A look at the Maple Leafs penalty differentials and what adjustments can be made

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
10 months ago
Few things are as irritating as dealing with how penalties are handled in the NHL. Whether it’s game management or what is chosen to be called vs. what refs let go at any given moment, there is a definite need for the NHL to address the amount of influence refs have on the outcome of their games. The Leafs as a special teams-driven team seem to suffer more than most in this regard. All of that being said, the NHL has publicly expressed zero desire to fix things, insists that everything is fine, and isn’t concerned about consistency in calls as much as making sure special teams time is limited and not too lopsided in opportunities. It also seems to be amazing how teams trailing in score suddenly become perfect angels in the eyes of refs, but I digress.
Last season the Leafs took 303 penalties to drawing 309 (penalty differential +6). When you exclude bench minors and other non-skater infractions the Leafs took 295 penalties to drawing 287. The Leafs were only 8 to the bad on that, but that seems a bit strange for a team not known for being overly aggressive and generally controlling the flow of play. The Leafs have also made some changes to be grittier and it will be interesting to see how that impacts the Leafs versus how the departure of Michael Bunting impacts Toronto.
The first thing is that with Michael Bunting, looking at his overall year last year he still wound up being +1 when it came to his penalty differential. Things definitely changed as the season went on, but Bunting wasn’t a drag on the seasonal numbers. If we are looking at some key departures that swing the numbers one way or the other, the Leafs lost Joey Anderson to Chicago last season who was +5 in his very limited number of games, but when we are looking at the everyday players who left that are impactful on penalty differential, Justin Holl’s -6 penalty differential and Wayne Simmonds’ -7 were the highest numbers dragging down the differential. Luke Schenn (-3) and Jordie Benn (-4) were frequent flyers. Alex Kerfoot’s +3 is the only other differential +/- 2.
When you look at who the Leafs removed from their lineup since last season, Toronto has a skater penalty differential of +14. Auston Matthews was otherworldly with his +18 penalty differential (11th in the league) as the next best Leaf clocks in at +8 (TJ Brodie). As for the troublemakers, I think we can see the impact of footspeed on the game. Mark Giordano had a team worst -17 differential and this stems from his top pairing utilization during the Brodie and Rielly injuries. John Tavares clocks in at -9, which is something to keep an eye on this year as the veteran center won’t be getting any faster and the difference of what the Leafs are getting from their centres in the top six couldn’t be more clear.
PlayerPen DrawnPen TakenNet Pen
Auston Matthews281018
TJ Brodie1578
Mitchell Marner21147
David Kampf1046
Pontus Holmberg1174
Calle Jarnkrok1174
William Nylander17143
Nicholas Robertson303
Sam Lafferty431
Nick Abruzzese101
Alex Steeves101
Bobby McMann110
Matthew Knies110
Morgan Rielly89-1
Kyle Clifford01-1
Conor Timmins24-2
Jake McCabe49-5
Timothy Liljegren714-7
John Tavares817-9
Mark Giordano825-17
Knowing that generally, defencemen are going to come out of this looking pretty rough, this flags an area of improvement for Timothy Liljegren if he is going to take a step forward trust-wise with Sheldon Keefe, and with Jake McCabe it’s entirely possible we see things improve as he spends more time in the Leafs system. He was a +3 last year with Chicago when it came to penalty differential.
When it comes to the new additions the Leafs made over this summer it seems like there is good reason to get the penalty kill in top form as well…
PlayerPen DrawnPen TakenNet Pen
Ryan Reaves14113
Tyler Bertuzzi1192
Dylan Gambrell511-6
Max Domi1826-8
John Klingberg917-8
Interestingly enough it isn’t Reaves and Bertuzzi who are the issue here, but rather players with defensive shortcomings that raise concerns for the Leafs. Domi might not be his dad in a lot of ways but there is a hereditary lack of discipline. When it comes to John Klingberg last season is something the Leafs seem to be banking on as an outlier though his final season in Dallas also saw Klingberg with a -4 penalty differential.
Looking at the 21 skaters most likely to make up the Leafs opening night roster (but appreciating the salary cap is a thing and that number will drop to 18 skaters) the Leafs penalty differential is -4. So for the most part Toronto is no better or no worse that the group from last year. There will also be a lot of reasons for variance as different teams, different systems, and different utilization as well as refs smoothing out penalties will all be impactful.
The biggest concerns for the Leafs coming into 2023-24 when it comes to taking penalties will be centered around John Tavares and Max Domi, especially if Domi is playing in the middle. Both have had a tendency to cheat when they get beat and neither has been great at not being caught.
On the blueline there are similar issues. Footspeed has created issues for Mark Giordano and his utilization in 2023-24 probably needs to mirror his pay more closely. John Klingberg is also begging for sheltering at 5v5 as putting him with a defence first partner like Jake McCabe might not be the answer.
As initially mentioned, the overall penalty differential will likely remain fairly even through the NHL’s fondness for game management. That doesn’t change that certain individuals tend to be the players that get caught and the Leafs need to be more in tune with their deployment in critical situations.

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