Although the Toronto Maple Leafs finished dead last in Mike Babcock’s first year behind the bench, there was more to the season than meets the eye.

The Leafs were able to ‘pump and dump’ Dion Phaneuf and his expensive, long-term contract. That alone is a massive feat. The Marlies had a regular season for the ages, even if they did not go as far in the playoffs as many had envisioned. Most importantly, they were able to draft Auston Matthews first overall.

Positive steps were taken on the ice as well, despite the lacklustre overall results. A long-time possession bottom feeder, the team moved to the middle of the pack in terms of controlling play (13th in corsi-for percentage, 17th in fenwick-for percentage). I previously outlined Babcock’s breakout systems to help identify and explain the mechanics of their improvement (links open in new window):

Today, I am going to take a deeper look at the Leafs’ penalty kill (PK). This is an area the Leafs performed quite well in, all things considered, but it will undergo some massive changes heading into the 2016-17 season. First, let’s look at some statistics that paint an overall picture:

Toronto Maple Leafs Penalty Killing Stats

PK Percentage13th
Times Shorthanded 7th
Time Spent Shorthanded3rd
PK Goals Against12th most
PK Shots Against11th least
PK Shots For2nd most
PK Corsi Against12th least
PK Save Percentage11th worst

Toronto had a firmly above-average PK last year despite lacking any of the traditional pieces that we generally consider paramount to a good PK (elite goalie, stud defenseman, all-star two-way forward). That said, if we look at their top 12 players in shorthanded ice-time, at least six will not be on the team next season for sure:

Michael GrabnerR80248:29:00112382016
Matt HunwickD60222:41:00001192800
Morgan RiellyD82193:39:00111431700
Roman PolakD55191:55:00003373100
Martin MarincinD65152:58:0000242100
Byron FroeseC56145:19:0000124118085
Leo KomarovW67111:43:001151043033
Nick SpalingC3597:29:00001384758
Daniel WinnikL5694:57:0000311114
Dion PhaneufD5181:59:000039700
Shawn MatthiasL5144:21:000122102
Ben SmithR1636:24:00000143224
Brooks LaichC2134:38:0001000812

Michael Grabner was sixth in the league, and second among forwards, in total shorthanded ice time. No matter how frustrating he might be as an overall player, he is an effective penalty killer with his speed and long reach. The next four players are defensemen and all under contract with the team next season; if Toronto wants to continue rolling them out on the penalty kill, by all means they can continue to do so. The next forward after Grabner, Byron Froese, is under contract with the team as well, but it is tough to see him cracking the roster next season with the anticipated youth movement. That said, it is possible we see him called up quickly if the unit struggles/injury permits.

The rest of the list is all players who are no longer in Toronto, except for Leo Komarov. A capable penalty killer, it is possible Toronto begins to use him more on the PK next year due to the expected added depth. Last season, Komarov was the team’s second leading scorer and played on the top line; perhaps the coaching staff scaled back his penalty killing time a little bit for that reason. Either way, it is expected he’ll see something in the range of second unit PK time.

Before we can begin to look at who might fill these PK roles, let’s identify some of the things Toronto does on the penalty kill in order to see who could fit the skill sets.

On the forecheck and the neutral zone, the Leafs often ran a 1-3. The primary purpose of a 1-3 is to stack the blue line with the two defensemen lined up around the faceoff dots and a forward in the middle of the ice blocking a clean entry, with the goal of forcing a dump-in out of the opposition. For this to work effectively, the one forechecker has to prevent the opponent’s power play from generating speed up ice and cutting through the three defenders blocking off the blue line (this is where Grabner’s speed was very effective). The second forward who protects the middle of the ice won’t automatically line up there; he’ll move up the ice to around the blue line, close enough to pounce on a turnover or retreat back to protect the middle of the ice. It looks like this on paper and in theory:


This goal is an extreme example, but here is the Leafs jamming up Colorado in the neutral zone. On the regroup, the first forechecker — in this case Shawn Matthias — pressures before Komarov picks up the turned-over puck and takes advantage of the scoring opportunity:

Below is an example against Florida later in the season. Florida is running a more traditional PP breakout without a drop pass here; therefore, Toronto has two forwards up the ice who are ‘angling off’ starting at the Panthers blue line. It’s a slightly different look, but it still has the base 1-3 fundamentals. Hyman, who is the first forechecker here, angles off the lead outlet pass (Vincent Trocheck) instead of skating to the primary carrier. When Trocheck gets the puck anyway, Hyman is right on him, and the Leafs have their three men along the blue line ready to hold him up as well. The puck is intercepted and shot back down the ice.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Florida Panthers, March 29th – 6:01 left in the 1st

