There are potentially a number of impacts that the Mike Babcock signing could have on the Toronto Maple Leafs, including off-ice impacts such as free agent recruitment.
We already heard yesterday that Cody Franson believes that Babcock makes Toronto potentially more attractive to free agents, including himself, as a result of the credibility he brings to the team as well as the relationships he has built with players over his years in the NHL and with Team Canada. The question I will try to answer today: What will his impact be on the ice?
I wrote a few articles on the impact a coaching change can have a few months ago, and in particular on Corsi, starting with the Bozak-Corsi dilemma followed by the Coaching-Corsi dilemma. In those articles, I showed that a coaching change has the potential to have significant impacts on a player’s or team’s possession statistics. In the Coaching-Corsi dilemma article, I showed several coaching changes that had the teams 5v5Tied Corsi percentage change by as much as 8.6 percentage points. That is a very significant change and has the potential to dramatically change on-ice performance.
However, these boosts in possession statistics can come at a cost as well. In particular, there is an inverse relationship between Corsi and the percentage statistics, shooting and save percentage. While there are some elite teams that have enough talent to be good at both possession and shooting percentage, and some that are so lacking in talent that they are poor at both, generally speaking good possession comes at a cost of poorer shooting percentages (and similar logic would suggest poorer save percentages, too). Over the past four seasons combined, none of the top six teams in 5v5close CF% ranked in the top nine in 5v5close shooting percentage (Chicago was 10th). Two, Los Angeles (29th) and San Jose (27th), were ranked near the bottom of the league. Detroit ranked 4th in 5v5close CF% but 19th in shooting percentage, while the Leafs ranked second worst in CF% but second best in shooting percentage.
I even showed that these trends occurred for a number of the mid-seasons coaching changes this past season. The Leafs change for Carlyle to Horachek are a perfect example of this, and in particular the top line of Kessel, Bozak and JVR. Let’s look at how these three faired together this past season under Carlyle and under Horacek.
In 5v5close situations the Kessel – Bozak- JVR line saw their CF% number jump 7.2 percentage points in the switch from Carlyle to Horachek, but saw their on-ice shooting percentage drop from 8.82% to 8.13%. Taking into account all 5v5 situations, the effect is even more dramatic, although score effects is definitely a factor. Babcock has been with the Wings for long enough that we can’t use a coaching change to witness how he has impacted his team directly, but the chart below shows that Detroit has been an excellent 5v5close CF% team under Babcock.
Conversely, the Leafs have been a poor CF% team the last number of seasons. Under Peter Horachek, the team (and the top line in particular) improved their possession game significantly over the Randy Carlyle era. The question is really how much more will Babcock be able to squeeze to improve the possession game, and can he do so without as significant of an impact to shooting percentage? It won’t be an easy challenge.
It is almost certain that the Babcock Leafs will be more like the Horachek Leafs – a significantly improved possession team, but not a significantly improved team overall (barring roster changes) – than the Carlyle Leafs. That likely still isn’t a very good team. The reality is this is a team that has some good talent but is very weak at the critical center ice position and lacks quality depth across the board, both of which are core components of every top NHL team.
Babcock will certainly help give the team stability and direction, and the team will most certainly be an improved puck possession team, but the real improvements will require significant roster changes. That tough task will be left to a seemingly smart though significantly inexperienced (at the NHL level) front office.
As Babcock suggested, that process won’t happen overnight, and there will be pain involved. For us Leaf fans, though, there is renewed hope with this new direction.