Committing to systems, swapping Kampf for Gregor and other Maple Leafs penalty kill fixes: Leaflets

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
24 days ago
There are only 17 games remaining in the season and the Maple Leafs are officially at the 80% mark on the progress bar of the season. That actually makes it seem like there’s a substantial amount of hockey left, but really it is just a month and this is the Leafs just getting saddled with an incredibly backloaded schedule that will have the being one of the busiest teams in the NHL despite really only needing 5 more wins to ensure a playoff spot and requiring a combination of 24 points either from Maple Leafs or the Lightning failing to pick up points to guarantee Toronto at least third in the Atlantic.
The Leafs haven’t been a stranger to knowing their playoff fates well in advance, and this year it seemed to take a little longer to be locked into playoff certainty and have the added twist of not knowing whether it will be the Bruins or Panthers they face in the first round. I think we can safely say there will be no more “We want Florida” chants nor will there be anyone doing a happy dance about getting Boston. Instead, there should be some recognition that the Leafs need to improve themselves in the next 17 games to be ready for their opponent.
This week’s Leaflet column is going to focus entirely on the Leafs penalty kill and what is going wrong with it.

Why is the penalty kill a focus?

I’m going to start by asking myself obvious questions. The Leafs penalty kill is presently the 10th worst in the NHL at 77.2% and the Net PK is marginally better at 80.2%, 13th worst in the NHL. The Leafs are still getting a bit of a bump from their “power kill” approach that relies on springing Mitch Marner on breakaways or similarly William Nylander or Auston Matthews when they’ve been on the PK, but it hasn’t been as effective this year as more teams are strategizing around the power kill and the Leafs have seen a significant drop from the 85.1% net PK last season which was 8th in the league and their general PK% which was 81.9%, good for 12th in the league last season.
The Leafs are slated to face either the Panthers (2nd best powerplay in the league) or the Bruins (7th best net PP%) in the first round. The saving grace for the Maple Leafs might be that they don’t take an excessive amount of penalties, 19th in the league, but that will only get them so far.
So far, in two games against the Panthers this season the Leafs have killed off all seven of their penalties. The Leafs also haven’t played against the Panthers since November 28th, so some things have likely changed for both teams, but the Leafs are starting from an optimistic place in that regard.
Against the Bruins it is a different story. In the four games against the Bruins the Leafs have been shorthanded 10 times and have three goals against. The Leafs are underperforming to their overall success rate while the Bruins are exceeding theirs against the Leafs.

