recovers a rebound with 5:00 to go on the clock, say, and carries it behind his own net and waits for a forechecker to exit the zone and completes a pass to Jake McCabe at 4:50, I log a completed pass with 4:50 left on the clock. This is just a habit I’ve picked on for years, and the way I saw the playoffs break down make it clear that it’s insufficient to record what it is I’m actually looking for.

But, still, I can use my data tracking to come up with a bit of an approximation for team speed and how quickly both teams moved the puck out of the zone.

If you’ve been following this blog over the course of the playoffs, you’d know that the Leafs didn’t have the same problems exiting the zone against the Panthers as they did against the Lightning. I’ll re-iterate that here: the Leafs broke out with possession very well in this series, especially compared to their opposition:

Exit Ctrl% (D)Exit Ctrl% (F)Entries/60
Do I ever hate how these tables look?

The exit differential shows up in the entry attempts for either team as well: the Leafs attempted 110 entries per 60 minutes while the Panthers attempted just 91. The Leafs controlled the flow of the game through the neutral zone in every game of the series.

However, clearly, that wasn’t enough, since these numbers would suggest that the Leafs dominated in terms of offensive zone time, and shot and chance differential. All of those numbers were much more even:

OZ time/60Shots/60Chances/60

The Leafs were a little better in chances, but not by enough for me to say that they got goalied in this series by any stretch. This was no doubt a very close series and the Leafs deserved maybe a little better because they lost three one-goal games, but at 5-on-5, they didn’t do as well as I expected they might with a bit more open ice.

Finally, let’s look at the zone entries. The Leafs had a pretty wide margin when it came to entry attempts, but how did the quality of their entries compare to Florida’s? I’m going to look at three stats here: controlled entry percentage, scoring chances per controlled zone entry, and rush and transition chances per 60 minutes (which effectively equals chances within six seconds of a controlled entry per 60):

% of entries
with Ctrl
/Ctrl Entry

That’s actually… not bad? The Leafs and Panthers were just about equal in terms of chances per controlled entry, generally getting one every 4 entries. In the regular season, that number pushed between 0.35 and 0.40, but Florida defended really well this series. Also, despite the Leafs holding a wide edge in zone entries (as well as controlled entries), rush and transition chances per 60 were pretty equal as well. The Leafs had 33 in the series, and the Panthers had 31. The Leafs also ever so slightly out-scored Florida within six seconds of a controlled entry at 5-on-5, 5-4.

But, given the room out there, I think Toronto left some goals on the table, and I think speed is the reason why. Let’s take a look.

First, let’s break down two overtime winners for the Panthers in the series. First, we’ll go to Game 5, and Radko Gudas broke up Noel Acciari’s centering pass to Timothy Liljegren. You can see that there’s 4:38 on the clock when Gudas first touches the puck:

Since Gudas is credited with an exit pass with no intervening Panthers touching the puck, I didn’t record anything between the pass breakup and the exit. But, it’s 4 seconds, and the Panthers skate out with three Leafs caught below the puck:

Let’s go to the Game 3 Overtime winner now. After Matthews dumped the puck in at 17:16, Aaron Ekblad went for it, and first touched it at 17:13:

Ekblad did what he did best in this series… he got rid of the puck as soon as it hit his stick. I don’t know at what point the puck actually left the zone, but at 17:11, just two seconds later, Ekblad has sufficiently yeeted this puck out of the zone and into the waiting right hand (perhaps unintentionally) of Sam Reinhart:

No Leafs were caught in the zone here to defend a rush, but there was lots of space in the neutral zone for Reinhart to hang onto the puck and make a play.

The way I track, as mentioned, makes it impossible for me to show just how quick these exits happen, particularly since I’m not working in half seconds, but I have a few worthy bits of information here for the masses.

Speedier exits are better

First off, let’s prove that exiting the zone with speed leads to better outcomes. This is due to the fact that if you exit the zone fast, your opponent runs the risk of having players caught in the zone below the puck.

