What’s Ailing the Maple Leafs’ Penalty Kill – Part 1

Jay McClement
OTTAWA, CANADA - APRIL 12: Jason Spezza #19 of the Ottawa Senators takes a face-off against Jay McClement #11 of the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 12, 2014 at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)

One of the more head-scratching themes of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2013-14 season was their penalty kill dropping from second best in the league the season prior to third from the bottom.

It was a big fall from grace for a team that returned its top four penalty killers (Jay McClement, Carl Gunnarsson, Dion Phaneuf, and Nikolai Kulemin), had excellent goaltending, and the same coaching staff. The team experienced a huge nose dive in almost every statistical category.

It is astonishing to look at:

Maple Leafs Penalty Kill Comparison - 2012-13 vs. 2013-14

SeasonPP GA/G4v5 GAPK Shots AgainstTimes Shorthanded
2012-13.4 (2nd)18 (t-1st)157 (10th)157 (15th)
2013-14.72 (28th)49 (t-28th)438 (25th)268 (13th)

Other than the obvious curiosity to find out why the Leafs PK sunk like a stone, there are a few key factors that really pushed me to pursue this analysis. The first is this goal Blake Wheeler scored against the Leafs on the power play. I pointed it out at the time in a Leafs Notebook, but it was the first time it really caught my eye how deep the Leafs defencemen were along the blue line in their neutral zone system for the penalty kill. I didn’t elaborate at the time, but I did point out the obvious: [pull_quote_center]If a top power play unit can set up with ease, it’s going to score, period. This the NHL in the salary cap era – every team can throw out five players who are capable of passing, shooting, and scoring.[/pull_quote_center]

And this has stuck with me with ever since out of pure curiosity. It is tough to look these things up during the course of a season because of time constraints and other commitments, but in the summer, when things calm down, it is the perfect time to dig deeper.

The second factor was actually a quote from Jack Capuano of the Islanders, who said he was going to work on structural adjustments to his team’s 29th-ranked penalty kill:
[pull_quote_center]”We’re going to change the way we forecheck on it, and, when the puck is in our zone, we’re going to pressure differently.”[/pull_quote_center]
Without having the time to look at every single penalty kill the Leafs played through in the last two years to collect my data, I had to think of a logical way to use the resources I do have at hand to figure out how to go about analyzing the drastic shift in penalty killing proficiency that took place in a relatively short period of time. My first instinct was to collect as much video as I can on Leafs penalty kills in 2013 compared to the 2013-2014 season and record their process. Some things I looked for included: Who was generally starting the initial DZ faceoff, when were lines changed, was there a difference in formation between 2013 and 2013-2014, an emphasis on handedness, etc.

My second instinct was to look at every power play at 5v4 goal scored against the Leafs in the last two years and break them down to see if there was a variation in numbers or if the percentages held up in terms of types of goals allowed over the two years. Finding the video is easy and it gives me a basis of what has changed. I didn’t include 5v3 goals or 4v3 because it skews the data and the majority of power play goals occur at 5v4. I also think there is nothing really scientific or noteworthy to killing 5v3, as I view it to be a failing of the team on the power play more than anything (or as meaning the goalie stood on his head), although I’m open to arguments suggesting otherwise.

To this point, that is what I have done here in order to dig deeper as to understand the failings of the penalty kill. In turn, I think there is a reverse effect to be shown as well that can display what makes powerplays more effective. Because there is no baseline of information available, this can’t be taken as dogma, but it is a starting point onto which I will build as I search through other teams’ special team failings and successes in order to hopefully add to this and provide some context on what exactly has happened the last two years.