What it looks like on the ice

The Leafs allowed a second period PP goal against the Flyers on Thursday night. At this point in the game the Leafs had a 3-0 lead and that might give some context to the sense of urgency around this penalty kill. With Marner out injured the Leafs have William Nylander on David Kampf’s wing which allows the Leafs to still have their offensive pressure to keep the Flyers blueline honest but comes with a significant drop off in defensive awareness. The defensive pairing is Edmundson and Lyubushkin both of whom would have fractions of a couple of practices worth of Leafs PK experience, so this is far from the best of the best, but it is also against the Flyers.
The Leafs lose the faceoff and the puck immediately heads back to the point. Nylander is in flight to start applying pressure and Lyubushkin is beginning to drift towards the net.
The puck gets moved around the blueline and eventually finds its way over to Owen Tippett, the eventual goal scorer. William Nylander is out challenging the puck carrier while Kampf and the Leafs defence are setting up a tight low triangle around the net. At this point Lyubushkin hasn’t directly challenged Farabee in front of the net and in a situation where the Leafs are 5v4, there is double coverage on Morgan Frost. It’s still early in the PK, so not being set ideally is something you might be able to forgive the Leafs for.
Owen Tippett goes the safe route and puts the puck back to the point where Cam York has all the time in the world thanks to a now very low in the defensive zone William Nylander and David Kampf having to move from his passive position in the high slot to cover the point. This gives York plenty of time to decide whether teeing up Konecny for a one timer from the top of the circle is the best move or if putting the puck back to Tippett makes the most sense. Meanwhile the Leafs defencemen are close to Farabee and Frost, but neither is engaged in moving them from the front of the Leafs net.
While I’m surprised that York didn’t tee up Konecny for what looked like a decent scoring chance, going the less predictable route seemed to pay off here for the Flyers. Both Kampf and Lyubushkin are now chasing Tippett and you have William Nylander now taking up Kampf’s position in the high slot and giving Morgan Frost more room than he should have. Tippett has the outlet back to York if he wants, but also Frost and Konecny without any pressure on them.
Tippett chooses to go with Konecny, I can’t blame him. Konecny then pulls the Leafs substantially over to his side of the ice leaving him a still completely unacknowledged Morgan Frost as an easy close outlet to tee up for a one timer. The shot takes place with the maximum amount of traffic that could be put in front of Ilya Samsonov which certainly left the goaltender scrambling.
With the one timer going wide once again the Leafs are chasing the puck and given that they had previously committed to three defenders down low outnumbering the two Flyers it should have been realistic that Lyubushkin would win the race to the puck but that certainly wasn’t the case as Tippett uses his speed to come in quickly off the boards.
The end result is a wide-open net with four Leafs skaters watching.
Now, to break it down in full. The use of the point by Owen Tippett to start the cycle as a strong move to buy the Flyers powerplay a lot of space that most penalty kills won’t readily give up. All of this play came to fruition very quickly off a faceoff win that Toronto reacted to instead of committing to structure and that likely stems from a couple of new players as well as another that doesn’t see a lot of PK usage. The Flyers used the space well and the Frost shot to find Tippett is about as good as it gets. The Flyers executed their powerplay very well and the Leafs never looked set. Things went wrong by taking a reactionary approach instead of committing to a structure that would have established Nylander as pressure on the point rather than pressure on the puck carrier regardless of where they were. The passiveness of the Leafs defence has been an ongoing criticism and the lack of the promised crosschecks from Joel Edmundson was certainly noticed on this play.

The blame game

One of the things that seemed a bit odd heading into this season was the Leafs decision to bringing in Mike Van Ryn and put him in charge of defence while shifting Dean Chynoweth over to penalty kill responsibilities. I found it because Chynoweth has had a great track record in Carolina with their blueline and defensively the change seems to have produced solid results for Rielly, McCabe, and Benoit, while Liljegren, Brodie, and others haven’t responded to Van Ryn in the same fashion.
Additionally, Chynoweth’s focus on the PK hasn’t yielded much success either. Given that he is more defensively minded the “power kill” philosophy struggling isn’t too much of a surprise, but defence first aspects haven’t picked up the slack. The introduction of personnel like Connor Dewar, Joel Edmundson, and Ilya Lyubushkin should provide some new options to help the Leafs out, but perhaps more than any other facet of hockey, the penalty kill is more about the structure and systems than the players executing it. Teams typically deploy their bottom of the roster players on the PK for a reason and it’s generally not because of the keen mind for defensive hockey, it’s because the system should be easy to execute but effective against opponents. The Leafs are struggling with that second part.
While a lot of this sits with the coaches, it is also up to them to decide who should be on the ice for the PK and there look to be some numbers pointing to certain players not getting it and being overly exposed vs. some players that look capable being the penalty killers come playoff time:
Before breaking down the key takeaways from the data a bit of context is warranted. TJ Brodie, David Kampf, and Mitch Marner are seeing the top powerplay unit and their numbers come with that rather large grain of salt that says they are exposed to the toughest competition. Using Marner as an example, Mitch has been on the ice shorthanded against David Pastrnak more than any other skater in the league. It’s probably a positive that there is only one goal against in that situation to show for it.
So with that, here are a few takeaways:
  • There needs to be serious consideration given to if having Noah Gregor in the lineup so he can resume a role on the PK is worth it for the Leafs. He might not have been doing much for the Maple Leafs 5v5 but he has some of the best numbers shorthanded and more penalties are called in the playoffs.
  • Similar to moving Brodie away from top competition 5v5, the Leafs need to explore whether TJ is a fit for the PK at all or if he needs second unit responsibilities. Of the defencemen regularly seeing PK work he has by far the worst high danger results and it is easy to see the path to replacing him with Edmundson or Lyubushkin.
  • Simon Benoit is a PK godsend and that might not get stated enough. I can see the value of keeping Liljegren in the lineup the past few games in a 3rd pairing capacity because the Leafs need a puckmover and right handed shot, but Benoit coming in as either a 7D in the lineup or possibly getting some games instead of Brodie might make sense. Ultimately Benoit might be in over Edmundson regardless but the Leafs are wanting their new guy to get some reps.
  • Maybe it is just because I want to give Marner a pass, but his numbers being notably better than Kampf and Brodie signals that he still has a lot to offer on the PK and he just needs to get away from his struggling teammates. When you look at positive results from someone like Gregor and decent results from Jarnkrok, scratching Kampf from the Leafs lineup to explore Marner-Gregor and Jarnkrok-Dewar as options makes a lot of sense.
  • I appreciate the sentiment during the regular season that you are better off resting players like Auston Matthews during the PK so he’s ready to hit the ice at full speed when you get back to 5v5. That said in the playoffs taking your best players off the ice in moments when they can be useful doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and Auston unsurprisingly has shown he can be a top penalty killer for the Leafs. On a team that is short on centres they can trust in defensive situations, Auston might need to come back into the PK fold, even if he is often just taking the faceoffs and getting the heck out of there.

