Should we be Concerned About the Maple Leafs Special Teams?

Mar 11, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak (42) celebrates with left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) after scoring a power-play goal in the third period against the Buffalo Sabres at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs won 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 11, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak (42) celebrates with left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) after scoring a power-play goal in the third period against the Buffalo Sabres at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs won 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Today we are discussing the realities of the Maple Leafs’ special teams from the perspective of attempting to understand how the coaching staff is approaching this ongoing challenge.

It is important to note that it is very early in the season and the sample size for the Maple Leafs‘ special teams success is admittedly minuscule, if not so small as to be useless. Every time the Leafs’ power play has taken to the ice so far this season, however, very small incremental improvements can be seen.

It appears as if William Nylander is quickly emerging as the central cog of the first power play unit, while the Leafs’ coaching staff experiments with the remaining cast of characters.

As expected, we have seen many of the new faces such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev mixed with some of the older players in Nazem Kadri, James van Reimsdyk and Tyler Bozak putting in time on the power play. The only noticeable absence has been Morgan Reilly, which has raised many an eyebrow in Leafdom, but I am not among those people.

Reilly is a known quantity, while many of the new faces are unknowns in terms of what they bring to the table with the man advantage. There is also the consideration that only two defencemen will be used on the first and second power play units featuring head coach Mike Babcock’s preferred method of utilizing four forwards.

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The Leafs’ coaching staff is wisely taking this time early in the season to assess what they have in potential power play personnel. It is very likely that we will even see waiver claim Seth Griffith rotate in for man advantage duties once he is penciled into the lineup.

The Leafs’ penalty kill on the other hand has been okay from the get-go, not great, but middle of the league pack okay.

It is not unusual to see a power play struggle while the same team’s penalty kill is adequate if not good. The reasons for this are quite simple, penalty killing is generally a much more “coach-able skill” than is the sometimes elusive magic that makes a potent power play so successful in the NHL.

Penalty killing begins with, ends with, and is comprised of the most basic of principles, which include the following:.

  • Out work the opposing power play, compete hard for loose pucks and always pressure the puck carrier.
  • Win the face off and clear the zone.
  • Always pressure the shooter but rebound quickly to your position in the diamond or the box, depending on which system your team is using.
  • No big hits only bump and run.
  • Keep your body in the shooting lanes and your stick in the passing lanes.
  • Know when to block shots or let your goalie see it.
  • Don’t be a hero, maintaining possession to run down the penalty time is more important than scoring.

There have been a number of players in the NHL over the years, with otherwise average skill sets, who have made a living as penalty killing specialists. Leafs fans have witnessed this in recent years with former players Daniel Winnik and Jay McClement, with more skilled current employee Leo Komarov taking on this role as well.

The power play is quite different in what it requires, with offensive talent as the key element to success, but not the only aspect that insures effectiveness. There are a host of intangibles needed as well such as creativity, chemistry and the intuition of knowing in advance how and where teammates will position themselves. Finding and utilizing the right combination of these elements has confounded many an NHL coach over the years as it can be a frustratingly inexact science.

Some highly skilled players, who are otherwise prolific point producers, lack the creativity to be effective on the power play. At times it is just a matter of matching the right players with one another and letting them develop the chemistry and intuition to become effective through repetition.

There is no magic bullet solution to developing a potent power play. There are however, tried and true methods of finding the right ingredients, which include skill on the ice and a special teams coach with the vision and talent to utilize the players he has for the best results.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Nov 28, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock listens to assistant coach Jim Hiller against the Washington Capitals at Air Canada Centre. The Capitals beat the Maple Leafs 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

In that regard, Leafs’ assistant coach Jim Hiller, who followed head coach Babcock from the Detroit Red Wings, seems to have that type of talent. Hiller was initially hired by Detroit in July of 2014 to fix a Red Wings power play that finished 18th overall with a 17.7 percent success rate.

The following season Detroit jumped up to second overall in the league, with a 23.8 percent success rate. It is worth mentioning that the Detroit power play began to falter again upon his departure for the Leafs organization.

He has yet to demonstrate these abilities at his new position, but one only needs to look at the roster the Maple Leafs put on the ice last season to understand why a Hiller-coached power play did not make great strides. Aside from lacking offensive talent for most of the season, from the trade deadline on-wards, the Leafs roster as a whole resembled a game of musical chairs. This is hardly a scenario conducive for success with the man advantage.

This season will be quite different – the on ice skill is there, the power play specialist coach with the talent and vision is in place. As equally important is the fact that of the players available to Hiller this season to put together first and second power play units, virtually all will remain Leafs for some time. It cannot be understated that the team is currently in the “trial and error” period of developing their special teams.

Next: Auston Matthews a Gift and a Curse to Mitch Marner

Now it is just a matter of time before Hiller and ultimately Babcock find what they want among a dramatically improved pool of power play and penalty killing talent. Because of these realities, I have no real concerns about the Leafs’ special teams and have confidence that we will see steady improvement in this area as the season progresses.

What are your thoughts on the Maple Leafs’ special teams?