Breaking down powerplay goals against by category

I broke down power play goals into four categories to simplify it:

  1. The first category is a goal ten seconds off a zone entry, which is pretty self-explanatory.
  2. The second category is goals off a faceoff loss. I originally attempted “ten seconds” after a loss, but there were a few goals that were scored after the ten second mark and the Leafs had yet to touch the puck, so to me it logically made sense to expand that to count as long as possession was maintained and never switched teams.
  3. The third category is point shots, including tip-in goals but not rebounds. My reasoning is that a rebound goal presents an opportunity for a defensive player to make a play on the puck or clear a body and therefore it is not one in the same as a point shot (there were a decent amount of rebound goals that occurred on the second or third rebound as opposed to the first, too).
  4. The final category is goals ‘below the top of the circle,’ which does include the aforementioned rebounds, shots from the half wall, and passing plays. All of these goals are caused by defensive breakdowns that are often similar (i.e. someone lost a man/isn’t closing a lane down low), so I didn’t see the value in splitting them up and creating even more categories; if the value can be proven I’ll amend it, though.

NOTE: Goals off of faceoffs/right after zone entries could be off of point shots, passing plays, etc. but how they were originated is the focus here. In simple pie charts, here is what I have recorded so far: Toronto_Maple_Leafs_2012-2013-PPGAToronto_Maple_Leafs_2013-2014-PPGA So, what exactly has happened here? You’ll notice in both seasons, despite the Leafs percentages being polar opposite, they allowed a sizable amount of goals below the circle (set ups, rebounds, etc.). I don’t believe they got better at defending that last year; I think they just allowed more goals in other ways and it balanced it out because teams were setting up less. As I alluded to and suspected earlier, there were a lot more goals generated off of quick zone entries with a 10% hike. We often think of power plays traditionally with a team gaining the zone, setting it up, and working it around until they create a good scoring opportunity, but we see that a lot of goals are actually off of the rush or from getting a quick shot (which is funny because we usually consider players taking a quick shot off the rush on a PP “selfish”).

Shorthanded Faceoffs

What really interested me was the faceoffs. That was something that did not feel like an issue throughout the year, in the sense that it didn’t seem to get a lot of play in the media. What happened here? From my recordings, there was a big bulk of goals off of faceoffs between game 15 against Vancouver and game 31 against Boston. I recorded 6 goals off of faceoffs in that time, and for five of them one of Trevor Smith or Jerred Smithson was on.

Tyler Dellow did a lot of work on faceoffs at his now-defunct website, and in one piece he wrote:
[pull_quote_center]If you win an offensive zone faceoff, your Corsi% over the next 37 seconds will be about 74.5%. If you lose that faceoff, you’ll do the next 21 seconds at about 54.3%. So there’s a sizeable gap in there. That’s the value that winning the faceoff gives you.[/pull_quote_center]

Logically, that can only be magnified off a power play where you have a man advantage. McClement won the third most draws shorthanded in the league last year, but that number is a little deceiving as he won only 46.7% of the draws he took shorthanded. Bozak, by comparison, won 52.9% in the lockout year. This season, Bozak won 38.5% of his draws shorthanded, so their top two faceoff men shorthanded got manhandled. In the lockout year, McClement took the second most PK draws and went 50% (in fact, no other Leaf hit double digit shorthanded draws, so the Leafs on the whole were pretty darn good on the dot in the lockout).

A typical Leafs PK in the lockout year went something like this: Generally, Bozak would go out for the draw with one of McClement or Kulemin. After the draw Bozak went as hard as he could to get it out. Either he’d win it and they’d clear, or he’d pressure immediately knowing that he was getting off as soon as the puck went out. When Bozak was getting off, Kulemin or whoever was on would race down the ice and apply some pressure, plus a fresh penalty killer would be coming on and roughly 20-30 seconds would already be killed. If McClement was off, he’d hop on and stay for the majority of what was left of the kill (or the whole thing), and if Kulemin was on he’d switch with Komarov eventually, with Bozak coming on if there was another defensive zone faceoff. With that setup, Bozak was able to be very aggressive knowing that he was going off immediately.

