Lot’s of things have gone well so far in this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The one thing that stands out above the rest, however, is the incredible efficiency of their powerplay. While it’s still a small sample size in the grand scheme of things, the Leafs have gotten off to a much hotter start with the man advantage this year than they did last year.
For comparison sake, through 11 games this year, the team is sitting at 43% (13/30) which has them ranked first in the league in terms of powerplay percentage. Through 11 games last year however, the team sat at 25% (8/32) and was struggling to get anything going under Mike Babcock.
There are two reasons that stand out to me as to why the powerplay has been improved significantly this season as opposed to last. First and foremost is the coaching changes from last year to this season. Obviously the head coaching change brought an entirely new gameplan with it and that has helped the team offensively. The bigger contributor to the powerplay success however has been this year’s addition of Manny Malhotra to the staff.
The team’s newest assistant coach has taken over the role of powerplay coach and has instantly shot new life into a once boring and bland powerplay. The mobility of the group, along with the unpredictability of the attack set forward has worked wonders and Malholtra deserves a great amount of credit for it.
The biggest difference between the two seasons for me though, has been the way in which the distribution of the two units has been handled.
In years prior, the team has typically went with a single top heavy powerplay unit, and a significantly inferior second unit. The top unit would be flying all over the place looking great, but the issue was that if they didn’t score in the first 1:20 of the man advantage, they were highly unlikely to score in the powerplay.
This year, Keefe and Malholtra have concocted a much different looking group than we’ve been seeing in the past. They have separated the “big four” amongst two different units and have put each of them in a high scoring area on their off side. Though the units are quite different in terms of names, the layout is very similar amongst them.
Both units have an elite shooter on their offside in William Nylander and Auston Matthews. This creates a seriously deadly option that both the goalie and the defense must be zeroed in on the entire time they’re on the ice. On the other side of the ice, the Leafs have two playmakers with different styles in John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Though the two are different types of players, both are great passers who have shown they have an above average ability to put the puck in the net if they have to.
On the back end, you typically have two elite puck moving D-men on the back end in Morgan Rielly and Mikko Lehtonen running everything (although T.J Brodie is a slightly different option than Lehtonen) and providing a tertiary scoring option at the top of the formation.
The one difference from last year to this year is the supporting cast around the main stars. With the additions of names like Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton, and the increased roles for Jason Spezza, and Alex Kerfoot, the powerplay has a player that is perfect for the remaining roles left open on each unit.
Now, while the offensive firepower from both units is a huge plus, it’s the other intangibles that come with two equal units that I believe has made this group elite.
When loading one unit up with your biggest stars, they are likely to play anywhere between 1:40-2:00 of the powerplay, thus, rendering them unplayable for a couple shifts.
With two different units however, both groups will take a fairly regular shift of about a minute each (most of which is untaxing given that it’s primarily in the offensive zone) and unit one should be ready to go directly after the completion of the powerplay. They are then likely to face off against the tired legs of the penalty killers giving them an extended powerplay.
Essentially, you’ve now taken your two minute powerplay, turned it into a three minute powerplay, and kept the lines relatively fluid in the sense that the guys on your first and second unit can be rolled out instantly without the risk of overworking them.
What this does, is it allows Keefe to use his elite players such as Matthews and Marner on both the powerplay and the penalty kill without the fear of them playing 28 minutes a night on a regular basis. Their legs will stay fresher longer into the game, and deeper into the season, in turn making them a better team in both the present and the future.
This strategy can, and has been, altered throughout the game however based on in-game decision making from Keefe. If the Leafs are looking at a tied or one goal game late, they can stack the deck in their favour with the “super line” and give the penalty killers a completely different look than they’ve seen all night, giving themselves a higher chance of scoring when it matters most.
Obviously 11 game sample sizes aren’t usually something to get excited about. In these weird times however, with such little time to make an impact, it seems as though Keefe and co. may have found a secret to sustainable success on their special teams units.