NHL: Making sense of the Maple Leafs

March 29, 2022 09:07 PM
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The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the best teams in the NHL and still rank among the top-10 teams, according to my model, despite their goaltenders’ struggles. But perhaps the Maple Leafs’ biggest problem is that they regularly fail to live up to expectations when playing inferior opponents.

There have been 29 instances in which the Maple Leafs entered a game with moneyline odds of -200 or higher, and they went 17-12 straight up in those games. On average, the Maple Leafs were priced at -260, which suggests they should have won around 72 percent of those games, but their actual win rate was only 58.6 percent.

Some say the Maple Leafs play down to lesser opponents, but I believe it’s the other way around. Even at a young age, I was well aware of the narrative that every team brings their best when playing the Maple Leafs, especially in Toronto, and it always made sense. Toronto is the mecca of the hockey universe, and many players around the league grew up cheering for the Maple Leafs or rooting against them. 

Take Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele for example. Scheifele grew up about an hour outside of Toronto, and after the Jets’ 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs on Dec. 5, Scheifele was quoted telling his teammates that there’s nothing better than beating the Leafs. 

Now, I’m not absolving the Maple Leafs of any wrongdoing, there’s plenty of blame to go around on their side, but bad luck has been a factor. Looking at things through a statistical lens, it appears that Toronto probably deserved to win quite a few of the 12 games it lost as a heavy favorite:

There are at least six games remaining on the Maple Leafs’ schedule in which they will be heavy favorites. Those games are: April 9 versus Montreal, April 12 versus Buffalo, April 16 at Ottawa, April 17 versus Islanders, April 19 versus Philadelphia and (finally) April 24 versus Detroit.

The Maple Leafs will be battling to better position themselves in the playoffs, given that they’re probably going to draw Boston or Tampa Bay in the first round, and having home ice would make a difference. The Maple Leafs have incentive to win games down the stretch, and there’s reason to believe they will fare well in those games. Whether there’s value betting or fading the Maple Leafs, though, depends on each bettor's ability to deal with the highs and lows of betting on a talented but flawed team.

The Maple Leafs are a team I’m going to be wary of come playoff time, though I don’t expect them to be heavy favorites in any playoff games. But in addition to the regular-season games in which they will be big favorites, the Maple Leafs have a handful of games that will serve as real tests leading into the postseason. They played one of two remaining games against Boston on Tuesday, and they’ll play Tampa Bay, Florida and Washington two times each before the regular season is over.

The next month of hockey will be important as how the Maple Leafs play during that time will inform my decision-making when the games really start to matter.

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