Here are two goals he’s scored in the last two seasons; both were off of draws he lost, but he was aggressive and instantly challenged puck handlers:
This is a roundabout way of saying that it is not cut and dry that you need to win the draw or you are doomed. It is about what you do after you lose, too. You can lose the draw and retreat, or lose the draw, go through your man, and apply pressure. You can’t win every faceoff shorthanded, but Bozak knowing that he is going straight off allows him to go full throttle right off the hop. With McClement taking the draws and still knowing he was killing the remainder of the penalty regardless of if the puck was cleared or not, that was not the case. He was — maybe ‘conserving himself’ isn’t the best way to put it — but he essentially was saving energy (or simply didn’t have as much) to a certain extent. Carlyle in January even noted it when he said, “We think we’re overtaxing Jay McClement, playing him way too much. It shows in our penalty killing.”

Part 1 In Conclusion

We have spoken so much about the Leafs lack of depth throughout the summer, but one area we have not analyzed in depth is its effects on the penalty kill. Last season, the Leafs had JVR and Mason Raymond rounding out their top four penalty killers, despite them both playing heavy 5v5 minutes. It helped in the lockout that Kulemin and McClement played every game, while Bozak and Komarov missed a combined 8 games. Players like Hamilton, JVR and Steckel were sprinkled into the PK, but by and large everyone knew who the Leafs’ four guys were. In the 2013-2014 season, the Leaf had McClement and Kulemin again, but after that they were using glue and tape. Smithson got a shot, so did D’Amigo; eventually, they decided to just run JVR and Raymond while Bolland was hurt, but Bolland was also on the PK when he was healthy while Bozak saw his role reduced because he was getting crushed at the dot. We put a lot of stock into what PK system a team is running, but at the end of the day there is no magic bullet system to kill a penalty.

Every hockey player growing up learns how to play in a diamond and box, and teams run some sort of variation within them. The Leafs penalty kill has been bad pretty well every year since the 2005 lockout, and many times we have heard player X has been acquired and he is a good penalty killer (Jason Blake, Colby Armstrong, Kris Versteeg, Hal Gill, Pavel Kubina, etc). Did all these guys suddenly forget how to run a box-diamond PK? The more I dig into this, the more I am starting to think the key is to not have to do it as much at all. Where teams do differentiate themselves, as we can see in the data, is in the neutral zone to deny clean entry scoring opportunities off the hop, and in the faceoff circle, where teams can run you over if you are

A.) Losing an exorbitant amount of draws, and
B.) If you don’t pressure after the fact.

Faceoffs are, of course, not the only reason the Leafs penalty kill dropped dramatically, but it’s a good place to start.

  • Burtonboy

    The fact we couldn’t seem to play 4 lines consistently last yr seems to have had enormous ramifications . Too many people were gassed .

  • Mind Bomb

    Thanks AP,  Bottom line, our Special teams will make or break our chances of the Post season, This is something that has to improve. So our Centers better start practicing Draws

  • Burtonboy

    Mind Bomb Part of the problem with draws is lack of support from the wingers . They need to get in much quicker to help

  • Mind Bomb

    Burtonboy Mind Bomb One on One battles, got to win em lol

  • Mind Bomb

    Burtonboy Mind Bomb And Again, shots on goal and rebounds matter, regardless of what RC says,

  • http://mapleleafshotstove.com/ DeclanK



  • Burtonboy

    Mind Bomb Burtonboy Frankly the more I think about last season the more pissed I get . So much mismanagement by the coaching staff and players seemingly tuning it out . Inexcusable mess for a team to be in .

  • Mind Bomb

    Burtonboy Mind Bomb And to keep beating the same system without adjusting, wow.  I wonder how many of the coaches were even on the same page

  • MaxwellHowe

    Last season, the Leafs gave up their own blue line and allowed easy zone entries, whether it was 5 on 4 or 5 on 5.  It was the same tendency that allowed the Bruins to win that game 7.  Forwards seem uninterested in the neutral zone and the Dmen back off.  Not sure if this is part of a strategy or just a lack of focus, or just plain laziness.  But this aspect of the Leafs game is there for all to see.

    I would think a fast skating team would work to clog up the neutral zone and cause turnovers leading to rushes.  Not our Leafs.

