The Leafs’ special teams play was a huge reason they squeaked into the playoffs in ’16/17 and we should expect the powerplay to be among the league’s best again this season.
The penalty kill, though, is not quite as inspiring. At first glance, the Leafs were 11th in goals against per hour on the penalty kill last season. That’s above average, so why should we be worried about that? Well, things get a little murkier when you dig into the more predictive metrics. On the PK, the Leafs ranked 27th in shot attempts against per hour, 27th in unblocked shot attempts against per hour and 25th in shots on goal against per hour. That is not a good sign when projecting this season’s results, as it would seem they’re due for some heavy regression.
The major reason for the above average results despite a well below average process is that the Leafs had the third highest save percentage while on the penalty kill. The concerning part about this is that penalty kill sv% is an extremely volatile statistic and has virtually zero correlation to future success (Andersen ranked 8th in ’16/17 and 19th in ’15/16.)
This is to say that if the Leafs don’t fix their penalty killing process, they’re likely to give up a lot more goals this year than they did last year. When you’re in the bottom five in every shot suppression metric, one would assume there must be something systematically wrong with your penalty kill. The shocking thing about this is that the ’15/16 version of Mike Babcock’s Leafs (the one which came dead last in the NHL) ranked second in the NHL in terms of both denying shot attempts and denying unblocked shot attempts against, as well as ranking third in suppressing shots on goal. While the results are quite similar in terms of goals, the difference in process is really quite stark.
If the Leafs regress to a mere average sv% on the PK this year, they’re in trouble. They were legitimately one of the best in the league the year before, but were let down by the goaltending. Luckily, their process was still so good that there were rewarded with slightly above average results. Last year was the complete opposite. They were a mess, but they were rewarded with above average results (slightly better than ’15/16) due to an inflated sv%. You might argue that they brought Andersen in and he’s much better than what they had, and that might be true, but like I said earlier, sv% on the PK has historically been extremely volatile. A major reason for this is that you don’t spend enough time on the penalty kill during a season for a large enough sample size to be built and small sample size = tonnes of shooting/save percentage variation.
So, what the hell happened? I asked this question on twitter dot com (which is where you always get rational, educated answers) and received this response.
The year previous they had all grinders who were vet PKers. Last year they had skilled guys doing it for the first time (brown, hyman, sosh)
— Hardev (@HardevLad) September 26, 2017
It’s such a simple answer and something I had considered, but when I looked at the total 180 in shot metrics I couldn’t believe that the issues could be personnel and personnel only. If I didn’t know any better and I just looked at the chart above, I would’ve assumed there was a coaching change in the offseason. I mean, the PK went from one of the staunchest shot suppressors in the NHL one year to absolutely bleeding shots on net the next. The thing that is blowing my mind is that seemingly the only thing that’s changed is personnel.
When looking into individual performances, I think the Leafs’ PK really missed Michael Grabner. Or they were just really hindered by Zach Hyman’s constant presence. During the ’15/16 season, Grabner was the forward who spent the most time penalty killing on a per game basis and by a significant margin, playing over three minutes per game on the PK. During the ’16/17 campaign, Hyman was given most of that responsibility and it didn’t quite go as planned. He spent 2:45 per game on the penalty kill and the Leafs gave up 21.76 more shot attempts per hour with him on the ice than with him off it. The year before, Grabner (in virtually the same role) gave up 8.53 more shots per hour with him on the ice than off of it. That’s a huge difference.
(By the way, if you’re thinking “wow both players are bad and make their team worse while on the ice during the PK,” go read this piece by our very own Ian Tulloch on the impact of zone starts on the penalty kill.)
One forward who played on both the ’15/16 and the ’16/17 versions of the Leafs PK is Leo Komarov and he posted well above average shot suppression metrics during both seasons. A lot of that has to do with the aforementioned zone start adjustment, as he seems to start a lot more shifts “on the fly” when the first unit is changing and the powerplay unit is attempting to get the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone. It’s a lot easier to break up an attempted exit/entry in the neutral zone than it is to get possession of the puck off a defensive zone faceoff in which you have one less player on the ice than the opposition. Then, if you do lose possession off the draw, the opposing team is immediately threatening. My point is, Komarov’s numbers are inflated while Hyman’s are misleading, but Hyman’s are still really bad relative to another player who was put in virtually the same situation in the same system the year before.
There are a couple of players I’d like to see given an opportunity on the penalty kill this season, although I’m not sure if one of them is going to make the team. The one I’m referring to there, of course, is Kasperi Kapanen. The Marlies used Kapanen on the penalty kill last season and, from what I’ve been told, he was very effective. Intuitively, this makes sense. He’s not the traditional veteran penalty killer who blocks shots like a maniac, but his incredible foot speed should allow him to wreck havoc on the opposition trying to set up a powerplay. He can stop and accelerate the other way in the blink of an eye, which could be extremely useful on the penalty kill. Lastly, his blazing speed would be a threat at all times and might make the opposition hesitant on their own powerplay in fear of giving up a shorthanded breakaway.
The other player I’d love to see given more time on the PK is Mitch Marner because he’s a complete psycho.
Marner is a lunatic. pic.twitter.com/GxkKbz8D61
— #1 Winerpeg Jetz fan (@DylanFremlin) March 23, 2017
Marner has no stick yet keeps the puck in the zone by separating Klingberg from the puck and then kicking the puck off of Eakin's stick. pic.twitter.com/WxLKnT3iHs
— #1 Winerpeg Jetz fan (@DylanFremlin) February 9, 2017
I’m kidding, but on a more serious note his combination of speed, puck pursuit and vision seem like they would translate well to the penalty kill. He reads the play well, which is really important for a penalty killer, but he can also get to where he wants to be thanks to his foot speed. Having one of Kapanen or Marner on the ice at all times on the penalty kill could potentially be equally as effective as it would be fun. Marner saw some brief time on the penalty kill during a couple of games in the middle of the season and there were some exciting moments, as you would expect.
More Marner on the PK plz. pic.twitter.com/ra1E7FMDJN
— #1 Winerpeg Jetz fan (@DylanFremlin) February 15, 2017
How to kill penalties featuring Mitch Marner: try to score immediately. pic.twitter.com/96wVpscETq
— #1 Winerpeg Jetz fan (@DylanFremlin) January 9, 2017
Ultimately, the Leafs need to make some personnel changes if they want to get the same results they’ve received over the last two years. They can’t expect to get the high rate of saves they received last year, so they have to change something in order to give up less shots.
Given that the coaching staff hasn’t seen any changes, the lineup will be enduring minimal changes and the relatively good results from last season, I’m not sure this is something that is going to be addressed to begin the season, but I think it should be.
*all statistics via naturalstattrick.com