The Leafs need to figure out their power play woes, and fast. Here’s how to fix them

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
If you watched the Toronto Maple Leafs blow a 3-0 lead, and then a 4-2 lead in a span of 90 seconds to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night, you’re probably pointing at a multitude of reasons to blame them. Their penalty kill has been an issue all season long and hurt them on both occasions tonight, and rightfully deserves its criticisms. You can also look at the phantom call on David Kampf that sparked the Hurricanes’ comeback late in the third, but on the other hand, defending a two-goal lead with the opponent’s net empty shouldn’t be that tough of a task.
One issue that wasn’t talked about as much as it should have been last night, and it spans beyond just last night, is the terrible slump their power play is battling right now.
The Leafs were a force to be reckoned with in that regard in February. They were solid as a whole throughout the month, but their power play went from good to simply uncontainable specifically during the stretch when Morgan Rielly was serving his suspension. Timothy Liljegren stepped into his place and gave the unit a new look with the man advantage, tallying seven assists during a four-game span at one point, and Tyler Bertuzzi finally snapped out of his goal-scoring drought after stepping into John Tavares’ net-front spot on the top unit. Throughout February, they went an even 50% on the power play, skyrocketing them into first place in the league.
March, however? Let’s just say the Leafs have given “the Ides of March” a whole new meaning.
Although a relatively small sample size, Toronto has gone a putrid 1-for-22 on the power play through six games in March. Their power play has slipped into fourth place in the league, and while they’ve still put together a net-positive record of 4-2-1 in that span, the concern doesn’t just stem from this season. The power play drying up in the late months of the season, and subsequently, the playoffs, has been a running problem for a couple of years now, and in reality, it’s a pretty strong indicator as to why they’ve struggled to put together any playoff success as a unit. Everybody loves to point to the age-old “the defence isn’t big and strong enough!” excuse, but for a team that’s so top-heavy offensively and built around scoring goals at a high-octane pace, it’s no wonder they haven’t been able to put together a deep run in the playoffs.
Let’s put the Leafs’ playoff power play struggles into context here, for anyone who doesn’t have the numbers on hand. We’ll take things as far back as the shortened 2020-21 season since that was the first one head coach Sheldon Keefe had full control of the roster all season.
2020-21: 3 power play goals, 23 opportunities 
2021-22: 4 power play goals, 28 opportunities 
2022-23: 8 power play goals, 32 opportunities 
It’s worth mentioning that in last year’s playoffs, six of the Leafs’ eight power play goals came in the first round, the lone series this team has won. In the second round, they were only two-for-11.
It’s pretty simple. You can point at the defence or the goaltending if you want, but opposing teams know that if they take away the Leafs’ most dangerous opportunities to score goals, they can be handled pretty easily in the postseason. It doesn’t matter how good they are at 5v5. So, how do they fix it? I’m not going to pretend like I, a guy sitting in his kitchen writing about the team after watching them blow a lead on TV has all the answers, but I do have a couple of ideas.
The first one? A new look.
Each year, the Leafs have loaded up their statistically highest point-producing players onto their top unit. John Tavares in front of the net, Auston Matthews on the half-wall, William Nylander in the bumper spot, and Mitch Marner manning the point with Morgan Rielly. In theory, this unit should be one of the most dangerous in the NHL, and at times, they have been. But that’s just it – “at times”. In the regular season, this team’s power play has finished second, first, and 16th in the league over the past three years, respectively. And in the end, nobody is handing out trophies for having a strong regular season power play.
Throughout all these years, and three different power play coaches, the Leafs have had one consistent – the five players I just mentioned trotting out for 75% of the man advantage. Of course, we aren’t talking about taking Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner off of the top unit – I’m not saying they need to gut it. But, to start, swapping Tavares out in front of the net for Tyler Bertuzzi and Rielly out on the point in favour of Timothy Liljegren seems like a good place to start. Bertuzzi alone scored three power play goals in the Bruins’ first round matchup against the Florida Panthers last season, and three of his six goals in the month of February came on the power play. Three of Liljegren’s seven assists during that four-game span came on the power play as well, and even if he’s not producing at that pace on a regular basis, he gives them a different look.
That’s all it comes down to in the end, anyway – giving them a different look. It’s not a slight to Tavares or Rielly, who can both be dangerous on the power play in their own rights. But if you trot out Derrick Henry, one of the best running backs in the NFL, to run the same route on every single play, he’s going to get tackled far more often than he’s going to burst through the line of defenders waiting to bring him down.
Another thing the Leafs need to do if they want their power play to take them anywhere is simply adapt when things aren’t going well. It’s a lot easier said than done, I know, but the Leafs are most dangerous when they have time and space to craft the plays they want to make. More often than not, their opponents find a way to hold their best players to the perimeter, and when they try to make their passing plays work, the puck gets lost in the sticks and/or feet of the penalty killers and ends up outside of the zone, either on a standard clear or on a rush the opposite way.
How exactly they’d adapt to the way their opponents play them on the power play is a questi0n for Sheldon Keefe and Guy Boucher. Whether that’s simply throwing pucks on net more often in an effort to create chaos in front of the goalie or utilizing Nylander’s shot a little more often so that teams don’t naturally flock to Matthews and render him a non-option from his office, they need to change something.
Whether it’s the Boston Bruins or the Florida Panthers in round one, the Leafs are going to be in tough one way or another. Boston’s power play and penalty kill rank at ninth and seventh in the league, respectively, and Florida’s come in at third and sixth, respectively. The Leafs’ penalty kill is all the way down at 24th of 32, and if they don’t want to fall back into the realm of first round exit jokes again, they need to win at least one of the special teams battles. It would be a lot to ask of this team to outperform either Boston or Florida on the penalty kill, so if anything, they need to channel the high-octane offence their team is built around and find a way to turn it on when it matters. If they don’t, it’s going to be another early exit and another summer of what went wrongs and what could have beens.

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