Let’s keep watching for the next breakout opportunity for Florida. Ben Smith is late in picking up the main breakout option this time, so Florida gets the puck up ice clean with speed while Smith backchecks. Toronto still has their three-man wall lined up and it forces a bad puck exchange and dump-in. Some zone time follows in the form of wall battles, but Florida never sets up and Toronto gets it out.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Florida Panthers, March 29th – 5:51 left in the 1st

Let’s keep going on this same Florida PP, now with Connor Brown and Michael Grabner on the ice. Brown goes up ice and takes away the main breakout pass, which forces Florida to pass to their second option (it’s a two-man curl PP breakout). Toronto’s defense is still standing up the blue line and protecting the zone, playing to force a dump-in. Florida doesn’t dump it in, Toronto picks it off, and Grabner gets a breakaway.

We’ve watched a minute of this PP and the Panthers haven’t been able to enter the zone cleanly yet. After the missed breakaway, Florida goes down the ice, the Leafs swarm the entry, recover the puck, and go down and score on a 2v1.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Florida Panthers, March 29th – 5:18 left in the 1st

The best PPs are the best because they are able to prevent clean entries and setups more than anything else. Toronto builds out their PK forecheck on the 1-3 base and adjusts it to the breakout they are facing. Against a team with a swinging breakout like Florida, we can see the first forechecker go right towards the player who is supposed to get the puck (as opposed to the defenseman with the puck) and begin angling him off.

Let’s compare that with a team using drop passes in their breakout, such as Detroit. Watch how Brooks Laich goes all the way up the ice chasing after it, trying to prevent the drop pass and generally forechecking aggressively. The other three penalty killers are forming their wall along the blue line. Even though Green loses the handle, we can notice how Marincin steps up in the middle of the ice when he originally gets the puck as opposed to retreating back and giving up the line.

Detroit Red Wings vs Toronto Maple leafs, April 2nd – 11:58 left in 2nd

Later in the game, on another Detroit PP, we can see the Leafs get back to pressuring the drop pass, and what happens when they don’t. On the first dump-in, Frederik Gauthier goes all the way up the ice before Detroit identifies it and opts to use a swinging breakout. Froese pushed up ice expecting something else and got caught. Toronto didn’t have their three man wall, but the defense stood their ground on the line, pressured the puck carrier, created a turnover, and shot it down.

Because of a line change here, Detroit is able to set up their drop pass breakout and Grabner is unable to push up ice and pressure the puck. Even though Toronto is in their 1-3 base, Detroit enters the zone with ease due to the lack of pressure.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Detroit Red Wings, April 2nd – 1:30 left in the 2nd

When power plays are in-zone against Toronto, the Leafs don’t do anything particularly unique (a box with a Czech press base at times). One trait that is a little unique is that Toronto really tries to push the half-wall puck carrier down the offensive zone wall.

Below are a few quick examples. When the puck comes around the top of the zone to Reinhart, watch how Grabner keeps up with the play and goes right to Reinhart – he wants to force the puck down low. Reinhart obliges, Toronto has numbers, nothing comes of it, and the Leafs clear.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Buffalo Sabres, March 19th – 16:06 left in 3rd

As the PP continues, Buffalo gains the zone again and Reinhart again has it on the halfwall. This time it’s Zach Hyman who comes up over top of Reinhart and forces him down the wall. Reinhart either has to try and take it to the net, or — as  he decides to do — drop a pass weakly back to the point, where Buffalo gets a shot on net from the furthest point of the offensive zone (which is what Toronto wants).

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Buffalo Sabres, March 19th -15:42 left in 3rd

Of course, where this approach is susceptible is if the forward over commits to the guy on the half wall and the player is able get the puck back to the top of the point. The other team then has a clean shot from the middle of the ice. Take this Matt Niskanen game winner in the third period:

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Washington Capitals, March 3rd – 10:30 left in the 3rd

The matter of who plays on the Toronto penalty kill next year will start with a simple question: Who is making the team? Players like Zach Hyman and Connor Brown figure to receive looks if they make the roster. The same goes for Brooks Laich. As mentioned, Leo Komarov should have some sort of role as well, and even Tyler Bozak to some degree due to his faceoff ability. It will also be interesting to see if Babcock starts deploying a few more of his skilled players on the penalty kill. Nazem Kadri played under six minutes on it last season, while JVR played just over a minute. Both have been capable in the past.

The unit took time to get going last season, and (strangely) it finished second in penalty killing percentage on the road compared to 24th at home. They’ve since lost their best penalty killer, but the system is in place across the organization now and Toronto will be looking to build off their strong finish on the PK last season.