Leafs special teams are a strength but also a potential area for improvement

Photo credit:Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
One of the predictors that teams often use to size themselves up against the competition around the league is special teams performance. Teams might only spend around 10 minutes of a game on special teams, but it is an important section of time. The Leafs average 3.37 goals per game and 0.79 of that are powerplay goals (23%). Similarly, 23% of the Leafs goals against come when they are shorthanded. It’s in that spirit that it seems like it’s worth diving into the team numbers around special teams, just a little and seeing how Toronto measures up to their most immediate competition.
PP%25% (7)25.1% (5)26.4% (3)
PP% Net22.6% (7)22.9% (6)21% (10)
PK%79.4% (16)85.8% (1)80.5% (13)
PK% Net83.1% (13)88.1% (1)81.8% (17)
Combined%104.4% (7)110.9% (1)106.9% (5)
Combined Net%105.7% (8)111% (1)102.8% (12)
Net Goal Dif10 (6)19 (1)6 (14)
When looking at the Leafs immediate competition it’s clear that the top of the Atlantic Division thrives on special teams. The Bruins in particular are dominant, only conceding the advantage to the Lightning on raw powerplay percentage. The second that short handed goals against are factored into the Lightning’s situation, they become the worst of the trio, with only 21% of their powerplays being measured as truly successful.
The Lightning again struggle in similar fashion against on the PK, having a stronger penalty kill than the Leafs do, but being less capable of coming up with short handed goals for, something that Toronto has continued to do successfully with their aggressive penalty kill. It closes the gap nicely and from a Leafs perspective having the Lightning frequently give up shorthanded goals, while the Leafs being one of the better teams at scoring shorthanded goals is a nice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
TeamCombinedCombined NetSpecial Team Goal +/-Times on PP/SH DifPP/SH Dif Game
1Boston Bruins110.911119-1-0.02
2Dallas Stars108.8110.414-17-0.33
3Ottawa Senators107.6108.819140.28
4Edmonton Oilers107108.715-1-0.02
5Minnesota Wild103.4106.89-11-0.23
6Winnipeg Jets105.6106.614220.42
7Vegas Golden Knights102.3106.51090.18
8Toronto Maple Leafs104.4105.71040.07
9Pittsburgh Penguins103.8104.710130.27
10Carolina Hurricanes101.9104.78-2-0.04
11New York Rangers102.8104.49140.28
12Tampa Bay Lightning106.9102.8680.17
13Colorado Avalanche101.3102.8680.16
14Calgary Flames101.7102.61-21-0.41
15Washington Capitals101.9102.37210.4
16New Jersey Devils101.9101.82-4-0.08
17Buffalo Sabres98.6101.68240.48
18San Jose Sharks101.798.1-4-8-0.15
19New York Islanders99.197.8-4-4-0.07
20St. Louis Blues99.197.50180.35
21Los Angeles Kings98.297.1-510.02
22Florida Panthers98.897-8-11-0.21
23Philadelphia Flyers92.996.3-550.1
24Nashville Predators97.295.8-9-13-0.27
25Detroit Red Wings96.994.2-4260.54
26Arizona Coyotes93.193.4-18-32-0.63
27Chicago Blackhawks94.792.5-12-7-0.14
28Columbus Blue Jackets93.391.9-16-26-0.51
29Seattle Kraken92.691.2-14-5-0.1
30Montréal Canadiens88.488.3-24-20-0.39
31Anaheim Ducks89.386.5-28-30-0.59
32Vancouver Canucks88.585.9-16260.52
What is perhaps the funniest thing about looking at the league at large is what an amazing outlier the Ottawa Senators are here. While the top of the league is dominated by playoff locks, here are the Senators wedged into that group. Maybe it’s a lesson to not underestimate them, as the Leafs often do, and it’s certainly a reason to expect more from them next season if they don’t dismantle their team at the deadline.
Similarly the Kraken is a team that excels despite not having dominant special teams. This is maybe less of a surprise given that the strength of the Kraken seems to be that they roll an entire lineup of competitive 2nd or good 3rd type lines. The lack of top end talent may hold back their powerplay, but they’ve proven they don’t need it.
Looking specifically at the last two columns, you can see who the refs favour and hate the most.
TeamTimes on PP/SH DifPP/SH Dif Game
Detroit Red Wings260.54
Vancouver Canucks260.52
Buffalo Sabres240.48
Winnipeg Jets220.42
Washington Capitals210.4
St. Louis Blues180.35
Ottawa Senators140.28
New York Rangers140.28
Pittsburgh Penguins130.27
Vegas Golden Knights90.18
Tampa Bay Lightning80.17
Colorado Avalanche80.16
Philadelphia Flyers50.1
Toronto Maple Leafs40.07
Los Angeles Kings10.02
Boston Bruins-1-0.02
Edmonton Oilers-1-0.02
Carolina Hurricanes-2-0.04
New Jersey Devils-4-0.08
New York Islanders-4-0.07
Seattle Kraken-5-0.1
Chicago Blackhawks-7-0.14
San Jose Sharks-8-0.15
Minnesota Wild-11-0.23
Florida Panthers-11-0.21
Nashville Predators-13-0.27
Dallas Stars-17-0.33
Montréal Canadiens-20-0.39
Calgary Flames-21-0.41
Columbus Blue Jackets-26-0.51
Anaheim Ducks-30-0.59
Arizona Coyotes-32-0.63
Somehow the Leafs average out to being the middle of the pack when it comes to getting calls. They aren’t as favoured as the Lightning, but it’s close and the Bruins actually tend to take more penalties than they draw. To some extent, it looks like the refs are pushing the Sabres into the playoffs while doing their darnedest to keep the Flames out. The big thing here is that with only five teams either taking or drawing a penalty .5x in excess of their opponents on a regular basis is that game management in the NHL is a very real thing, and that is going to lend itself to teams that feel comfortable cheating a bit more and trusting that the game will be managed.
So where does this leave the Leafs? Well, last year Toronto had a far more successful penalty kill, and the third best net penalty kill in the league and last year the Leafs had the best powerplay and net powerplay in the league, despite being very good, there is room for improvement. The areas that seem to stand out the most is the lack of a strong secondary powerplay unit and the absence of Ilya Mikheyev on the penalty kill.
It’s also probably worth noting that at 5v5 the Leafs also sit better than the Lightning, with 56.57 GF% compared to Tampa’s 54.73%, again both teams are incredibly good. The Bruins remain the gold standard at the top of the league with a 63.54% Goals For. At least they also have a high PDO too (103.4) so we can always hope Boston comes down to earth.
It’s nothing new that Toronto not only has a tough path out of the first round of the playoffs, but the second as well. I guess it’s somewhat comforting that their numbers do show that Toronto is for real and they can hang with the best in the league.
Data from NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick

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