Meet the new guys

All three of the new Leafs acquisitions are likely to factor into the penalty kill which could help and hurt Dean Chynoweth’s situation. He does have 17 games to figure it out and as such he’s probably lobbying Sheldon Keefe to give all three of these guys every game he can to work with them.
Their numbers come with the heavy caveats of having played on bad teams and their numbers will reflect that. The Wild and Coyotes both have bottom ten in the league penalty kills, with the Wild having the third worst net PK in the league, with only the Sharks and Senators having worse numbers. The fact that out of that Connor Dewar’s numbers actually put him in the midst of the Leafs better PK options is encouraging, and as for Lyubushkin’s numbers, I can appreciate the Leafs interest in trying him out on the PK but at best he looks like a second unit option.

Fixing it

In a game where the Leafs put up six goals, they went 0 for 4 on the powerplay and that says more about the Flyers and their top 3 in the league penalty kill than it does about the Leafs powerplay despite the fact that it seems that Toronto is once again ready to hold a referendum on who should be on the top powerplay unit.
No, the Flyers and John Tortorella are far more committed to structure than the Leafs and there is a greater respect for the handoff as responsibilities as players leave the quadrants of the defensive zone. Each player owns their square of ice, but you can see players in the neighbouring squares begin to cheat based on which way the puck is likely to go. Reading defensive plays effectively is something that a lot of Leafs struggle with and especially against high skill opposition. You can trust Kampf against a second unit powerplay but for the playoffs it might need to be Matthews, Jarnkrok (if he returns by the playoffs), or Marner that are playing the critical F1 position. Supplementing one of those forwards with another one that can apply pressure while being defensively aware like Gregor or Dewar makes sense.
The Leafs defence is a bit more of a challenge and the passive/small triangle approach is the closest we’ve seen to the Leafs prioritizing the high danger areas of the ice in recent years but has left Toronto chasing the play more this season. Going away from a tight presence in the high danger areas of the ice before potentially facing a team like the Panthers that rely on the presence of players like Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett in those areas of the ice doesn’t make a lot of sense, but Toronto does also need to be prepared for a team like the Bruins that has Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak that will us the amount of time and space gifted by the Leafs approach. If the Leafs are wanting to utilize their larger defencemen to make life tough in front, utilizing a capable forward to apply pressure in the lower areas of the zone might make sense while having a defenceman take up the position in the high slot like were you see David Kampf in the images above.
If the Leafs find a way of marrying the aggressive pressure approach which has worked for them in the past with a stronger physical presence in higher and lower parts of the slot, Toronto will be in a good spot come playoff time.
Data from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com
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