There Might Be A Simple Fix For The Maple Leafs’ Power Play

Vegas Golden Knights v Toronto Maple Leafs
NHLI via Getty Images

Trailing by a goal in the final 15 minutes of Thursday’s game, Toronto got a chance it probably didn’t deserve.

Well, the chance was deserved in the sense that Vegas forward William Carrier had committed a holding penalty. But given that the Maple Leafs had already squandered five power plays, a sixth chance felt almost gluttonous.

Toronto coach Mike Babcock gathered his group during a TV timeout before the man advantage began to keep everybody calm.

“‘Come on, lighten up here, fellas,” Babcock said. “Let's just go out there and breathe a little bit and do what we're supposed to do.’”

What they’re supposed to do is score — and finally, they did.

After a swirl of puck-cycling and some misdirected one-timers, the Maple Leafs got a much needed power play goal off the stick of Auston Matthews, who looked off a defender and ripped a wrist shot into the glove-side corner of the Vegas net.

Toronto went on to win 2-1 in overtime, a feat that wouldn’t have been possible without the power play tally. Still, it took six tries to score with an extra skater, part of a 3-for-33 (9.1 percent) slump in the Maple Leafs’ past 10 games.

Matthews acknowledged after the game that Toronto tried to ad-lib its way to a goal, relying less on structure and more on skill.

“I thought as we went along through the first two periods, we were a bit stagnant,” he said. “In the third, we pretty much said, 'What do you have to lose?' Let's move around; let's get the penalty kill thinking more.

“I thought we did a really good job of that with different guys going to different areas and reacting, playing off our instincts. Not just drawn-up plays, but reacting off one another, using each other and making plays. We spread them out a little bit and were able to score.”

Toronto’s top power play unit consists of Matthews (t-2nd in NHL in goals), John Tavares (47 goals in ’18-‘19), Mitch Marner (94 points in ’18-’19), Andreas Johnsson (20-goal rookie in ‘18-’19) and Morgan Rielly (72 points in ’18-’19).

That’s a lot of skill to unleash on an opposing penalty kill at one time. Yet the Maple Leafs have converted just 17.2 percent of their power plays, which ranks 21st in the NHL.

It’s a bit confounding. Of course, things like ad-libbing and puck luck can change this tune. But there might be an even simpler solution than that.

What if — and bear with me here — the Maple Leafs’ best power play unit played more?

Maybe that seems too obvious, like an idea hiding in plain sight. It’s how the best power plays in the NHL operate and it’s something Toronto might want to get hip to.

Before going further, here’s a layout of the Maple Leafs’ second unit: Ilya Mikheyev, Alexander Kerfoot, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Tyson Barrie. Some fine players, but not at all comparable to that first group.

And yet, power play time between the two units has been fairly similar. Based on data from Natural Stat Trick, players on the Maple Leafs’ top unit are averaging 3:25 on the power play each game. Players on the second unit are averaging 2:11.

Those allotments of ice time are closer together than they need to be, at least compared to the top power play teams in the NHL.

Consider the league’s top five power plays (Boston, Edmonton, Buffalo, St. Louis and Washington) and how they divvy up time per game for their first and second units:

  1. Boston — First, 3:34; Second, 1:31
  2. Edmonton — First, 3:46; Second, 0:56
  3. Buffalo — First, 3:51; Second, 1:51
  4. St. Louis — First, 3:11; Second, 1:59
  5. Washington — First, 4:01; Second, 1:31

In this situation, perhaps it’s best not to overthink. Just put the best guys out for the most time in the best scoring situations of the game.

Fatigue is a factor that can’t be ignored, but also can’t be perfectly accounted for in a predictive way. Balancing players’ ice time and energy levels is up to Babcock on a game-by-game basis. 

But looking at what other teams are doing, there’s reason to believe he can push his top unit harder. They finally clicked on Thursday, creating second and third chances thanks to dogged puck retrieval, which ultimately helped Matthews find enough space to take an effective shot.

“You get (Matthews) inside the dots and there is no better shooter you want in that spot,” Tavares said.

Right, OK. Maybe Toronto should try to make that happen more often then.

