The Maple Leafs’ up-and-down season is putting Toronto in danger of being denied one of its proudest and longest annual traditions:
Dating back to ancient times (well, 2012), the Maple Leafs have done a remarkable job of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. You have to be up to go down, which is something the Leafs know all about: In 2011-12, Toronto missed the playoffs by going 5-17-3 in their last 25 games after a 28-19-6 start.
The following year, they blew a 4-1 lead in the third period in Game 7 of their first round series against Boston.
Toronto truly outdid itself in 2013-14, though, with a 2-12-0 run in its final 14 games to blow an almost-certain postseason berth. As groundbreaking as the display was, to an extent that collapse was loudly prophesied — and not just because of what the hockey world saw the previous two years.
Throughout the campaign the analytics community argued the Leafs weren’t nearly as good as their record suggested. During the season it appeared Toronto was largely dismissing naysayers, but after suspicions were confirmed in dramatic fashion, a chain reaction started that led to a shift in the organization’s philosophy.
Leafs president Brendan Shanahan opened his door to the analytics community when he hired 28-year-old Kyle Dubas in July to serve as assistant general manager. Dubas is known as a strong proponent of advanced statistics, but he’s far from the only new voice within the organization. The team has a new department focused on analytics that includes Darryl Metcalfe, who created the once popular source for advanced statistics, Extraskater.com.
Those hires are big steps from where Toronto was just a few years ago when then Leafs GM Brian Burke said that he didn’t believe advanced statistics added “any value at all.”
But what have all these hires amounted to?
That remains to be seen as it can sometimes take years to feel the full impact of a front office shift, especially when the general manager, in this case Dave Nonis, wasn’t replaced in the shakeup. Toronto certainly hasn’t become a master of puck possession overnight. Although the Maple Leafs have a narrow hold on a playoff spot at the moment, by certain measurements they aren’t likely to clinch a postseason berth, as a recent Toronto Star article noted.
Perhaps Dubas can help the Maple Leafs craft a team that will be viewed as the darlings of the analytics community. Maybe that team won’t be quite so prone to falling apart.
Then again, traditions can be hard to break.