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Maple Leafs new assistant coaches already making impact in the playoffs

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Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Cushman
6 months ago
When talking about the “move of the offseason”, the discussion almost exclusively goes to the player transactions that occurred. Whether it be a big trade or signing, or a depth move that ended up exceeding expectations, the most impactful move of a team’s season is usually one that affects the actual lineup.
For the 2021/22 Toronto Maple Leafs, this probably still remains true. The addition of @Michael Bunting fits into both of the aforementioned categories, while other moves such as the signing of @David Kampf or the deadline acquisition of @Mark Giordano also have had significant impacts on the Maple Leafs squad.
But two moves that have gone largely unrecognized over the course of this season made their impact felt in an enormous way in Game 1 of Toronto’s first-round series against Tampa Bay: the hiring of Dean Chynoweth and Spencer Carbery.
Going back to the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Leafs were a strong even strength team who had dominated the North Division in the regular season. Their biggest weakness? Abysmal special teams.
Toronto entered the postseason as one of the lowest ranking powerplays and penalty kills to make the playoffs. Sure enough, it was exposed in their series against Montreal, going 3/23 on the powerplay for a net 8.7 per cent powerplay when factoring in the Canadiens’ shorthanded marker. On the penalty kill, they were better, only allowing three powerplay goals on 19 opportunities. Yet that gave Montreal the overall advantage in special teams goals in the series and was a key factor in the Leafs’ ultimate loss.
In the offseason, penalty kill coach Dave Hakstol left for Seattle and powerplay coach Manny Malhotra was moved to a less specific role on the staff. Their replacements came in the form of Dean Chynoweth of the Carolina Hurricanes and Spencer Carbery of the Hershey Bears. Chynoweth was an exciting hire, having a strong resume of penalty kill and defensive results with the Hurricanes, while Carbery was much more of an unknown as an AHL head coach.
Both hirings have worked out incredibly well for Toronto as the powerplay and the penalty kill have skyrocketed from the bottom half of the league in 2020/21 to the top five in 2021/22, including the league’s best powerplay.
Those changes already proved successful in Game 1 in an opener that was heavily influenced by special teams play. Early in the game, Toronto was forced to kill off both a two-minute and a five-minute penalty. What did they do? They recorded more shots on goal than Tampa Bay, a highly ranked powerplay in their own right, and set the tone for the rest of the game.
Dean Chynoweth’s penalty kill was splendid in Carolina, ranking top three in the league in 2019/20 and 2020/21. The root of their success came in their aggressiveness, coining the nickname “power kill”. Rather than sit back, defend, dump, and change, Chynoweth’s penalty kill instead looked to capitalize on the opposition upon gaining possession.
In the three seasons that Chynoweth was on the Hurricanes staff, they ranked second in shorthanded expected-goals for per 60 in 2018/19 before leading the league by a wide margin in 2019/20 and 2020/21.
Sure enough, the league leaders in that category in 2021/22? Dean Chynoweth’s Toronto Maple Leafs penalty kill. It paid off in a big way in Game 1 as Toronto generated numerous chances during their extended penalty kill in the first period, getting the crowd involved in a big way and generating momentum for the home squad, before @David Kampf converted on a shorthanded break later in the game.
It wasn’t quite to the same extent as the penalty kill, but Spencer Carbery’s powerplay played a massive role in the Leafs victory too.
In the second period, Toronto had a 5-on-3 opportunity that was a major swing at this point of the game. If Tampa Bay killed it off, they would have had a similar boost that the Leafs saw themselves after their big kill in the first. If Toronto scored, though, they would be in the driver’s seat up 2-0 and dictating the rest of the game.
Carbery and the Leafs were ready for this situation. Not only were they specifically prepared for a 5-on-3 situation with an all-forwards powerplay unit, but the Leafs also called a timeout to draw up a set play.
And oh how it went exactly as they drew it up.
Passes from behind the net are some of the most dangerous shot assists you can create as an offence, especially on the powerplay. Holding possession behind the net forces the defence to turn their back to the rest of the ice and puts the goaltender in an awkward position to read what is coming next.
Following the faceoff win, an important aspect of this set play, Toronto works the puck down low to @Mitch Marner who nonchalantly passes to @John Tavares, who is also set up behind the net. Tavares holds for a moment before giving the puck back to Marner. In having these two set up below the goal line and pass back and forth, Tampa’s three penalty killers are forced to turn their back to @Auston Matthews, who is looping back into the offensive zone with speed.
Matthews, stick high in the air awaiting the pass, comes flying into the camera shot as Marner squares to the slot for a split second, freezing @Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, before finding Matthews for the howitzer of a one-timer to put Toronto up 2-0.
In a series as close as this Toronto-Tampa matchup projects to be, the entire series may well be decided by special teams play. Without that powerplay marker and Kampf’s shorthanded tally, Toronto is only up 2-0 heading into the third and the Lightning have a lot more belief coming out of the second intermission.
In one offseason, the Leafs turned one of their biggest weaknesses in special teams play into one of their biggest strengths. The additions of Dean Chynoweth and Spencer Carbery were not as exciting to break down and discuss ad nauseam as the player transactions we analyze and put under a microscope, but the Leafs coaching hires from Summer 2021 have done exactly what they were brought in to do: revitalize the special teams. After just one game, we’ve already seen the hirings translate into a playoff victory.
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