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May 2, 2013
Howe and Why
Maple Leafs Lucky To Be In Playoffs

by Robert Vollman and ESPN Insider

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We all knew when the lockout-shortened, 48-game 2013 NHL season began that some borderline team would qualify for the postseason by going on a hot streak it would have had difficulty sustaining over a full 82-game campaign. We just didn't know which team it would be. As it turns out, it looks as if that team is the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There are objective ways to identify which teams fought their way up the standings with improved play and which ones rode the wings of good fortune. Hockey is a game of tremendous skill, but luck can have an almost equal bearing on the actual outcomes, even over an entire 82-game schedule.

It normally takes 73 games for the impact of a team's skill to exceed the impact luck can have on the standings, according to a January study by Phil Birnbaum. And even if postseason play is ignored, luck still accounts for 38 percent of the final standings over an 82-game schedule, according to a 2010 study by Gabriel Desjardins.

Even in an 82-game schedule, there are usually still a couple of teams that stay hot just long enough to slip past superior teams and qualify for the playoffs, a feat that becomes far easier in a season that ends after just 48 games. In contrast, some talented teams that slump -- or start clicking too late -- suffer from a shortened schedule.

Because some teams have made sustainable improvements or drop-offs, identifying the teams helped or hurt by the truncated schedule isn't as simple as figuring out which have made the highest climb or lowest drop in the standings but rather is a matter of finding out which made those moves based on the greatest disparities in terms of shots on goal/shooting percentage, puck possession and save percentage.

Here's a look at the team that benefited most and the team that suffered most from the shortened, 48-game schedule.

Most benefited: Toronto Maple Leafs

For years, Toronto's fans felt that the gods of fortune had abandoned them, but it was those same gods who finally ended the league's longest active playoff drought. The Leafs finished the season with 57 points and a comfortable No. 5 seed despite getting outshot 1,543 to 1,264.

Ignoring special-teams play and lead-protecting situations, the Maple Leafs had possession of the puck this season just 43.9 percent of the time, the second-lowest percentage in the league, higher than only the Buffalo Sabres. The Leafs started just 26.8 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone, lowest in the league, and 35.5 percent in the defensive zone, second-highest to only the Nashville Predators.

The Leafs spent so much time in their own zone that only carefully sheltered enforcers Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr started more shifts in the offensive zone than the defensive zone this season. There is not a single Maple Leaf with whom Toronto has attempted more shots than their opponents did this season. The closest is Jake Gardiner, with whom the Leafs have been outplayed by only 1.2 attempted shots per 60 minutes. With star Nazem Kadri, they were outplayed by 4.8 attempted shots per 60 minutes, Phil Kessel, by 8.2 and captain Dion Phaneuf by a whopping 18.5.

How did the Leafs make the playoffs? Usually when a team wins despite getting badly outshot and outplayed, it was riding the percentages, and that's certainly the case in Toronto. The percentages, of course, refer to shooting and save percentages, both of which were way up.

The team save percentage was .921, up from .900 the season before and the Leafs' highest team total since save percentage was first recorded. In fact, Toronto's team save percentage was below .900 in five of the six previous seasons. Even with a .900 save percentage, the Leafs would have allowed 165 goals against this season, second most in the league, instead of the 133 they actually yielded.

Similarly, Toronto's team shooting percentage was 11.5 percent, up from a six-season high of 9.8 percent and the Leafs' highest since the 1998-99 season. Even with that generous 9.8 percent high-water mark, the Leafs still would have scored only 124 goals instead of 145. Put those two stats together and the Leafs would go from a goal differential of plus-12 to minus-41, a 53-goal swing that translates to almost 18 points in the standings. That would put them in the very heart of the draft lottery.

Granted, when a team has a sudden rise in save and shooting percentages, not all of that is thanks to luck. There is often a skill component that will persist into the next season, one that is computed to be about 33 percent if it continued over an 82-game schedule, according to a 2010 study by Tom Awad.

Toronto is hardly the first team to take large statistical leaps, but, in the absence of a meaningful explanation for a team's dramatic change in fortunes, those leaps have never proved sustainable. The chances are that, in a full season -- even with a hot start -- the Leafs would have slid out of the playoff picture long before the final game of the season.

Other lucky teams: To a lesser extent, the Minnesota Wild and Washington Capitals also rode luck into the postseason, and the Anaheim Ducks were boosted from bubble team to top seed.

Most negatively affected: New Jersey Devils

While the sun shone on the Maple Leafs, it placed the Devils in a dark and lasting shadow. Although the failure of last year's Stanley Cup finalists to replace Zach Parise is certainly responsible for a slight decline, the Devils were still good enough to contend this season. Unfortunately, they finished with just 48 points, tied with the Sabres and well out of playoff range.

In contrast to the Maple Leafs, the Devils started just 27.7 percent of their shifts in the defensive zone, the second-lowest rate in the league, and had the puck 55.2 percent of the time (excluding special-teams and lead-protecting play), the third-highest rate in the league after the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings. Only two Devils were outshot while on the ice at even strength; when Bryce Salvador was on the ice, New Jersey was outplayed by 1.4 attempted shots per 60 minutes, and the number was 0.6 for Jacob Josefson.

In total, the Devils outshot their opponents 1,362 to 1,105 this season, but they were outscored 129 to 112. Using last season's shooting percentages, the Devils would have outscored opponents 131 to 110 this season. This new plus-21 goal differential represents a 38-goal swing over the Devils' actual minus-17 goal differential this campaign, which works out to an approximated 13-point swing in the standings. That kind of improvement would boost them to a comfortable 61 points and sixth place overall.

What went wrong in New Jersey? Once again, it was the percentages. The Devils' troubled goaltending had a combined save percentage of just .894, down from .911 the previous season. You would have to go all the way back to the season before Martin Brodeur's debut to find a New Jersey team with a lower save percentage. In 1992-93, Craig Billington and Chris Terreri combined for an .881 save percentage, but, fortunately for the Devils, the team scored on 11.1 percent of its shots and made the postseason.

The 2012-13 edition of the Devils scored on just 8.1 percent of shots, down from 9.6 percent in 2011-12. Ilya Kovalchuk scored on just 8.9 percent of his shots, the lowest of his career by a wide margin (his career shooting percentage is 14.1).

As usual, the Devils were a streaky team, and this time they didn't have the benefit of an 82-game schedule to even out. They went on a bizarre losing skid starting with a shootout loss to Ottawa on March 25, and their next win didn't come until April 18, after 10 straight losses. Plus, they had another six-game losing skid from February to March.

These types of slumps are dangerous in an 82-game schedule, and they're absolutely terminal in a 48-game campaign. Despite their slow start, the Devils likely could have used the final 34 games to fight their way back into playoff position.

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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