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
|Team||2013 GP||2013 PK%||2014 GP||2014 PK%|
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.
@SkierSask Thank you very much
As far as faceoffs go Bozak was much better on draws in the past than he is now. In the lockout season he started out great but something happened at some point. It was like day and night. All of a sudden he started getting thrown out a lot more and you could see him a number of times arguing with the linesman. I wonder if he had a certain "cheat" that helped him win the draws and they started calling him on it. I would really like to find out and I wonder if I'm the only one that noticed this.
I'm hoping that some miracle happens and our faceoff success improves this season, giving us more of a chance at first possession on penalties.
Straight to the point Anthony, excellent analysis.
I woudl take it one step further - that is, poor netural zone play and surrendering the blue line was a Leaf weakness at 5 x 5 as well. An obvious weakness.
Good look at what became a real trouble spot last season.
I kept noticing last year how often our defence would get tired - not just on penalties- when we couldn't clear the zone, which led to extended shift time for the Dmen as the opposition would cycle them to death without a whistle.
Excellent follow-up to part 1 Anthony.
With the numerous personnel changes this off-season, it is difficult to know just how the PK will perform. It has nowhere to go but up, hopefully! One would think the coaching staff have a good understanding of how they need to improve. Horachek hopefully can provide better guidance, and they've got a bit more depth and tenacity on the PK.
Hopefully the team can reduce the number of PK minutes per game, and employ their 3rd or 4th line guys to eat those minutes.
You hit the nail on the head when you said "The Leafs have never had a good PK forecheck inside of the defensive zone". I haven't poured over the video like you may have, but that is certainly one aspect of their PK that seemed to be seriously lacking last season. At least one, if not both forwards on the PK would drop back too much, and thus allow the point men a bit too much time and space.
@StanSmith Might it be more a case of the opposing teams knowing how little depth the Leafs have with faceoffs? If they can pressure Bozak and get hime tossed, they have a much higher probability of gaining control of the puck off the draw. Not sure if his injury played any part in how he handled faceoffs.
@dlb Mad I remember them doing it with Brian Campbell
@dlb Mad I think Ant is right about the PP drop pass being Detroit's. Also used now to help beat a neutral zone trap 5v5.
@Burtonboy If all those guys we signed for the bottom six cannot take most of the PK load off of Bozak and JVR then we have found the wrong players. Kessel, Bozak, JVR, Kadri should avoid the PK if at all possible. And if those bottom 6 centers can't win faceoffs get rid of them. Bozak shouldnt have to be on for every draw.
@Burtonboy I agree, expend their energy on offense.
@Burtonboy Think they start the PK with say Bozak-Komarov, Bozak gets off immediately after the draw, then comes Santorelli, and then Winnik eventually replaces Komarov. Maybe it's time to toy with having regular 5v5 players come on in the last 15-30 seconds to transition back to even strength.
@Burtonboy I have been Running the Options BB, its a concern lol. They must be more confident than I am in their systems, because our Roster does not contain elite PK'ers
@MaxwellHowe Yes absolutely. Haven't delved into that in detail yet for 5v5. Been watching a lot of Winnik, Santorelli and Booth lately to get acclimated to them.
For sure. Bad stuff kept happening at our blueline all last year, whether it was leaving the zone or preventing easy entries by the opposition.
@wiski We did not want to Read 20 pages of his acceptance speech :))))
@wiski Hah, I was nominated by a non-twitter/MLHS friend.
@TML__fan The Sabres used to have a very good PK. They put a lot of pressure on the point men and forced them to make quick decisions. Often times quick decisions become poor decisions.
@TML__fan I have started watching some Devils tape (traditionally one of the best PKs in the league) and they do a fantastic job of forechecking in the OZ on the PK. Going to see if I can do a part 3 on that.
@TML__fan That's definetly one area that could be cleaned up a bit Don. The Leafs were one of the most penalized teams last yr. if I'm not mistaken
@rustynail Ah thanks a ton Rusty. Really appreciate it.
@Anthony Petrielli @Burtonboy Maybe they just stick with Komarov and Winnik as the top unit. Komarov has shown he can win draws but he didn't take them regularly. It would save the need to take Bozak off after the draw. Kontiola might be an option too. Komarov-Winnik, Bozak-Santorelli, Kontiola-JVR. Lots of options.
@Xxxxxnew easy is understatement xman, I could have gained the zone last season with sneakers on....it was atrocious...the worse I've ever seen in my life
@Anthony Petrielli @TML__fan AP, I remember watching the Rangers vs the Schabs in the semi's and boy were they hard on the puck during the PK, Kreider and Brassard even had Subbad mesmerized, if fact they pressed him so hard that he used the through the puck away..the Rags PK was relentless, the Schabs had no remedy for it. The Leafs use to just sit back and let the game come to them...I'm a firm believer in heavy forecheck, no matter what the circumstance.
@Burtonboy Actually at home they were 3rd lowest in PK time, but on the road they were 4th highest. So collectively they were middle of the pack. Their road record was awful as you know. Overall their PK time exceeded their PP time, which is never a good thing.
Interesting enough, a lot of their penatlies came in the 2nd period. If you're ahead after 1st, then you risk giving up that lead, and if you're trailing after 1st taking penalties is not helpiong you get back into the game.
Oh, and let's not forget, Leafs had the 3rd highest goals against while on the PP!
@TML__fan @peterbleafs @Burtonboy Finns like Komarov and Kontiola are good on the PK if the system is good. Very disciplined on playing by the system. We're not as skilled as Can, USA or Rus, but can play (& do well) with you because of this. If the system is shit, then it won't matter if you play by it.
My 2 cents
@phaneufoundlander @Anthony Petrielli @TML__fan Teams get scared of being caught out of position if they pressure too much, but the truth is that if you sit back you're eventually just going to get picked apart anyway. The league is too good now. There are too many good players on each team to sit back and not get burned.