I’ve grouped all entries (preceded by a zone exit by a player on the same team) into two types: those that came after a ‘fast exit’ (defined as 3 seconds or less from first recorded touch) or a ‘slow exit’ (4 or more seconds). Again, this is crude, since I’m not dealing in half seconds or actual time of offensive zone turnovers and puck touches, but this will be quite instructive:

Entry Ctrl%Chances/Entry
Entries after faster exits41%0.27
Entries after slower exits36%0.14

There’s a pretty big difference here! A chance in 5 percentage points following a faster exit is not only a pretty significant increase, but both the Leafs and Panthers were twice as likely to generate a scoring chance following an entry that was preceded by a faster zone exit!

We’ve obviously identified reasons why this would be the case, and I think a big problem with the Leafs was that they weren’t generating enough of these entries. Let’s see.

The Panthers were faster than the Leafs

We can show this in a couple of ways.

For one, 84% of the Panthers controlled entries (following a zone exit by the same team) were preceding a faster exit than a slower one, compared to just 66% of Leafs exits.

More importantly, we can look and see how long it took both teams to exit the zone following their first recorded touch. Again, this doesn’t factor in the time between the time the defensive team first touched the puck and exited the zone, but the first completed pass on first touch:

# of passes
before exit
Avg # of seconds
before exit

The Leafs were nearly a second slower on exits, on average, than the Panthers were, and had an extra pass before about one third of their exits.

56% of controlled exits by Panthers D came on the first touch of the sequence, compared to just 29% for the Leafs. 47% of controlled exits by Panthers F came on the first touch, compared to 37% of Leaf forwards.

That’s a little granular and esoteric I admit, but I think it had a big impact on this series.

Who were the fastest Panthers and slowest Leafs?

I’m going to focus on the forwards here, since the bulk of Panthers zone exits came from their forwards and it provides a better comparison.

There were 17 forwards in the series who recorded at least 15 zone exits (in any fashion): 9 Panthers and 8 Leafs. Let’s take a look and stack them up by fastest to slowest, shall we?

The Panthers not only had the top four fastest forwards when it came to getting the puck and hustling it forward, but the two slowest players in the series are two players that were supposed to provide some speed for David Kampf’s wing, in Acciari and Kerfoot. Neither did, meaning they were rarely in situations where they were blowing the zone and ready to move.

All in all, I think it’s pretty clear that the Leafs were a little too slow in moving the puck out.

Goodhart’s Law and where this takes us

Goodhart’s Law, named for British economist Charles Goodhart, is a very important concept for anybody working in sport analytics or anything requiring statistics:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Anybody working in hockey analytics who has lost focus on how to score more goals and allow fewer will go down the wrong path, and I think it’s a good requirement in situations like this to take stock of what exactly I want to find.

For years, a big aspect of my own team and player evaluation at 5-on-5 involved zone exits and entry differential, but in such a situation, it’s clear that those two stats on their own aren’t sufficient to tell the story over the course of an entire playoff series. While the Leafs are strong in breaking out with possession (and were all year), it’s possible that their desire to hang onto the puck at all costs does cost the team goals in the future and limits the team’s chances to attack with speed.

It’s on me, as an analyst, to more accurately capture things like speed and levels of danger when a team breaks out of the zone, or even touches the puck in the offensive zone. Whatever happened, either the Leafs were too passive in the OZ and allowed Florida to move quickly, or the Leafs weren’t moving quickly enough in their own end (or Florida simply managed the puck better on the offensive side of the ice) is difficult for me to put together with the limited data I have. But I also can’t sit back here and suggest that because the Leafs possessed the puck a lot on exits, they earned this series win or even deserved better.

Watching this series, it seemed like the Leafs were too content to play slowly and methodically, and while they did have some rushes in Games 4 and 5 that picked apart a weak Panthers blueline, the Leafs were a better team when they played faster, something they didn’t do often enough.

I’ll break down more aspects of this series and give the full playoffs and season an autopsy as the week goes along, and we’ll see where it takes us.

Programming note: for those of you who purchased subscriptions, I appreciate it a lot, but I would advise you to cancel those subscriptions. If you’re interested in supporting this work financially, there’s still a donation form at the bottom of the “About” page, but I have no interest in continuing to stress myself out by getting timely, valuable information out to a hundred or so subscribers rather than writing at my own pace. I appreciate those that subscribed and kept me going throughout the year, but I will no longer post any subscriber-only content, instead focusing on nuanced, balanced analysis of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.

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