12 Burning Questions: Will The Special Teams Continue To Improve?

12 Burning Questions: Will The Special Teams Continue To Improve?

In part nine of his 12 burning questions series, Derek Harmsworth looks at the Maple Leafs special teams, and why it must improve in order for the team to have success.

When it came to doing this 12 burning questions series, I discovered a lot of things about the Leafs, and how I will be looking for different things this year.  And even though I already knew the fact, it was all the more confirmed to me that there really are no definitive answers to these burning questions, at least not in August anyway.

However, as we reach part nine of the series, I can confidently say that I can, for the first time this series, give a more defined answer.

The question being, will the Leafs specialty teams improve in the 2010-2011 NHL season?  And whle I can’t say how much better they will be, or if they will improve, I can confirm that they will not worse.

Of course I say this with such certainty not due to any mystical powers, but merely due to the fact that the specialty teams literally can not get much worse, at least as far as their spot in the standings go.

Indeed, the Maple Leafs power play and penalty kill were both the absolute worst in the National Hockey League.

A little trick of course is the 100 rule.  That is, take your power play percentage, and add it to your penalty kill percentage.  If the number is over 100, you are in good shape as far as your special teams go.

And the factual evidence is there to support such theory.  The Chicago Blackhawks, the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, had a combined number of 103.  Runner up Philadelphia came in at 104.4.  In fact, you could argue it’s a stat that can make our break your season, as the Montreal Canadiens, the 8th place team who played this year’s version of Cinderella ranked near the top of the league with a number of 104.8.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, as there is with any rule.  Minnesota, for example, had a number of 101.8 and failed to make the playoffs.  Columbus as well came in just under 100, with a 99.9, and they failed to play past April as well.

Still, there is no denying that an integral part to a playoff team is special teams, and when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, like so many faults in the past few years, this one has been easy to spot.

Start with the power play, which had been largely invisible last year.  The acquisition of Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere saw the Leafs numbers with the man advantage improve modestly, but it wasn’t enough to dig them out of the hole that had been dug from October to the end of January when the added help was brought on board.

The Leafs power play finished dead last in the NHL with only 14% efficiency.  Adding to the abnormality of the numbers is the fact that even the top five lowest scoring team (Toronto was the sixth lowest scoring team) had better power play numbers than the Leafs.  There was even a time during the course of the season where the Leafs were setting records for futility with one of the worst man advantage and penalty kill numbers.

So why is it, that teams who didn’t score nearly as much as Toronto-who by the way scored 2.56 goals per game-were able to score on the power play with more regularity.  What is it about the Maple Leafs extra man advantage that made them so inept?

Perhaps some of the blame can be placed on imagination.  Far be it for me, an armchair reporter, to tell NHL players how to play the game, but for the most part, the Leafs power play was predictable, and while Beauchemin scored some nice shots from the point, the majority of power plays were snuffed either by opposition double teaming Phil Kessel, one of the Leafs only forward threats, or by Jason Blake firing the puck into the crest of the goaltenders jersey.

So will the power play continue to improve, or was last seasons end of reason rise a mirage?

There’s certainly reason for optimism.  With a full year of Phil Kessel, along with the addition of Kris Versteeg, who should take some pressure and attention of the American born sniper, and a player like Colby Armstrong who will go the dirty areas of the ice to produce goals, or wreak havoc trying, the power play numbers should improve.

Not to mention a potential pairing of Tomas Kaberle feeding one timer passes to Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf is a tantalizing thought.

Much like the power play, the penalty kill has been something that has been consistently bad for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the years following the lockout.

Although anyone who met him can tell you he was among the nicest in the game, they also pointed to former Leafs coach Paul Maurice and his defensive tactics that led to sagging penalty kill and goals against numbers. When Maurice, who used a more man on man style of defending, was let go and Ron Wilson was brought in, optimism for specialty teams improvement was quite high.

After all, it was Wilson who had coached the San Jose Sharks in his time before he came to Toronto, and the Sharks were consistently a team in the top of the specialty teams standings.

However, it didn’t work out as planned, and while there is no questioning the difference between talent in San Jose and Toronto, it is getting to the point where the penalty kill numbers cannot continue to trip Toronto up.

To his credit, the penalty kill numbers also saw a rise last year with players trusting their goaltenders more-gone was Vesa Toskala, replaced by a much steadier Jonas Gustavsson and J.S. Giguere-as well as penalty killing forwards who gave the Leafs a bump.

Players like Fredrik Sjostrom, Wayne Primeau, and Carl Gunnarsson became key pieces to the Leafs killing penalties, and while the numbers were still the worst in the league, they did improve following January 31st, and there is reason to believe they will continue to do so.

As far as forwards go, Sjostrom will return to be a key cog in the penalty killing, while players like Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong, John Mitchell, and Christian Hanson will likely be counted on to shut down the oppositions man advantage time.

As far as defenseman go, Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson are another year wiser, while a healthy Mike Komisarek and efforts from Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin should be defensive pairings that will help the penalty kill.

Another area of special teams, a more recent addition, is the shootout.

The Leafs must improve their shootout record, or their overtime record in general, if they have any designs of playing in the post season.

Whether you like the shootouts or not, it’s hard to argue their importance on the standings.  Phoenix won a league high 14 shootout wins, valuable points that no doubt set them above those teams who were nipping at their heels for a coveted playoff spot.  The Nashville Predators were another team that also used the shootout to propel themselves past teams like Calgary and Anaheim when the season got down to its final weeks.

The Leafs, meanwhile, won only four shootouts, which is sadly an improvement for them in the years previous.

The Leafs improved their special teams in the final few months of the season, and there is reason to believe that these numbers can continue to escalate upwards in the 2010-2011 NHL season.

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