The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of another strong campaign, currently on track to finish top five in the standings and generally sitting in the top half of most major categories.
They still struggle defensively, giving up the seventh most shots per game in the league, and one thing that is just as concerning is their penalty kill. It currently ranks 16th and is killing off 80.3 percent of their penalties. At this point, they are almost certainly playing the Bruins again in the playoffs, and Boston has the second-best power play in the league (26.8%).
The good news is the Leafs have taken the fewest minor penalties in the league, and that is why, in the big picture, they have given up the fifth fewest power-play goals despite not owning an elite penalty kill.
That said, in case you forgot what happened in the playoffs last year, the Leafs killed off only 66.7% of their penalties and it was a major factor in the seven-game series.
Let’s start taking a look at the penalty kill this season and try to figure out what’s happening. By month, it has had two good ones so far and has struggled otherwise:
|Month||Penalty Killing Percentage|
Let’s break this down further by who is actually playing what minutes to try to provide some context here. The Leafs have essentially gone with 10 penalty killers this season (although it’s worth noting that Tavares was getting over 30 seconds per game on the penalty kill to start the season and that has completely dwindled since).
|Penalty Kill||October TOI||November TOI||December TOI||January TOI||February TOI|
The Leafs are led by Zaitsev and Hainsey on the penalty kill, both of whom are in the top 15 in the league in total shorthanded ice time. Up front, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman are 23rd and 24th, respectively, among all forwards in shorthanded time on ice. The major changes in ice time the last few months have been Dermott seeing his ice time drop right down, Rielly’s rising on defense, and then the addition of Jake Muzzin. Up front, Par Lindholm has now been traded, Mitch Marner’s time on ice has climbed, and Kasperi Kapanen has added some extra ice time.
All the team stats generally point to an average penalty kill – they are 16th in shorthanded save percentage, 14th in high danger corsi-against per 60, and give up the 11th most shot attempts per 60 minutes. If there’s one area that is slightly concerning, they are seventh in scoring chances against per 60, and to the eye, they have started to give up more rush chances of late while killing penalties.
Much like last season, it’s pretty well already safe to say the Leafs are going to play the Bruins in the first round. Each team has a month or so to get/stay healthy and gear up for each other, and special teams figure to play a large part in the series (as it usually does). The Leafs need the time to integrate Muzzin full-time, and it looks like they have decided their main penalty-killing forwards are Brown, Hyman, Kapanen, and Marner. That, too, will need time to gel and work itself, particularly with Lindholm no longer on the team as an insurance policy of sorts. Complicating matters further is a defense that is all sorts of banged up and is currently mixing and matching pieces.
The penalty kill isn’t close-your-eyes-bad, but the team has a month to tighten it up before they face an elite unit in April.
– With just over a minute left in the second period of the game against the Islanders, Connor Brown went up the ice and tried a long pass that went for icing. The Islanders scored off the following faceoff sequence to make it 4-1 going into the third, effectively icing the game. That’s a back-breaking play. Brown had space to get center on the play but went for the long pass, which in fairness to him is kind of how the Leafs play, by and large. That said, you have to have some situational awareness at some point and with the way the Leafs were playing, you probably just wanted to get to the dressing room down two to give yourself a chance to come back.
– Zach Hyman’s 16 goals so far this season is slightly deceiving – he has five empty net goals, which leads the entire NHL. That’s not said to minimize or even question his impact; any line he plays on is good, whether that’s with skill players or further down the lineup. He forechecks hard and clearly brings an element this team generally lacks, which is the ability to win battles.
– Similarly, four of Mitch Marner’s 24 goals have been on empty nets. He needs nine points in the final 15 games to have the first 90+ point Leafs season since Mats Sundin in 1996-97.
– It’s pretty clear that teams are putting all their top match-up guys against the John Tavares line – as Calgary did with the Backlund unit. That means Matthews is getting second and third lines. Against the top teams, he is going to have to elevate to another level while the Tavares unit soaks up the toughest minutes. In the Islanders game, the Tavares line scored (twice), while the Matthews unit had few top scoring chances. The Flames game would be another example and in fact the Matthews line was under 40 percent possession through the first two periods.
– This is what a callup who doesn’t want to come out of the lineup looks like:
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) March 5, 2019
Against Buffalo, Trevor Moore got right in on the forecheck, bodying Rasmus Ristolainen off the puck and setting up Petan for a goal in the slot. Ristolainen is 6’4, and weighs 215+; Moore is 5’10 and weighs 180+. He’s small but he’s physical, feisty, and certainly doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas.
