Yes, I know this title is ridiculous and it seems counter-intuitive to take more penalties in hopes of scoring more goals, but weird times call for weird ideas. And trust me, things have been weird for the Leafs this season when it comes to officiating.
Something that’s been a constant in the discussion of this team during the games this season is how the powerplays seem to have dried up. The Leafs haven’t received many opportunities to show off their feared top unit often since the season got going, and that isn’t from a ref bias angle. On most nights neither Toronto nor their opponent is handed a 5v4 advantage very often. In fact, as we see below, the Leafs rank dead last in penalty minutes drawn or taken. They don’t go to the box often, and their opponents don’t either. Odd, isn’t it, that these games can be so clean.
Here’s a run down of how the Leafs and the rest of the league draw penalties on a per-game basis.
Look at the Leafs, out on that island all alone.
But seriously, what in the hell is going on here? I’m trying to take off my blue-coloured glasses, but it genuinely does feel like the Leafs are on the wrong end of the officiating element on a lot of nights. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe the referees are “out to get” this team in particular. But there are some possible reasons that the Leafs, through only half a season, have received 50 fewer opportunities on the powerplay than the Colorado Avalanche, for example.
The most simple explanation here is that the Leafs are very disciplined, relying on their speed and skill game and not getting caught chasing or being too aggressive defensively, coupled with other teams being terrified of the Leafs’ top powerplay unit, so they stay out of the box as well. But it’s also possible that only the first or latter of these underlying reasons is actually true, and the referees are pushing the other outcome into existence.
Here’s a theory: The Leafs, a team built on skill and speed, are staying out of the box because they aren’t chasing the game too much and have a team essentially void of anyone physically punishing or particularly undisciplined (save Kadri maybe). But as we can see from the chart above, if you don’t take penalties in the NHL, you don’t get powerplays either. Why? It’s been obvious for years to anyone who follows this sometimes ridiculous league: Refs don’t want to ruffle any feathers so they try as hard as possible to keep special teams opportunities even. None of us are new to “make-up calls” or officials throwing away their whistles in the playoffs.
The problem is, Toronto is getting their share of playoff officiating already, four months in advance. The whistles are put away. And for a team so skilled, that can be so lethal on the powerplay (despite their recent struggles), that’s probably not a good thing. Special teams can be an enormous part of the Leafs’ offense but they aren’t getting their share of opportunities to cash in – they don’t really get the chance to work. So what to do about it? It seems a bit, uhh, radical, but perhaps the team needs to play more aggressive and take a lot more risks in situations that could land them down a man. You’d think that, given the well-documented rate at which Toronto can generate scoring chances on the powerplay, the trade-off of opening up the game and letting referees do their “keep everyone happy” routine of calling it down the middle, on balance they should end up ahead. If I had to bet on a Leafs game where the powerplay opportunities were 4-4 versus 1-1, I’d obviously lean toward them winning the former more times than the latter. Wouldn’t you?
I mean, this isn’t going to happen. Babcock would never go about the game this way, asking players to take more risks and trade off special teams opportunities. But something has to give here. The eye test just doesn’t line up with how these penalties are being doled out. At worst, a team as quick and (now) possession-heavy as the Leafs should be middle of the pack in terms of penalties drawn, but it’s just not shaking out that way. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a homer and that’s what homers do, complain about the refs.
Something just seems off here, and I’m at the point now where I’d at least like to see Babcock lighten his wallet to call it out from time to time. The Leafs aren’t necessarily being treated unfairly, but they have the most to lose by having the referees “just let them play”, and stirring things up or putting a target on themselves might be the only way to break out of it.