  • Mind Bomb

    MaxwellHowe I am still astounded how many our D get beat by a pass up the middle from the opps blueline, can we fix that please lol

  • wendelsway1

    Thanks for the write up Anthony…..great piece, as usual.  Might be simple but to me, all things stem from not being on the puck, with the tenacity of a dog on a bone…..it’s a team game and a game of possession.  Right on the money in saying that it’s what you do and are willing to do when you don’t have the puck…..can’t score, if you don’t have the puck…..so go friggin’ get it!

  • Zeus_WilliamMapleLeafs

    Whats up with our penalty kill. Oh thats an easy one. We see it as a 4th or 3rd liners job. We sign these specialists on 1 or 2 year contracts. Take what coaching theyve had from different teams fresh in their minds. Give them nothing whilst theyre with us. Watch them slowly decay. Refuse to pay peanuts and pucks + 1 to keep them. Say its the reason we lost an entire season AGAIN. Look again on free agency for new fresh faces at sign them to a 1 year or 2 year deal for peanuts. Rinse and Repeat. We are a forward for the sake of it team with naff all defence. Over rated numpties and an impotent GM with a strangle hold on the purse strings like money is too good to spend on the biggest team in the world with the average of average ambition.
    Not much at all – this year lads for the cup. hic!

  • Yaknowwhat

    Great stuff AP….

    What’s wrong with our penalty kill??

    my take on a few things..

    Overall….just way too passive…there are times to be patient and play the box…and then there are times when you need to pressure the guy possessing the puck…being able to identify and know when to be aggressive and when not to be is a real skill …too often our guys were standing around content to let the other team pass it around until they had a good scoring chance….even after the chance came and went….our guys were slow to identify the play…..and thus would not win the races to rebounds or loose pucks…this just lead to more zone time in our end and eventually giving up more chances or goals…..we also didn’t seem to block many shots on the pk….yet other teams seem to get a lot of shots on our net without much work….would like to see a much more aggressive pk and more of a focus on getting in the lanes and blocking shots…..identify when pucks are up for grabs and be ready and get aggressive to win that battle….and when it comes to clearing the puck…do it with authority…no hoping a lob goes off the boards and out…..blast it as hard as you can….

  • wiski

    Finally got a chance to read it, great work as always Anthoney. Do you think Komarov will be back on the PK ? I believe he and Bozak were an effective pair.

  • Mind Bomb

    wiski I can see Winick there and Santo to start

  • Anthony Petrielli

    wiski Yeah he will be, just a question as to how much PK TOI he will get per game. With Kulie and McClement both gone is he about to be one of their top two PKers, or will he be on the second unit again?

  • Mind Bomb

    Anthony Petrielli wiski
    The 29-year-old Winnik is coming off a career year for assists (24) and points (30), but does his best work killing penalties and grinding down the other side in five-on-five situations.

    I really relish the PK role,” said Winnik. “I take pride in my team’s penalty killing. Defensively, that’s my m.o. — being on the ice at the end of the game when it’s six-on-five, or playing against the other team’s top lines.”


  • Mind Bomb

    wiski Maybe not Santo, hmm but Winnick for sure

  • Mind Bomb

    wiski  Bozak-JVR
                    Koro-Winnik  ???

  • Komas Taberle

    Numpties…. i love that word.

  • TML__fan

    Just reinforces the importance of winning DZ faceoffs.  You need two PK centers who can consistently win 50% or more PK faceoffs.  McClement was overworked last year, and Bozak only played 58 games. Hopefully we see some improvement with the additions of Santorelli, and some others.  How is Kontiola on faceoffs?  Maybe Holland has improved on his faceoffs.

    Overall the PK group is stronger (at least on paper), but the faceoffs may continue to be a problem for the Leafs.

  • wiski

    Mind Bomb wiski That could be an interesting pair

  • Mind Bomb

    wiski Mind Bomb Santo played some PK last year , If not then we are at 

    Boothe, Kadri Konti, Holland Bodie ?

