Is the Leafs penalty kill… good?

The negatives of the Leafs season so far have overtaken the positives after Toronto put up two stinkers against both New York teams to finish last week at 2-3-0. In a vacuum, the 2-3-0 record isn’t jarring or worrying. It’s a long season, despite what the pundits tell you, and usually in an 82-game season the teams that make the playoffs are the ones who are in playoff position after Game 48.

There’s a slightly larger cushion for bad games or bad weeks, but the Leafs can get away with two or three weeks scattered throughout the season of poor performances. That’s not what I’m particularly worried about, but the way the team has played this season, they’ve been heavily relying on their goaltending.

They haven’t been an awful puck-possession club so far, but they’re skirting the limits. Behindthenet has their Fenwick Close rate at 45.7%. For the uninitiated, a “Fenwick” number counts every shot directed at the net but eliminates blocked shots. The “rate” is the percentage of these shots that have been fired at the other net. It’s used as an approximation of zone time, and we specify situations with the score “close” because teams that are trailing tend to heavily out-shoot their opponents.

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Fenwick rates also match up with scoring chances over the course of a season, but I like to count scoring chances because they give a good indication of which lineup options are working and allow me to keep a closer eye on matchups. While the Leafs’ “Fenwick Close” rate is 45.7%, I have their scoring chance rate slightly higher at 47.8%. That percentage point isn’t enough of a gap for me to be confident that the Leafs are getting super unlucky. They have been outplayed at even strength, but that is to be expected. Randy Carlyle has figured out his top three lines and their deployment, but is still trying to figure out something to do with his fourth line and defence.

His problem as I can identify it is that he has to fill nine NHL roster spots in the fourth line and defence, and he only has five NHL players to do it with with Jake Gardiner in the minors and two defencemen having to double up on the left side of the ice.

Positives, though… the penalty kill! The Leafs’ PK rate is at 84.2%, the 10th best in the NHL through Sunday’s games. It was 28th in the last two seasons and 30th in 2009-2010. So far this season, the Leafs have given up just three goals on the PK. Part of that is that they’ve been conditioned by Ron Wilson to not give up penalties, part of it is the addition of Jay McClement is paying off.

Here’s how the Leafs’ PK has stacked up this year in goals against and shots against compared to previous years, via BTN:

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  Shots/60 MIN Goals/60 MIN
2010 54.9 8.4
2011 47.8 7.9
2012 51.1 7.4
2013 58.3 5.2

Shots against is similar, if not a little higher, but the goals against total has dropped. I doubt Leafs’ goalies will be able to maintain a .911 save percentage on the penalty kill, but that shots against rate should normalize closer to 50 sometime soon. Right now the Leafs are 16th in the NHL in SA/60 on the PK, last season they were 17th.

So, small differences. I didn’t count scoring chances for the team last year, but I’ll use my current scoring chance numbers, rather than shots against or goals, to look at how Maple Leafs’ penalty killers are doing so far this season. Time-on-ice numbers are from, scoring chance against numbers are from my notebook. I’ve pro-rated each player’s ice-time to two minutes:

Player SH icetime Chances

Chance/2 MIN

Liles 6.7 2 0.60
McClement 22.6 8 0.71
Gunnarsson 16.0 6 0.75
Kulemin 15.6 6 0.77
Komisarek 7.8 3 0.77
Bozak 12.3 5 0.82
TEAM 34.8 15 0.86
Komarov 13.1 6 0.91
Phaneuf 21.6 10 0.93
Kostka 12.6 7 1.11
van Riemsdyk 3.7 3 1.61

That first unit, led by Jay McClement and Nik Kulemin, has had a lot of success so far, giving up two scoring chances on average every three full power plays for the opposition. Carl Gunnarsson is doing a good job as well, and he’s been juggling John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek as a partner. I think Liles is having a much better season this year than last and looks like a top-four NHLer again. Unfortunately, he’s been playing third pairing minutes so far at even strength, but he’s doing a good job in his minutes on the PK.

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The second unit is pretty bad right now. The Leafs have been going with Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov for the last three games, with Dave Steckel conspicuously absent as a penalty killer. If the Leafs aren’t going to have scorers on their fourth line, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to dress a player or two who can will penalties? Colton Orr hasn’t even touched the ice with the team shorthanded yet, and Mike Brown has been out there for :19 seconds. Steckel’s a good face-off guy who I thought did his job well last season, and I think it’s hilarious that Carlyle insists on putting wingers who can’t do anything important ahead of him in the lineup. Also, it’s clear that Mike Kostka is in over his head at this level. It’s a nice story, but Kostka has been asked to take first-pairing duties in all situations and he’s been man-handled so far this season.

Early returns on the PK so far suggest that it’s an improvement over last season. No longer fronting makes it look better, and it seems to me like pucks are spending more time being slapped down the ice surface rather than from 40 feet in front of, and in the direction of, the Leafs’ net. Wait for the numbers to normalize in a couple of weeks, and we’ll be able to start looking at what Randy Carlyle is doing differently than Ron Wilson did.

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