It seems frustration with penalty kill ineptitude has reached a boiling point in Leafland. After conceding at least one PK goal in six straight on their way out of a playoff spot for the first time this season, Phaneuf and Cronin have been heard arguing over the specifics of shot blocking, David Steckel has been swearing again, and Wilson says the PK units are dreading their own demise pretty much the moment they step on the ice.
My thinking in regards to solving this (quite literally) season-dissolving issue is to go a little more drastic. Why hasn’t a totally new look in terms of personnel been employed (What’s Einstein’s definition of insanity again)?
The likes of Joey Crabb and David Steckel are not getting the job done. Worse than that, it seems the current units have experienced so much failure they’re lacking confidence, fearing the worst, and second and third guessing themselves as a result.
The problem with the Leafs’ PK in my eyes has always been too much passivity, a problem only worsened by sagging confidence. New faces not only might bring renewed confidence, but there may also be a certain ingredient the likes of a Lombardi and Kulemin tandem bring that Crabb, Steckel, or Connolly do not: speed. Players with better wheels can be more aggressive with less fear of being beat – they can cover more ice and recover easier. Steckel has been hovering around 50% on the draw lately, obviously doesn’t bring much in terms of foot speed, and seems to struggle getting his stick into lanes.
I know we’ve seen each in smaller doses of PK time but you wonder if the likes of a Kulemin, Lombardi, or Grabovski deserve a more extended look. It’s literally not possible for things to get any worse. There is something fundamentally flawed about a unit that is not putting pressure on the points while it’s defenseman leave the opponents’ net presence to operate freely out front. If the plan is to limit the crowd in front of Reimer, then the forwards up front need to do a much better job pressuring the point. The Leafs have one of the higher shot blocking totals in the league, but I truly believe that’s because they allow the PP point men such free control of the puck. They also concede the zone far too easily, allowing the zone to get set up: the Leafs need to step up their aggression level. There’s been points this season where it has looked more aggressive but it’s never been the case consistently. Whether through a lack of confidence or whatever, it’s become a sit back and hope approach, and between that and the Leafs’ lack of speed it goes heavily against the grain of how most successful teams kill penalties now.
Defensively, Phaneuf and Gunnarsson have seen their shorthanded roles expand this season and it hasn’t been for the better. Komisarek’s return might be a good thing for the PK in the sense that he seems like one of the Leafs’ better blue liners for these purposes and he can help take some of the workload off the shoulders of Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Aulie. His return should come this week.
Between the pipes, Gustavsson has shown an ability to scramble better than Reimer (his instincts, athleticism, and reflexes are his stronger traits) and is more confidently challenging shooters in penalty killing situations. With the rate at which the penalty kill is losing the Leafs points in the standings, it stands as reason enough alone to increase Gus’ workload. It’s particularly hard to split the blame between team and goaltender in penalty killing situations, but when a goalie is stastically the worst in the NHL in the PK, and it’s not even really close, there’s probably something to it. The tough part is in balancing the long term interests of the club against trying to fix this immediate problem; it’s evident Reimer is still the guy and will get plenty of opportunity to get his game back on track. After all, he still is a top 10 goalie at even strength. Interestingly, though, the Leafs went 64% on the PK in December after a November in which they killed over 80%, and that was when Gus was still carrying the mail. You wonder if goaltending has more to do with it than anything and if it’s corroding the rest of the unit.
Overall, a lack of confidence, decisiveness and a fear of the worst are working heavily against the Leafs’ Pk units in their attempts to execute the current system, and it’s going to be a process to reverse it and get the confidence, aggression and instinct back in their game. You wonder at what point, though, if something a little more drastic might be in order.
Introducing PPP’s Top 25 under 25
PPP is going to be ranking the Leafs’ top 25 players under the age of 25 in the coming days.
Contributions from the back end
The offensive side of the Leafs’ D has been much improved this season.
Siegel: Leafs Look to end ‘Dread’ of PK woes
Lots of quotes from personnel on the frustration at the moment.
Leafs set aggressive tone in first practice of New Year
The right message for sure but I’m sure it’s harder to apply than it sounds.
Leafs-Wings at the Big House makes sense
I mostly think outdoor games are a little overrated but if it means an HBO 24/7 series featuring the Leafs I’m all for it.