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      Are the 2023-24 Toronto Maple Leafs a paper tiger?

      Relying on overtime and shootout wins and great individual efforts, the Leafs are playing chicken with the standings.

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      The recipe is pretty obvious by now, isn’t it?

      It starts with a couple tremendous individual performances.

      Add three heaping scoops of Mitch Marner scoring, each goal a no-doubter, as he wears a full face shield to protect the 12 fresh stitches on his chin. The first comes on a wide-open feed from William Nylander at the goal mouth, the second on a one-timer, set up by Auston Matthews, the third on a pretty breakaway with a glove-side finish on Seattle Kraken goaltender Philipp Grubauer.

      Next: a generous helping of Joseph Woll goaltending. Remember, you’re badly outshot on this particular evening, 40-28 to be exact. So the delectable dish falls apart without this crucial binding agent. From the second period onward, the ice is tilted Seattle’s way, with a 23-12 edge in scoring chances and an 11-5 advantage in high-danger chances. The Kraken come from behind to score twice in the third and tie the game. A scintillating sliding kick save from Woll during 3-on-3 overtime adds serious spice and brings the Scotiabank Arena faithful to their feet.

      Lastly, to tie the dish together: top it with a shootout finisher from Marner to seal the win.

      That’s the quintessential recipe for a Toronto Maple Leafs victory in 2023-24. It’s exciting. It looks appetizing when you watch the highlight reel. But you don’t want to look too closely at all the individual ingredients. The calories begin to look awfully empty.

      The Leafs hold a 12-6-3 record after Thursday’s white-knuckle win. Coach Sheldon Keefe, seemingly prepared for any questions about the sustainability of his group’s success, pointed out after the game that he checked and Toronto “was ahead of 23 other teams in the standings right now.” But if you sort those standings by regulation victories? The Leafs are ahead of one team. Only the Montreal Canadiens have fewer regulation wins than the Leafs. A whopping 10 of the Leafs’ 21 games, or 47.6 percent, have gone to overtime this season. Toronto has won three overtime games, has played an NHL-high five shootout games and leads the league with four shootout victories.

      The glass half-full mentality, being pushed like a telemarketer’s script after the game on Thursday? Wins are wins in this extremely competitive league.

      It’s a hard league, man,” said defenseman Jake McCabe. “Two points is two points at the end of the day. “Obviously we want to improve on things, but we’re gonna be happy with the two points and continue to grow and work on playing with that lead.”

      It’s a tough league,” said defenseman Morgan Rielly. “I was talking this morning about the standards, teams taking a step, and every night is challenging. Every team has skill and size and speed and all the rest. So if we get two points, we’re happy. Ultimately you have a lead in the third period and want to close it out, but we’ll take those points all day.”

      “We’ve been in this situation a lot, getting asked about it every single day, and for good reason, right? We haven’t found a way to get on the right side of these things,” Keefe said. “But at the end of the day, this is a really hard league to get points in.”

      The other side of the coin? Relying on the randomness of 3-on-3 overtime and the shootout for those points doesn’t feel particularly sustainable.

      If you think this Leaf team is “different” and finding a way to grind out clutch victories, perhaps hardened by winning their first playoff series in 19 years last spring, that’s one way to look at it. Here’s a peek at the Leafs’ regular-season points percentage in the standings versus their win percentage in overtime and the shootout over their past five seasons, plus this one:

      SeasonOverall points %OT/shootout win %
      2018-19.610.429
      2019-20.579.471
      2020-21.688.463
      2021-22.701.563
      2022-23.677.421
      2023-24.643.700

      In each of the previous five seasons, the Leafs’ play in overtime and the shootout actually dragged down what was an otherwise excellent record. This season? Overtime and the shootout are propping up the team’s record.

      Given the chaos of 3-on-3 and the variety of tactics attempted by every player in the shootout, anything after regulation arguably feels more like a game of chance than something predictable, even with all the skill Toronto has at its disposal. So it’s a dangerous game of chicken to play with the standings when you depend on your post-regulation results to get your points.

      What does feel like a more predictive pattern and carries a larger sample size: the 60-minute regulation play, particularly at 5-on-5.

      The Leafs have played 21 games this season. In 5-on-5 play, they’ve been outshot in 10 of them and outchanced in 11 of them.

      Compared to last season:

      SeasonGames outshot 5-on-5Games outchanced 5-on-5
      2022-2334.1%34.1%
      2023-2447.6%52.4%

      So we’re seeing a massive difference in how much the Leafs are controlling the play. And yet, here’s a look at their record last season versus this season in games when they are outshot and one-goal games.

      SeasonPoints % outshotPoints % one-goal games
      2022-23.591.736
      2023-24.650.792

      They were pretty decent last season at surviving games in which they were outshot and pulling out one-goal wins, but they’ve taken that Cardiac Kid aura to another level in 2023-24. Their 8-1-3 record in one-goal games really pops.

      Isn’t this just the case of a good team still being good? There’s the rub. Last season versus this season in terms of controlling the expected goals at 5-on-5:

      Season5-on-5 xGA %
      2022-2353.45 (7th)
      2023-2448.64 (21st)

      The 2023-24 incarnation of the Leafs is playing significantly worse than last year’s club. So why does it have better results in these close games? We can’t say it’s their skill when they had all that skill, if not more skill, last season. We can’t say it’s Woll keeping them afloat considering Ilya Samsonov was a top-10 goalie last season. The only explanation that fits: luck. And luck tends to run out with a style of play that isn’t sustainable.

      The Leafs are the most shorthanded they’ve been on defense in recent memory, having dressed depth blueliners Conor Timmins, William Lagesson and Simon Benoit Thursday. Even if we accept that John Klingberg landing on LTIR is addition by subtraction, they miss Timothy Liljegren (high-ankle sprain) and Mark Giordano (broken finger). During Thursday’s win, remaining veterans Morgan Rielly, Jake McCabe and T.J. Brodie played 26:08, 24:16 and 23:24, respectively. Tasked with a lot of responsibility, all three were caved in at 5-on-5.

      “It’s been a lot. We’ve asked a lot of our guys, we’re asking a lot of the guys who are playing more minutes, you’re asking a lot of the guys like the Lagessons and Timmins and Benoits of the world that are playing more and playing in different spots,” Keefe said. “But the guys are managing it. Is it a factor? The two goals we gave up in the third, there’s some soft defending there. We just don’t close quick enough. Perhaps that’s some of that stuff that you’re seeing in those moments. To me we’ve got to manage those situations better. But credit to the guys, whether it’s the situation we’re in tonight with six (defensemen), or how many times through this season we’ve gotten guys injured and had to play with five, the D-corps has for the most part responded and found a way to keep us hanging around in these games.”

      The Leafs, as always during the Matthews/Marner era, remain a helluva fun watch. But while they insist their record in the standings is something to feel great about, not all 12-6-3 starts are created equal. This team needs help. Sooner or later, the defensive breakdowns, which have already badly tilted the shot and scoring chance columns, will tilt the goal column, too, and in turn the win/loss columns.

      The Vancouver Canucks pounced on defenseman Nikita Zadorov with a trade Thursday evening, pulling one potential Toronto target off the board. And the under-the-hood stats suggest GM Brad Treliving needs to find help on the blueline immediately, even if the surface record does not.

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