In the 2005-06 season, the Maple Leafs had the second best power play in the league and one of the biggest reasons was Tomas Kaberle’s ability to gain the zone and set up the attack. Any Leaf fan can tell you it was mesmerizing to watch ‘Kabby’ slice up the neutral zone and work the attack like a QB as he glided to open space and found uncovered teammates with ease.
The Red Wings had the best power play in the league in the 2008-09 season, and one of the big reasons behind it was their zone entry breakout, which the rest of the league has since mimicked. Nik Lidstrom would skate up the ice and back off the checkers, before dropping the puck to a full-flight Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, who would easily cut right through standing-still checkers.
Many people notice it, but the truth is that simply gaining the zone and setting up the power play is half the battle to having a good one in the first place. Naturally, the same would apply to the flipside of things: An effective penalty kill prevents clean set ups and looks.
In the last penalty kill post, we looked at how the goals were scored on the Leafs shorthanded units the last two years. There was a big increase in goals allowed after faceoff loses, in large part because the Leafs faceoff specialists on the PK saw their numbers nose dive. That was the easy part when it comes to assessing the shortfalls of the penalty kill.
The difficult part now is figuring out what happened to their system, and what happened to their neutral zone play specifically, that caused the penalty kill to drop off so drastically. The first thing that stuck out when watching all the goals against is that the month they allowed the most was November (15). So, let’s look at the percentages of how the Leafs‘ PK fared per month:
Maple Leafs 2013-14 Penalty Killing Effiency By Month
November was when Jerred Smithson played 12 of his 18 games last season; he is no longer an NHL calibre player, yet was a PK regular during his time up, helping explain why November was so dismal. In October, the team had all of their penalty killers healthy and started the season quite well. When they started to get healthy in January and February they began trending upward, but it still wasn’t good enough (80% PK over the course of the entire season would rank you 26th). Yes, the team having some key penalty killers fall hurt did not help, but that is easy to point out and not exactly rocket science.
I began to look at video to see if something different was happening with their neutral zone play. Gus went over the in-zone penalty killing structure earlier in the season and showed it did not change, but what about the neutral zone?
Here is a video from 2013 against the Florida Panthers:
Here is a video from 2014 against the Florida Panthers:
From the lockout season to the following season, the Leafs set up their neutral zone the same way in the sense that they did not pressure the puck carrier when he was lugging the puck up ice, but there is a fundamental difference: In 2013, notice the players all pushed up at the center ice line making it difficult on the Panthers to even dump it in. In 2014, the penalty killers are on their heels and already moving back when Campbell lugs the puck through the neutral zone.
Formation wise, it’s fair to say not much changed between the two seasons. There was one player manning the middle of the ice, and three behind him. But where they positioned themselves and pressured the opponent changed drastically. Also factoring in were personnel changes, and there was a shift in role responsibility. But that’s not all.
Let’s look at how the Leafs fared against teams from the East compared to the West. It is notable because the Eastern teams were all seeing this exact same penalty kill for now the second season in a row, while the teams in the West did not play the Leafs at all during the lockout-shortened season. Note that I swapped Winnipeg back to the East and Detroit and Columbus back to the West.
Maple Leafs Penalty Killing - East/West Comparison
There’s a huge discrepancy between the two Conferences, and the Leafs fared far better against their cross-Conference foes despite the consensus that the West is the better side. But here is where it gets even more interesting: This is how every team in the East fared (Winnipeg included, Detroit and Columbus not included) against the Leafs PK the last two seasons:
Maple Leafs Penalty Killing Efficiency vs. Eastern Opponents - 2012-13 vs. 2013-14
Without an inconsistency in games played, all but Carolina, the Islanders (exact same percentage) and Washington all had better PPs against the Leafs than a year before. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Capitals were one of the only teams in the league against whom the Leafs completely revamped their system; they assigned a checker to blanket Ovechkin on the power play, and it confused the Capitals the first two games before they finally figured out how to beat it by using Ovechkin as a decoy (they went 2 for 4 in their third game against the Leafs).
What were all these teams doing differently in 2014 compared to 2013 in order to, by and large, see better results against the Leafs PK (while the Western Conference teams only converted 15% of their opportunities)?
Let’s look at an example of the Leafs against Habs. One of the things that stood out was how much easier it was to gain the zone, and how much more often teams were trying to skate the puck in against the Leafs instead of dumping it in.
Here is a video of the Habs in 2013. They have two attempts to carry the puck in and elect to dump it in both times instead. On the second dump in, the Leafs practically have three players along center ice, aggressively daring teams to try and skate it by them and effectively forcing a dump.
Here is a video of the Leafs killing a penalty against the Habs in 2014. The Habs try to carry it in for three attempts in a row. Of the three attempts, two work, and the third was negated by a puck being batted out of mid-air (not exactly what you’re looking to do). The real standout difference is watching Eller carry the puck in towards the end of the video. The Leafs have three players already in their own zone leading to an easy carry in, and all three of those players are fresh penalty killers; it’s not as if they have dead legs.
Now go back and watch the 2013 video where the Leafs have every penalty killer outside of their blue line forcing dump-ins. As mentioned, we can see the same thing against Florida, too.
Poring over the video and looking at my stats and notes, a few things become apparent: The Leafs have never had a good PK forecheck inside of the defensive zone, but what helped make them a good penalty-killing outfit in 2013 was that they held the center ice line well and forced a lot of dump-ins. In 2014, for whatever reason (fatigue, new personnel, lack of adjustments), they began backing up on their heels and getting burned. Teams started entering the zone easier, and they started scoring off the rush immediately on power plays. They also started allowing a lot more goals off of faceoff losses. All of sudden the Leafs started allowing a lot of goals both off of faceoff loses and through clean entries, and their penalty kill subsequently sank dramatically.
It is easy to pick out some video and point out some flaws compared to actually initiating change on the ice. The Leafs have lost two penalty killing forwards (McClement and Kulemin), but added three new ones (Winnik, Komarov and Santorelli) and possibly a fourth (has gone under the radar but Nonis mentioned Frattin as a penalty killing possibility). On defense, Toronto has lost options like Gunnarsson, Gleason and Fraser, but have added in Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak. There is a little more speed with the new crew, and hopefully they can cover more ice, allowing the units to be more aggressive.
If the Leafs want to look at where to make some changes and are scratching their heads over what went wrong (and it appeared they were at the end of the season), look no further than the difference in the type of goals scored, PK faceoffs, and their neutral zone attack.