What’s eating the Leafs penalty kill?

A lot of writers have picked up on the Leafs problems at 5-on-5. It’s been obvious there’s a deficiency there. James Mirtle in the Globe and Lance Hornby in the Sun took different approaches in looking at where the Leafs need an added boost. The quotes from Hornby’s piece seem to indicate the team thinks they can do better. I’d agree, but not because I think the Leafs have an inherent ability to out-work opposing teams 5-on-5, I believe they have a lot more skill in the lineup and that’s going unused. A focus on getting pucks in and getting pucks out takes away from all the forward skill in the lineup (In this Steve Buffery piece, Carlyle explicitly suggested “skill plays” were to blame for Leaf turnovers).

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But there’s still not a tonne of reasons to be concerned at five-on-five. Hockey Analyis says that the team has scored 15 and allowed 15 in that situation, but it’s not like they were totally dominant in goal differential there a year ago. The Leafs were +8 in goal-differential at 5-on-5, with a 52% goals for rate. It was 9th in the league. Good, but not crazy good. The Leafs benefit from being an above-average powerplay team and they had the second best penalty kill in the league, allowing just 4.1 goals per 60 minutes at 4-on-5, and 41.7 shots against (5th).

Side note: There are many, many reasons why I hate the traditional measures of comparing team penalty kill and powerplay rates. Probably enough to not pay attention to them altogether.

At any rate, while the past three games have shown off the Leafs problems at getting shots and preventing them at even strength, there’s another worrying aspect of the game creeping up. The Leafs penalty kill, for whatever reason, is nowhere close to what it was last season.

I mentioned this before, but small samples had me worried that it was indicative of a trend. The Leafs have now gone five straight games letting their goaltenders see at least one shot a minute or more, and before that, they weren’t at all very good at protecting their net like they were a year ago.

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Last season, they allowed 41.7 shots per 60 minutes, as noted above. Just twice this year have they matched that. It looks scary in chart form, because five of the games above last year’s pace are well-above last year’s pace:

Note that the last five games, where the team has allowed at least one shot per minute in a 4-on-5 situation, are the last five games the Leafs have played. They allowed a 4-on-5 goal against Chicago, Carolina and Minnesota, and a 3-on-5 goal against Edmonton.

Are injuries to Nik Kulemin and Mark Fraser the problem? That’s tough to say. Those two ARE numbers 1-2 on the team in team shots against while on the ice at 4-on-5 (and were last year as well), but that’s just in two games. In the first two games Toronto played after their injuries, they were fine on the PK, including against Ottawa who are 7th in the league at generating shots at 5-on-4.

Faceoffs the plausible issue?

  4v5 FOW 4v5 FOL 4v5 FO%
2013 138 135 0.505
2014 21 43 0.328

I’m not comfortable enough talking about PK systems, but this certainly does seem like something worth investigating further, especially if the trend does continue. It could be something as simple as faceoffs: if the Leafs were winning 4-on-5 draws at last season’s rate of 50.5%, they’d have 36% fewer faceoff losses per two minutes. The Leafs are currently allowing 39% more shots. Something as simple as draws could easily explain what’s happening with the team, and it would certainly explain why the Leafs are doing so badly with Bozak on the ice at 4-on-5.

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Bozak has a reputation as a penalty-killer (he has scored a shorthanded goal, but that came off of a faceoff loss) and as a draw specialist, but he’s been awful in both departments this season. The Leafs have allowed 28.6 shots per 20 minutes against (via Hockey Analysis) with Bozak on the ice this season. That’s the worst on the Leafs. Via Extra Skater, Bozak is just 31% on draws in 4-on-5 situations (Jay McClement and David Bolland, at 33% and 44%, are doing no better, but they’ve taken just 9 draws apiece compared to Bozak’s 45 thus far). He was 53% last year.

That said, a good faceoff percentage doesn’t often link to a good penalty kill, but I would suspect that losing more faceoffs correlates higher with preventing shots on the PK more than it would generally affecting overall PK rates in general. There could be something more into this if we dig a little. Nothing systematically strikes me as different about the Leafs this year than last, but shots against on the PK are well up, and faceoff wins are way down. Perhaps later tonight or tomorrow I’ll have some time to dig into game-by-game situations to see if that’s truly what’s affecting the team. On the outset, it doesn’t look too promising. Bozak was just 33% (7-and-14) on 4-on-5 draws in the teams first four games, which were the team’s best in preventing PK shots and on a pace similar to last year’s. He did go 0-6 against Chicago (Extra Skater is really handy with this type of information) so there’s almost assuredly something besides faceoffs at play.


More than the five-on-five play, this is worrying. The Leafs can win if they get out-shot 5-on-5. They have better shooters and goalies than the other team and can make up for it in percentages if they get out-shot by four or five. If they lose the penalty kill, and the opposition starts striking on the PK (how long can Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer sustain this league-leading .9385 save percentage at 4-on-5?) what then? In the meantime, having Kulemin and Fraser (as much as I don’t like Fraser at even strength, he’s a serviceable penalty killer) return to the lineup soon should stop some of the bleeding, but I’m not sure all the team’s problems can be pinned on both the loss of those two as well as Bozak being unable to win a faceoff anymore.

We’ll see what happens this week. The team really needs to tighten up in this area. Shots are much more sustainable and predictive than goals, so there’s a reason to be concerned about a team giving up more than 60 shots per 60 minutes on the PK routinely, even if the goals against numbers are low.

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  • STAN

    All points valid.

    Changing the topic, slightly, in this, the week Carlyle and Nonis have to decide on Rielly, consider the 4 players who went ahead of Rielly. GM Brian Burke declared on draft day that he would have taken Rielly at number one, rather than any of the 3 who were actually drafted.

    Pretty bold statement that seemed ludicrous at the time. But…

    #1 left winger Nail Yakupov isn’t looking great right now.

    #2 defenceman Ryan Murray is still with Columbus, 8 games in, and has one assist while playing about 16 minurtes a game.

    #3 centre Alex Galchenyuk is solid for the Habs, 7 points in 8 games, PLUS 4 and playing 15 minutes on a regular shift.

    #4 defenceman Griffin Reinhart is back in junior.

    Despite Yakupov’s troubles, he’s got plenty of talent and speed and will come around, with the right coaching.

    Galchenyuk is superb. Size, speed and touch.

    I contend a sane Brian Burke would have taken Galchenyuk if he’d been available. Same with Yakupov.

    Rielly would rank third on the list.


  • DreadPirateKessel

    I like that you are finally coming around to the “quality shots” argument that Carlyle has been employing. And I agree the leafs have better shooters and are able to employ that strategy at a team level. Good job and good article.

  • MaxPower417

    I could only find shorthanded FO data from one season, 2009/2010 (from http://www.ontheforecheck.com/2010/6/7/1505557/breaking-down-faceoff-winning).

    I checked the correlation to 4v5 CA/60 in the same year and got -0.21. I doubt the negative correlation is significant given the small sample size, but it certainly isn’t indicative of FO% being very significant to overall success.

    Note: The correlation to FA/60 and SA/60 were -0.22 and -0.13 respectively.

    • Indeed. I wouldn’t suspect it to be a general theme, but it could tell us something in a small sample like nine games.

      I have an idea for how to attack this, however. Post tomorrow with the results of my experiment.