– Not including the Calgary game (which was not good, either), Jake Muzzin – Nikita Zaitsev has a 45.18 CF% together and they are -11 in scoring chances, but at least they are even in goals for/against. The Leafs are balancing injuries and things can change, but it seems fairly obvious this is not a pairing that will work out. Neither one of Muzzin/Zaitsev are puck handlers and they are struggling to move the puck up ice cleanly. Neither is a speedster, either. They have to back in off the rush and that allows teams to gain the zone. If they stand them up at the line, you can take them wide.
“Well, we win and lose as a team. Myself, I don’t think I played very well. As a team, we wanted to respond … it was a good team effort on the win tonight, a good way to bounce back.”
– John Tavares on his teammates feeling bad for letting him down in New York
Big games for individuals are about teammates rallying around that person and playing hard for him. I thought the Tavares line was good, the fourth line was good, and pretty well nobody else was. It was disappointing. That’s a politically correct response from Tavares.
“We are fortunate that I think we have 19 games left. If you do this in the playoffs, you lose. You’re done right away. Period. We’ve got these dress rehearsals.”
– Mike Babcock on whether the Islanders game was a disappointing effort
This quote stood out because it’s the first time this season I can recall Babcock just being honest after a bad game and referencing how bad it would be in relation to the playoffs. He’s usually quite positive in his post-games but I think this was completely appropriate.
“I love the way he plays. I met him a few times, he’s a great guy, a great person, but I love the way he plays. He’s an elite skater and he can get up and down the ice and that’s pretty special. He’s put it all together.”
– Mark Giordano on Morgan Rielly
Now up to 63 points in 66 games, Morgan Rielly is second among all defensemen in scoring. I’ve mentioned this before, but what has stood out to me this season is his confidence in joining the rush and how he gets to open space offensively. At times when he was younger, he was unsure of where to go or how to attack, particularly when he didn’t have the puck on his stick. Against Calgary, there was a delayed penalty and Rielly passed it to the half wall then cut right through the middle all the way to the corner of the offensive zone, which allowed Matthews to pull up top and create a scoring chance (he passed it off to Tavares, who missed). Those are the kind of plays he really wasn’t making when he broke into the league.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. At the end of the day, I think William Nylander will have to go back with Matthews. The two have been fantastic together the first two seasons of their careers and while Kapanen has had a nice season, he’s not the talent that Nylander is in terms of driving play and holding onto the puck in the offensive zone. That allows Matthews to do what he does best: Get open and bury scoring chances when he gets the puck. Against stronger teams, Matthews has struggled recently to make much of an impact.
2. I like Tyler Ennis and Nic Petan alternating. Unless Ennis comes back cheap again, Petan is almost certainly his replacement next season and the organization clearly wants to see what they have there. Ennis has looked good since returning and has helped round out their second power-play unit so that it’s no longer chewing up the final 40ish seconds of power plays by doing nothing. He should play more than Petan down the stretch — he has been good since returning from the broken leg and makes an impact in limited minutes –- but a little rotation here just keeps them both hungry.
3. I think the fact that Ennis and Petan are alternating while Trevor Moore remains in is a pretty good sign he has a spot all but secured. His seven points in 12 games are just a bonus to the energy and forechecking he has brought the fourth line. He has added a bit of a different dimension to the team. We’ve talked about this before in this space, but the team needed to diversify their roster a bit (and still do further), and Moore is one that stands out because he brings a different style than pretty well anyone else on the team. He’s similar to Hyman on the forecheck, but faster and not as strong. Johnsson gets remembered for leading the Marlies in scoring during their Calder Cup run, but Moore was second on the team in points last season in the playoffs.
4. I think you could quite easily convince me that Connor Brown should be the one coming out of the lineup when Nazem Kadri returns and that the fourth line should remain as is. This is primarily because Brown hasn’t made much of an impact lately after being bumped up the lineup. Going into the Calgary game, he had three points and 12 shots on net in 10 games and the lowest amount of ice time he saw in any of those games was 12:55. He’s good on the penalty kill and is an honest player, but his impact shift-to-shift is waning. Brown has five goals this season (including an empty netter). Ennis has 12 in 26 fewer games.
5. I think it’s really going to bite the team in the butt not having Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly together. They can’t possibly think that Rielly – Hainsey is a good idea against the Bruins’ top line in a seven-game playoff series. Where is the big picture thinking here?