">

Trailing by a goal in the final 15 minutes of Thursday’s game, Toronto got a chance it probably didn’t deserve.

Well, the chance was deserved in the sense that Vegas forward William Carrier had committed a holding penalty. But given that the Maple Leafs had already squandered five power plays, a sixth chance felt almost gluttonous.

Toronto coach Mike Babcock gathered his group during a TV timeout before the man advantage began to keep everybody calm.

“‘Come on, lighten up here, fellas,” Babcock said. “Let's just go out there and breathe a little bit and do what we're supposed to do.’”

What they’re supposed to do is score — and finally, they did.

After a swirl of puck-cycling and some misdirected one-timers, the Maple Leafs got a much needed power play goal off the stick of Auston Matthews, who looked off a defender and ripped a wrist shot into the glove-side corner of the Vegas net.

Toronto went on to win 2-1 in overtime, a feat that wouldn’t have been possible without the power play tally. Still, it took six tries to score with an extra skater, part of a 3-for-33 (9.1 percent) slump in the Maple Leafs’ past 10 games.

Matthews acknowledged after the game that Toronto tried to ad-lib its way to a goal, relying less on structure and more on skill.

“I thought as we went along through the first two periods, we were a bit stagnant,” he said. “In the third, we pretty much said, 'What do you have to lose?' Let's move around; let's get the penalty kill thinking more.

“I thought we did a really good job of that with different guys going to different areas and reacting, playing off our instincts. Not just drawn-up plays, but reacting off one another, using each other and making plays. We spread them out a little bit and were able to score.”

Toronto’s top power play unit consists of Matthews (t-2nd in NHL in goals), John Tavares (47 goals in ’18-‘19), Mitch Marner (94 points in ’18-’19), Andreas Johnsson (20-goal rookie in ‘18-’19) and Morgan Rielly (72 points in ’18-’19).

That’s a lot of skill to unleash on an opposing penalty kill at one time. Yet the Maple Leafs have converted just 17.2 percent of their power plays, which ranks 21st in the NHL.

It’s a bit confounding. Of course, things like ad-libbing and puck luck can change this tune. But there might be an even simpler solution than that.

What if — and bear with me here — the Maple Leafs’ best power play unit played more?

Maybe that seems too obvious, like an idea hiding in plain sight. It’s how the best power plays in the NHL operate and it’s something Toronto might want to get hip to.

Before going further, here’s a layout of the Maple Leafs’ second unit: Ilya Mikheyev, Alexander Kerfoot, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Tyson Barrie. Some fine players, but not at all comparable to that first group.

And yet, power play time between the two units has been fairly similar. Based on data from Natural Stat Trick, players on the Maple Leafs’ top unit are averaging 3:25 on the power play each game. Players on the second unit are averaging 2:11.

Those allotments of ice time are closer together than they need to be, at least compared to the top power play teams in the NHL.

Consider the league’s top five power plays (Boston, Edmonton, Buffalo, St. Louis and Washington) and how they divvy up time per game for their first and second units:

  1. Boston — First, 3:34; Second, 1:31
  2. Edmonton — First, 3:46; Second, 0:56
  3. Buffalo — First, 3:51; Second, 1:51
  4. St. Louis — First, 3:11; Second, 1:59
  5. Washington — First, 4:01; Second, 1:31

In this situation, perhaps it’s best not to overthink. Just put the best guys out for the most time in the best scoring situations of the game.

Fatigue is a factor that can’t be ignored, but also can’t be perfectly accounted for in a predictive way. Balancing players’ ice time and energy levels is up to Babcock on a game-by-game basis. 

But looking at what other teams are doing, there’s reason to believe he can push his top unit harder. They finally clicked on Thursday, creating second and third chances thanks to dogged puck retrieval, which ultimately helped Matthews find enough space to take an effective shot.

“You get (Matthews) inside the dots and there is no better shooter you want in that spot,” Tavares said.

Right, OK. Maybe Toronto should try to make that happen more often then.

I cover Toronto-area teams, including the Blue Jays and Leafs, for Forbes in addition to working on the news desk at Sportsnet. I have two summers-worth of experience co...