Playoff Preview: The Leafs Special Teams

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The two biggest questions for the Toronto Maple Leafs going into their first round matchup against the Montreal Canadiens are (1) how will Jack Campbell perform as their playoff starter?, and (2) can the Leafs sort out their struggling special teams? We’ve touched the first question already, so let’s focus on the latter.

You may be surprised to learn the Leafs ended their season with the league’s 16th-ranked powerplay and 23rd-ranked penalty kill, which would place them 11th and 13th among 16 playoff teams in these two measures of special teams proficiency. This feels at odds with the offensive talent the Leafs have and the defensive strides the team has made this season, so let’s dive into the numbers to see what may be causing the recent issues.

The 2020-21 season was very much a tale of two halves for the Maple Leafs’ powerplay. The team clicked at a scorching 31.3% through the first 28 games of the season which left them with the 2nd-best powerplay in the league on March 12th. In the final 28 games of the season, the Leafs powerplay went a dismal 6.9%, resulting in the league’s 2nd-worst powerplay from March 13th onwards. It was a stunning 180 from what was a dominant first half with the man advantage.

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The graph below shows the Leafs’ cumulative powerplay percentage as well as a five-game rolling view. The top chart clearly illustrates a steady decline in the Leafs powerplay from right around the halfway mark of the season, with no real indication of it bouncing back at any point. The bottom chart reinforces this analysis: in the first half of the season the Leafs had 20 five-game samples where their powerplay was performing at or above the league average of 20%. In the second half they had just two such 20%+ samples, and 9 five-game stretches with a 0% success rate. To say the Leafs powerplay struggled in the second half of the season would be a serious understatement.

Those are the results, but what about the underlying details? Was there something different about the powerplay in the second half of the season, or is it simply a matter of an extended string of bad luck?

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The raw stats tell us that the Leafs powerplay in the second half of the season took considerably less shots (about 15 less per 60 mins of PP time) and shot attempts (about five less shot attempts and 14 less unblocked shot attempts per 60 mins of PP time) than it did in the first half. These numbers may seem low relative to a 60 minute period, but even if the Leafs scored on 15% of these lost shots it would translate to about five more powerplay goals for, raising their powerplay success rate to around 13-14% in the second half.

The one thing that really pops off the page is how many opportunities the Leafs gave up with the man advantage in the second half. Shots against per 60 almost doubled and the team allowed five shorthanded goals during this time period, finishing the season with the second-most shorthanded goals allowed with seven. This poses a problem against a team in Montreal that tied for first in shorthanded goals scored this season, although it is worth mentioning that seven of those goals came in the first 11 games of the season so who knows just how much shorthanded magic the Habs have in their back pocket.

The chances against issue is confirmed by the eye test as well. Teams figured out how to defend the Leafs powerplay, from how to play the drop pass in the neutral zone, to how to stack up at the blue line to deny zone entries, to how to defend the top of the umbrella after the Leafs got set up. This resulted in a lot of intercepted passes and zone clearances that killed valuable powerplay time. From my seat, the unit became predictable: Tavares and Nylander were almost afterthoughts as Marner, Matthews and Rielly passed it back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth atop the zone, only to make one pass too many and relinquish possession. Opposition forwards did not respect Marner and Rielly’s shots and were happy to watch them play catch, while overcompensating towards Matthews to apply pressure and get in shooting lanes.

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It’s not all doom and gloom, though. For one, the Leafs powerplay cannot shoot 4.7% on the powerplay, as they did in the second half, forever. They’re simply too talented. For two, if practice tweets are to be believed, it looks as though the team will be splitting up their “superunit” of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander and Rielly in favour of two more balanced units:

This hopefully means a little less predictability and a little more productivity.

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Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that the Leafs went 6-for-27 (22.2%) on the powerplay vs. Montreal this year. Only Edmonton (9-for-23, 39.1%) and Ottawa (7-for-27, 25.9%) felt more wrath from the Leafs at 5v4.

While the Leafs powerplay took the bulk of online scorn this season, it was easy to forget that their penalty kill fared worse, ending the season tied with Montreal in 23rd with a 78.5% kill rate.

Cumulatively, the season was up and down. Using the same first half vs. second half view as we did for the powerplay section, the Leafs PK went 77.2% in the first half and 80.0% in the second half. Weirdly enough, that first half performance was good for 19th, but the second half kill rate, despite being statistically better, landed the team at 23rd.

Leafs fans may be encouraged by the tail end of the five game rolling chart. The Leafs PK ended the season red hot, with a 90% kill rate over their last eight games.

Overall, the PK is better than the numbers show. The reason? Jack Campbell.

Despite being gifted the best shot suppression numbers of his Leaf tenure by his penalty killers this season, Frederik Andersen put up horrific numbers on the PK, ranking 63rd out of 64 eligible goaltenders in both save percentage and goals saved above expectation-per-60. This wasted the efforts of the penalty killers in front of him, who ended the season with the third-best Corsi Against-per-60 in the league.

If we look back up at the Leafs Penalty Kill graph, you can actually see when the penalty kill starts to turn around: when Jack Campbell became starter. Andersen was shut down after Game 31 of the season and Campbell came in and played 18 of the remaining 25 games. From Game 32 onwards, mostly with Jack manning the twine, the Leafs posted the 13th-best penalty kill rate in the league, with a 83.6% success rate. As the old adage goes, your best penalty killer needs to be your goaltender.

And things may get even better on the PK front. With the defensive-minded Riley Nash coming into the fold and the Zach’s (Hyman & Bogosian) returning from injury, the Leafs’ penalty kill could actually be an unexpected strength in these playoffs:

The Montreal Canadiens are the ultimate spray and pray team, shooting the puck from anywhere and everywhere hoping for deflections and weird bounces to beat opposition goaltenders. This approach is why they are one of the few teams with a Corsi Share (CF%) higher than the Leafs at 5v5 this season. It’s possible the Leafs and Habs battle themselves to a tie at even strength, meaning that special teams could be something that helps tilt the scales one way or another.

All-in-all, the numbers which indicate the Leafs have pedestrian or so-so special teams may be a bit of a mirage. Our powerplay figures, while partially dampened by a recent trend of less shooting, are bound for an upward shooting percentage regression. Our approach of two balanced powerplay units may take away some of the predictability which allowed opposition teams to thwart the first powerplay unit’s ability to set up and be dangerous. Our penalty kill is free of the 10,000 tonne anchor that is Frederik Andersen’s play with a man down. Our special teams numbers against Montreal this season were actually quite good. There’s lots to be confident about going into the first round against Montreal, and special teams is one of those things.

(Stats courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com and NHL.com)