Who Were The Most Improved Toronto Maple Leafs?

Toronto Maple Leafs

Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs increased their production this year – here is how they did it.

Toronto Maple Leafs fans are notoriously susceptible to narrative swings – one minute Kapanen is the new fan favorite, and a trade untouchable – the next he’s the cause of Auston Matthews‘ frustration and an irrelevant RFA. As such, it’s helpful to do a more detailed breakdown of the most improved, how they improved, and what to expect moving forward. While these players have made strides and important contributions this year, the impact of their teammates is a key factor in evaluating their point production.

Improvements In Per 60 Metrics

The above chart illustrates improvements in selected metrics at 5v5 – Points per 60, Goals per 60, and Assists per 60 – during the 2018-2019 season. Each dot represents an NHL player with at least 20 GP – players to the right of 0 improved on that metric, while players to the left saw a decline in that metric.

As we’ve already noted, Marner, Kapanen, and Rielly saw the largest increase in P/60 production, with each scoring roughly 1 point more game in comparison to last year. You’ll also note that these are some of the more impressive improvements in the league, with relatively few dots lying to the right of our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.

Rielly saw the largest G/60 improvement amongst the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s probably not a surprise to those of us who watched him score virtually every shot he took through December onwards.

Marner and Kapanen saw slight G/60 improvements, but both had large increases in A/60.

So, how exactly did these players improve their 5v5 numbers?

It’s possible they produced more chances, or they could have converted chances at a higher rate than the last year, resulting in more points. Let’s take a look by player:

Mitch Marner

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With contract negotiations ongoing, Marner’s surge in production due to playing with John Tavares is an oft-cited reason to pay him less money. I am going to avoid arguing with myself about Marner’s contract for now, but I will take a look at Marner’s line combinations during the past two seasons:

As the above graphic shows, in 2017-18, Marner split time with Patrick Marleau/Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk (JVR)/Tyler Bozak before playing the entirety of last year with Zach Hyman/John Tavares. Also evident is the slight bump in Expected Goals, which is the number of Expected Goals the line contributed while on the ice. Using this as a proxy for generating offense, Marner’s line did produce more chances this year – and this would result in between 0.3 – 0.6 goals per 60 for the line, independent of shooting percentage.

Marner’s On Ice Shooting Percentage

Next, we’ll look at on ice shooting percentage. We see another difference here – particularly with the JVR/Bozak line which shot 6.8% that year compared to 10.8% for Tavares/Hyman this year. This contributed to an extra 1.21 G/60 when you compare the totals from both seasons. In addition, it seems most likely that the increase in shooting percentage is the main driver of Marner’s improvement this year. It’s up for debate whether or not Marner has a roll in the increase in shooting percentage via creating better scoring chances, however this should manifest in the Expected Goals figures and a more detailed argument of this fact is beyond the scope of this blog post.

Kasperi Kapanen

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In the 2017-18 season, Kapanen had a pretty limited role, playing 38 games and averaging 11:15 minutes in average ice time. During those minutes, he played mostly with Leo Komarov and Dominic Moore – not exactly an offensive juggernaut. That line wasn’t actually terrible at creating chances according to expected goals. But, Kapanen did see a slight increase in expected goals on all the lines he played on in 2018-19. The Auston Matthews/Andreas Johnsson line was particularly good, and the other combinations could raise questions about Marleau’s impact. So similar to Marner, a change in role for Kapanen resulted in a slight bump in the chances created while on the ice.

Kapanen’s On Ice Shooting Percentage

As with Kapanen, what is likely the more important driver is the switch from Leo Komarov/Moore, who lacked almost any shooting talent with a 4.8 shooting percentage, to Matthews who has personally shot over 13% at 5v5 in all three of his season so far. This results in an increase of 1.83 G/60 on the lines that Kapanen played with, a pretty substantial increase. A lot has been made of Kapanen’s rush ability, he has been described as bit of a lone wolf who will leaf both teammates and opponents in the dust with his speed. While his play with Matthews ebbed and erred during the season, these facts support the conclusion that he needs a shooter on his line to finish off the plays he creates with his legs, whether this is Matthews or someone else.

Morgan Rielly

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The graph below displays some of the key metrics we looked at earlier for Rielly. Being that he’s played much of the past two seasons with Ron Hainsey, I don’t think his 5v5 improvement is being influenced by any change of his roll. As you can see, Rielly’s Individual Expected Goals did tick up slightly last year, but was in line with past seasons, and he actually created more chances in 2017. However, his shooting percentage skyrocketed to almost 9% last season and that looks like the likely driver of his points and goals per 60 improvement.

Looking ahead…

All this talk of shooting percentage is not to say the players detailed above had no influence on their improvement. All three players, but particularly Marner and Kapanen, skated with confidence/spark that they had yet to display consistently. For Marner, that meant continuing the momentum from the end of last year to prove his worth as a member of the core. For Kapanen, it was a semi-surprising display of his ability to play top 6 minutes and be a difference-maker at 5v5.

Despite these facts, the stated increases in their top line numbers have a lot to do with their situation, and shooting talent. We should praise these players on their ability to fit and contribute on these lines, but pull short of giving too much credit for their individual contributions.

data/stats from naturalstattrick.com, EvolvingHockey, hockey-reference.com

featured image photo credit – Josh Tessler

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Author: Ryan Ghizzoni