Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The many potential looks of the Leafs’ top powerplay unit

The Leafs are going to do a few things differently this season, so you can go ahead and make peace with that. The roster has had its fair share of turnover, but tactically we can expect to see some new things as well. Out are assistant coaches DJ Smith and Jim Hiller, in are Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol.

We know for a fact McFarland was brought in to take over the Leafs’ powerplay, one that got out to a very hot start last season and nearly looked unstoppable under Hiller, but eventually fizzled and just clung to a top ten mark of converting 21.8% of the time. Not that it was ever bad, but I think people expected more, including the Leafs’ front office.

If you want to read too much into training camp reporting, which I definitely always do, this morning we got some talk of the extremely early looks of what the Leafs might set up on the powerplay. We know for a fact that Rielly will continue to quarterback the first unit, while Tyson Barrie slots in for the second. But from there, who really knows.

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You’ll remember the team’s top unit last year was set up like this: Tavares down low, Marner on the right wall, Matthews on the left wall, and Kadri in the ‘bumper’ in the middle. Rielly ran things up top. Toronto could run back something similar with say, Johnsson, taking Nazem’s place, but I’m not sure I’d count on it.

It might mean nothing, but this morning had Marner with Tavares and Spezza working on some passing, with Marner moved to the left wall and Tavares now in the bumper. Assuming Matthews is back on that unit, we can probably see some interesting looks if McFarland wants to get weird.

For instance (and 19 is Spezza, by the way):

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At first glance this might not seem ideal as it takes some passing looks away from Marner and doesn’t allow Matthews to load up his shot like we’re used to. But part of me thinks this is a very unpredictable setup that would give opposing teams a lot of trouble. Marner’s look to Tavares in the bumper presents a way cleaner shot with power, and the slide-down to go back door to Matthews is terrifying. Also Spezza still has a hammer from that spot where he’s posted, so it’s something teams will have to respect a lot. Moving things back to the point through Marner also becomes easier than it was last year.

Another look that could pose something different is the following:

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This is a look that puts Matthews in an entirely new universe, where he has to use a one-timer more often, something he hasn’t been known for since joining the Leafs. His bread and butter to this point has been to load up a laser from the left side or the quick corral and wrister. And no doubt that’s worked to this point, so I understand anyone who would say “Why change things up?”, to which I’d respond “Why stay the same?” or “Why not do both?”. There’s nothing in the rulebook against it, last I checked. There’s also a chance that Matthews gets a best-of-both-worlds look by moving to the bumper instead of Tavares, which is something I could totally get on board with.

Speaking of Matthews 1T’s and the like, maybe he’s been working on them in anticipation for moving around a bit:

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Again, I realize it’s so early in the calendar that it’s hard to read too much into split-squad setups and all that, but we are getting clues as to how things might change once the games mean something. Every day that lines get hardened up the roster looks more set.

We can also go back McFarland’s time with the Florida Panthers to see if he followed any hard and fast rules with his top unit, which led the team to the second-best mark in the league, mind you. From a quick YouTube search, here’s what it looked like the Panthers ran out there for a top unit setup:

Note: Every player on this powerplay unit is left-handed.

So yeah, while Matthews is the Leafs’ most dangerous offensive player, putting him down low wouldn’t be totally uncalled for. Barkov played that role for the Panthers, though admittedly he isn’t known for the best strong-side shot on planet earth. Still, there’s nothing here to suggest McFarland is insistent on a certain handedness setup or whatnot. Hoffman represents a very strong trigger man, which leads me to believe the second option I posted for the Leafs above could be a stronger possibility, with Matthews now teeing up.

Then again, something could happen in the next couple days that changes our outlook on this entirely. The Leafs will play their first exhibition games in the next two nights, and we should see things shape up a little more. Maybe this will all end up moot as they eventually just decide to run back the same look as last season, but until then it’s fun to play coach and think of the possibilities with such a talented roster. I’m inclined to think, given the firings and hirings, things change more than stay the same.