Maple Leafs power play struggles show they didn’t learn their lesson from 2020-21

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
It was an all too familiar story for the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 of the 2023-24 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a scoring, tight defensive series where the other team’s goaltender had the stronger performance and the power play completely dried up. It was akin to the way they were eliminated every year for the past four seasons, and a story that’s soured past its best-before date in the mouths of Leafs fans.
When the Leafs started their rebuild in the mid-2010s, it was obvious how they were trying to build their team. The selection of William Nylander in 2014 hinted at a new draft philosophy of going for the best player available, regardless of size or level of truculence, and with the selections of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews at fourth and first overall in the next two years, respectively, they were knee deep into the structure of team they were trying to ice. There’s nothing wrong with this – the Edmonton Oilers are built roughly the same way and they’ve been able to put together a couple of deep playoff runs in the Connor McDavid era. But, if you’re going to brand yourself as a team built around offence, skill, and scoring goals, that has to be your strength all year, especially when the games matter more. Instead, there’s been a recurring trend every year that sees the Leafs’ power play dry up in the playoffs. You can say whatever you want about their play at 5-on-5, which I actually believe was stronger than ever this year, but when you take away their ability to score goals when they have the man advantage, you can effectively silence them. That’s been the case every year under Keefe, who was just let go by the organization.
Here’s a look at the Leafs’ power play statistics each year going back to 2020-21, both in the regular season and the playoffs.
2020-21: Reg. Season – 20.0%, 16th out of 31. Playoffs – 13.0%, 14th out of 16 (Eliminated Round 1)
2021-22: Reg. Season – 27.3%, 1st out of 32. Playoffs – 14.3%, 11th out of 16 (Eliminated Round 1)
2022-23: Reg. Season – 26.0%, 2nd out of 32. Playoffs – 25.5%, 6th out of 16 (Eliminated Round 2)
2023-24: Reg. Season – 24.0%, 7th out of 32. Playoffs – 4.8%, 15th out of 16 (Eliminated Round 1)
There are a couple of things to unpack here, but we’ll get the one positive (if you want to call it that) out of the way first. The Leafs’ power play was sixth out of 16 in the season they broke the 19-year curse and advanced past the first round, providing us with a smidge of evidence that, shocker, if your power play shows up, you’re more likely to win playoff games!
Now onto the negatives, led by the Leafs’ ghastly power play this spring. Their power play was inconsistent all season, from starting off somewhere in the middle of the pack to borderline record-setting in the month of February, and outright awful from March on. They scored only one power play goal on 21 opportunities throughout the seven-game series compared to Boston, who went six-for-17 for the fourth-best power play in the league during the first round and a rating of 35.3%. For a team led by a 69-goal, 107-point campaign from Matthews, a 40-goal, 98-point season from Nylander, and an 85-point season from Marner, you wouldn’t think offence would be so hard to come by, but for whatever reason, they run into this issue every season,
This brings us to the final point, which I wouldn’t say is the direct cause of the Leafs’ power play struggles, but it’s something that you would think the organization would have learned from; the coach.
You may have clicked on this article wondering why I’m singling out the 2020-21 season specifically when they’ve had similar issues every other year. If you’ve forgotten, or outright blocked that season from your memory (which I wouldn’t blame you for), let’s take things back to that season. The way their power play worked throughout the year was similar to the 2023-24 season. They were nearly unstoppable in January, sitting at second in the league with a power play percentage of 43.3%. In the following 46 games, they plummeted to 27th out of 31 teams with a putrid 14.4%. A number like that is somewhat forgiveable over the course of a small sample size, like a playoff series, but over 46 games, it speaks volumes about the team’s inability to convert on the man advantage.
If you don’t remember, the Leafs’ power play coach in 2020-21 was Manny Malhotra, who’s still on their coaching staff now. This is in no way a slight to Malhotra’s ability as a coach – he’s good at his job, and there’s a reason he’s still employed by the team. The problem is, it was a square peg in a round hole. If you don’t remember Malhotra as a player, go back and watch some of his highlights and read up on him. He was one of the best defensive players in the league during his prime, specializing on the penalty kill and in the faceoff dot, specifically. With this information at hand, why was he in charge of running the power play? That would be like a team hiring Alex Ovechkin after he retires to run their penalty kill.
They moved some pieces around for the 2021-22 season, moving Malhotra into a general role and replacing his power play spot with Spencer Carbery, who remained with the organization for two years before moving on to a head coaching gig with the Washington Capitals last summer. The Leafs’ power play did struggle in the first round against Tampa in 2021-22 and the second round against Florida in 2022-23, so the problem wasn’t completely eliminated, but they remained strong in the regular season and overall had a better go of it in the postseason.
Fast forward to the 2023-24 season, with newly-appointed power play coach Guy Boucher at the helm. From the words of his own players, “Boucher is smart and articulate, but also rigid. He insists on a highly conservative, off-the-charts commitment to five-man defensive structure.”.
So, again – taking his defensive mindset into consideration, why was in charge of running the most offensive part of the game?
Boucher’s coaching career has featured a couple of Conference Final runs as a head coach, which probably made him an attractive target as an assistant coach, but with former Carolina Hurricanes coach Dean Chynoweth already overlooking the penalty kill for the Leafs, was it really the right call to bring in a coach known for running a strict, trap-style defensive system over somebody who not only has experience, but specializes on the power play? Like I said – the issue with the Leafs’ power play does not come back to the assistant coach. It’s a mix of that, the head coach, and the players themselves, and the root cause of why they always tend to dry up and lose their way when the game tightens up remains a mystery in terms of whose fault it is.
Either way, the Leafs are going to keep meeting their fate early every year if they don’t figure out a way to stick the pedal to the metal on the power play and leave it running strong all year, especially if they decide to run it back with the same “Core Four” next season. Whether that’s under Boucher or a new assistant coach, the team simply has too much top-end talent to flounder in a moment that’s set up for them to succeed time and time again. But in the end, they missed the mark by hiring somebody like Boucher to oversee it, just like they did with Malhotra three years ago. If they want to fix their issues next season, shuffling Boucher’s role and bringing in a new power play coach is a good place to start, but even then, it’s going to take a total buy-in from the players to adapt when the games get tighter and the ice shrinks.

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