    None of that Wow’s me, its a concern

  • Bobsyouruncle

    Does it matter how many games Bozak played last year? He only won 38.6% of his SH draws.  
    49W – 78L.  
    A return to previous years performance would be an improvement IF Bozak is on the PK and if winning the draw matters.    
    NJ led the league in PK% in 2011/12 while Elias went 60W and 110L (35.3%) short-handed.  
    After finishing 16th in 2012/13 NJ returned to #1 last year with an overall SHFO% closer to 50% and Elias still low at 33.3%, but taking far less face-offs. (42 total)  
    It may be that, who is on the PK and how they play is far more important that winning more than your share of the draws, although it wouldn’t seem to hurt.

  • http://pensionplanpuppetssuck.com/ Gumby

    Great article Anthony, I not only appreciate the timing of it (because i was bored) but the way in which it was written. I like how you didn’t rely on any stats from extra skater but instead used past examples and logical thinking to make yours points. Such a breathe of fresh air among the over-used new analytic that some people really need to calm down about. Not discounting their use but if I have to read one more strictly numbers-based piece that comes to some wacky conclusion again my brain will melt.

    Nice to know there are still hockey minds out there

  • Leafs2 Isles1

    Looking for someone with a better memory than me or better access to Leaf’s stats.

    I seem to remember that the Leafs played more aggressively on the PK two years ago. Last year, if memory serves me correctly, they started taking penalties on the PK which put them two men down. 

    If this were true, it would explain why their PK was less effective.

    Anyone else remember it that way?

  • theduffeys

    Leafs2 Isles1 Absolutely and a lot of the 2nd penalties were from Raymond specifically for tripping guys behind the net, must have been 5-10 of those alone.

  • theduffeys

    Even when Bozak returned he was never in top faceoff shape.

  • Mattmark

    Whatever ailed Leafs pk it was not lack of competence or effort on the part of McClement.  He has good anticipation, good stick-handling ability, and at times seemed to be the only Leaf who could be trusted to get the puck out over the blueline once it was on his stick.  It remains to be seen whether any of the the replacements we’ve signed will be as reliable at the task as he was.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Bobsyouruncle TML__fan Right, which is why I noted that it is not strictly about winning/losing draws, it is about how you pressure after you do lose the draw. Bozak did that because he was going right off, McClement did not because he was staying on regardless, so yes it does matter how many games Bozak played.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Mattmark Yeah, pretty unlikely he suddenly forgot how to kill penalties.

  • Hifi75

    Great read. I cannot agree more with the aggressive forecheck that was lacking after a faceoff draw. I will admit though his point about how deep the D were past the blueline. Is something I did not catch but was very insightful

  • Armchair GM

    -Keon Careful… Franson likes to sue people…

  • Hifi75

    Horachek I believe will be a positive to a more aggressive blueline

  • LeafsForLife

    Great job Alec. Thank you.

  • HeatherRickAkin

    That’s a very fine analysis .  I am glad, though, that Anthony did mention near the end of his writeup , that Leaf penalty killing has basically stunk for many years. What we saw in that 48 game season, was some sort of an anomaly as to how the Leafs usually do business on the PK. Too bad.  So, if with their new personnel, the Leafs become more proficient in the dot, and as a team,  display more composure when they are a man short, hopefully the results are a more efficient PK. Even going from 29th or 30th, to say, 18th or 20th, would be great . It would help shed some of our laughing stock image. Attaining that improvement, however, is no slam dunk, and we will need better penalty killers than we had last season . Not much mention of the Carlyle Factor (unless I missed it) .  I guess we need to give Randy a little slack, as he is the only coach in close to a decade who has got the Leafs into the playoffs. And last season ,  if  it wasn’t for a surprisingly horrible  last 20 games, he would have had the team in the playoffs on back to back years.   Its August….hope springs eternal .  If not….there’s always Connor .

  • Mind Bomb

    Mattmark  Problem with MCL was he seemed to take more penalties last year lol,

  • TML__fan

    Anthony Petrielli Bobsyouruncle Well with McClement gone, you better hope the Leafs come up with a center who can play the bulk of the PK minutes and win faceoffs.  That being said, I still think the PK group is stronger with the additions of Santorelli, Komarow, Winnick, etc.

