How the Toronto Maple Leafs special teams perform this season, especially in the playoffs, will determine just how close they make it to the Stanley Cup Final. Mike Babcock has commented in the past that the way the Maple Leafs play tough hockey is to score on the powerplay. Basically he’s saying, go ahead, be rough and take penalties, we’ll respond by scoring a powerplay goal. The theory is sound, but for it to work, the team needs to score copious amounts of goals with the man advantage. It would also help if they didn’t allow just as many on the penalty kill. That’s an area that needs considerable work this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs Special Teams Play Key To Season
Last Year’s Playoffs
The Maple Leafs scored three goals in 16 power-play chances during last year’s seven-game series against the Boston Bruins. That’s a conversion rate of 18.8 percent and it’s a middle of the pack sort of number. It’s not good enough to be considered a great powerplay and it’s not nearly good enough to make other teams afraid of taking penalties.
The penalty-kill against Boston was far worse. The Bruins scored seven times on 16 chances, converting 56.3% of their opportunities. The Maple Leafs still managed to take Boston to seven games despite the inferior special teams’ performance which ended up being the difference in the series.
The 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs season had it’s ups and downs when it comes to special teams play. The power-play was steady, finished 8th overall with a conversion rate of 21.8 percent. The penalty-kill wasn’t great, finishing 17th overall with a success rate of 79.9 percent. The penalty-kill did see a boost with Mitch Marner joining it mid-season, but it was never good, although it was much better in the regular season than it was in the playoffs.
There are too few games played so far to judge this year’s edition of the special team units, but there are good signs. For one, the Maple Leafs hired Paul McFarland as an assistant coach. McFarland was with the Florida Panthers last year, a squad that finished with the second-best power-play in the NHL. Auston Matthews has also seemed to find a new way to score that will help on the power-play.
The penalty kill still needs work, but both sides have time to hone their craft for the playoffs. It’s a safe bet to say the power-play will once again be in the NHL’s top ten. The bigger question is on the penalty kill side. Will they be able to consistently keep the puck out of the net. They let the Tampa Bay Lightning score two on them Thursday night. That’s likely to be a common problem around the league, though.
Lack Of Muscle
It’s no secret that Kyle Dubas has made up his mind regarding the team’s composition. They are built with skill and likely aren’t going to be bringing in any players that might protect them from the Tom Wilson‘s of the league. Historically, that’s not been a path to the Stanley Cup. Last year’s finalists both had their share of sandpaper type players. How will the Maple Leafs fare against those squads through two months of playoff hockey?
There are long stretches in which the referees put their whistles away and let the players get away with more than they usually can. We saw the frustration that led to with Nazem Kadri last season. Kadri was the grittiest Maple Leaf but instead of helping the team, he hurt it by getting suspended in Game 2 of the Boston series. That was the last game he played for the Maple Leafs. Dubas traded him to the Colorado Avalanche in the off-season.
Kadri was traded for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot. Neither player brings the grit Kadri did. Barrie is yet another skilled defenseman to add to Morgan Rielly. He will help with the transition game and the power-play, but he does little to plug the defensive hole the Maple Leafs have on the back-end. The Maple Leafs still have Jake Muzzin but that may not be enough.
Dubas’ message was clear when he traded Kadri. The Maple Leafs have little interest in employing tough guys of any ilk. They believe they can win betting big on skill and talent. It also can’t be a co-incident that after crossing the line twice in two years with back to back years with playoff suspensions, Kadri was sent packing.
If betting it all on skill is going to pay off, the Maple Leafs need to be one of, if not the best team in the league on both sides of the power-play. Teams will want to rough up the Maple Leafs’ skilled player. Why not take a run at Matthews if you know there won’t be any on-ice retribution? If the Maple Leafs score a lot with the man advantage, that will be a small deterrent, but probably not enough.
On the flip side, if the Maple Leafs are unable to stop the other teams’ power-plays from scoring, teams will quickly revert back to not worrying too much about taking penalties. Yes, the Maple Leafs may score one or two, but they’ll get them back when it’s their turn with the man advantage.
Toronto Maple Leafs Special Teams In The Playoffs
The Maple Leafs are good enough to coast through the regular season and still make the playoffs. That’s not going to be enough though. It’s important the Maple Leafs aim for home-ice advantage this year. They’ve lost two straight playoff series in Game 7 situations in Boston. Playing that game at home may be a difference-maker.
More importantly, they must use the regular season to clean up their play. That extends to 5 on 5 play, but the special teams are most important. It was their Achilles’ heel last season. They need to find new ways to keep their opponents guessing on the power-play, which they seem to be doing well so far, and they need to figure out how to excel on the penalty-kill. That’s still a work in progress, but they have 77 games left to figure it out.
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