Sheldon Keefe is going to try Auston Matthews on the Maple Leafs penalty kill
Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
By Jon Steitzer2 months ago
Wednesday was the first time in a while that Sheldon Keefe had a row of microphones in front of him asking about line combinations and player utilization. It was refreshing. Not as exciting as players actually being on the ice, but it was nice to get a few new ideas to dissect. One of those is the Leafs once again committing to the “power kill” philosophy and planning to utilize Auston Matthews on the penalty kill more this season.
Sheldon Keefe’s remarks about Auston Matthews on the penalty kill immediately was met with a few conditions. Keefe was quick to note that he wouldn’t be interested in utilizing Auston in any situation that would potentially cost him an even strength shift, noting that Auston is the most dangerous 5v5 scorer in hockey. There was also some stipulations about the game situation and if it called for it but it sounds like Auston is going to at least get a few more chances to step out on the ice shorthanded.
So here’s where I think Sheldon Keefe is onto the right idea. The first thing is I hate the idea of being penalized twice. First, your team is down a player, and second, you are penalizing yourself by keeping your best players off the ice for two minutes. This might make sense if the players you are keeping off the ice have little in the way of defensive aptitude but that doesn’t really apply to Auston, getting him out there makes a lot of sense.
The second thing that seems like it makes too much sense is when you look around the league at how wildly embraced the 4F/1D model of the power play is. And when you consider that a team like the Leafs uses players like Morgan Rielly or John Klingberg as their sole defenceman on the powerplay, there needs to be some consideration given to how well a player like Auston Matthews would fare when the only defender he has to beat is Klingberg. We’ve seen Mitch Marner thrive in this situation and Auston’s finishing ability certainly warrants giving him a look in the role even if few players can read the pass better than Marner.
There is also the painfully obvious reason you don’t want Matthews out on the penalty kill, and that likely comes from the increased necessity to block shots. It’s potentially disastrous to have Auston miss a stretch of hockey because he blocked a Columbus Blue Jackets point shot in Game 71 of the season. (I have no idea if that’s when the Leafs play Columbus.) It’s not that Auston should be excused from elements of hockey but if the Leafs find a way of encouraging him to let the goalie see the puck, that could be just as beneficial and better from a health standpoint.
Last season, Auston played just 3:28 minutes on the penalty kill. The year before that 5:40 minutes. The 2020-21 season was the career high for Auston as he exceeded 9 minutes on the penalty kill over a 52 game season. That’s the closest thing to him seeing time there as the last couple numbers speak more to Matthews frequently being on the ice with 10 seconds left before the advantage ends and adding that up over a season.
When you look at the playoffs last year (please don’t make me look at the playoffs), the ice time for Matthews and other Leafs core forwards not named Marner was surprisingly low. One of the biggest factors in the difference is the extra 2+ minutes of penalty kill time that Marner was getting that the others weren’t. While I’m in no way saying that Tavares or Nylander on the penalty kill is something I want to see, a quick way of getting Matthews back on the ice as often as you want him to be is to give him some extra special teams reps.
When it comes to potential forwards to pair Matthews with it seems like it will be a toss-up between Sam Lafferty and Calle Jarnkrok, the two forwards who will likely be spliting the secondary PK duties behind Marner and Kampf. Jarnkrok has definitely shown he can be effective with Matthews in the past at 5v5, but it will be interesting to see if the Leafs see Lafferty’s speed as something they wish to take greater advantage of this season.
The answers to what Matthews looks like on the PK is something that we will probably get relatively soon as the players take to the ice on Thursday. Special teams might not be the priority, and if we see the Leafs deciding where to prioritize their focus with Matthews it will likely be on the power play, but over the next few weeks of camp this will be something new to watch for.
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