  • TML__fan

    Yaknowwhat Exactly.  Not unlike ES, if a team allows the opposition too much time and space in your DZ, that simply leads to more shots, better scoring opportunities, and the PK unit struggling to get the puck out of the zone.  Hopefully some new additions to the roster, along with some focused coaching from Horachek can improve the effectiveness of the PK.

  • Optimustic

    Very good analysis Anthony:   You mention that it;s not just the players because “many times we have heard player X has been acquired and he is a good penalty killer (Jason Blake, Colby Armstrong, Kris Versteeg, Hal Gill, Pavel Kubina, etc). Did all these guys suddenly forget how to run a box-diamond PK? ” , the same thing apples to our defence in general.  
     Looking forward to part-2.

  • Hmmm

    Mind Bomb wiski Winnik is our guy for PK and Santo is like a dog on a bone, he’ll chase down the pucks and apply pressure.  Vancouver fans wanted to see him back, he should be good for us.   Santo can win faceoffs too if Winnik gets booted.
    Komarov is an effective PK killer. We can pair him with Bozak, Frattin, or Kontiola. Except for Fratts, all of them could take faceoffs.

  • B_Leaf

    What is wrong with our PK…lol…well, um…when you are hemmed in your zone 5 on 5 it is not likely to get much better when you are down a man…although icing it is a viable option…so…this team, cough!, cough!, stinks, ahem.

  • Hmmm

    Good piece! Anytime you let the other team setup and enter the way they want is like an open door on prom night. Don’t let them drive through the NZ with speed; that’s like teenagers with their first set of wheels, they will kill us especially if anyone on our side is slow footed.
    First you try to deny the NZ, so D need to support the forwards applying pressure early in attempts to cause them to reset.  At the same time, forwards don’t get so out of position that they can’t quickly regroup for the next stand at our blue line.
    Just slow them down, don’t let them get their A plan off. Cut off passing lanes. Funnel the puck towards the worst guy they have to handle the puck, then take the candy with reckless abandon. Keep in mind Bernier is a good puck handler, he can be the extra guy to get the puck out.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    @Hmmm I wonder if Brodeur’s puck handling has helped NJ succeed on the PK. Going to try getting some video of their games.

  • hometeem

    thanks for the read AP, much apreciated

  • loomx

    I think you hit the nail on the head on the Wheeler goal. You can talk about systems until you’re blue in the face. In the end, the best PKs don’t just have a good system to prevent a lot of good chances. The best PKs prevent the PP from setting up in the first place. There’s too much room between the forwards and the D. It was like that on the PK and at even strength. Not to get into this whole debate about whose fault that is(I’d be more inclined to say that coaching adjustments need to be made), but clearly it’s something that needs to be addressed.

  • ddupuis7235

    One of the problems with the P.K. and 5on5 is the defense men can not win battles along the boards and usually won’t go in first.  The forwards have to go in so deep to help out, that it leaves the points open and then they end up chasing the puck. If they do get it out they have to change lines, so they never have control of the puck for very long. Does anyone know why they can’t have a good PP and PK at the same time.

  • dlb Mad

    just looking at that first replay, Franson’s movement is awful, but If the team were to just get up further up the ice and faster, they could be backing up with some speed between the blue lines and still challenge at our blue line if that’s what the coach’s game plan is.
    get up with the play so you have the choice to back up or challenge for a puck.  if you’re up with the play the other team needs to be sharp with their passes or else you’ll be there to pick them off.

  • peterbleafs

    Leafs PK lets everyone in the zone and allows them to setup, well that is what has happened most of the time.  There have been spurts where they challenge at the blue line and then shut down the opposition on the PK. In order to make that happen you have to force the rush to one side or the other and challenge with at least 2 players at the blue line with the opposite side winger coming back hard for the shoot in and around.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    dlb Mad Franson looked bad, but also watch Wheeler before he even gets the puck. Winds up without being deterred, and is going full speed when he gets the puck, taking a pass from the puck carrier who is not being pressured at all. Just can’t happen.