Toronto Maple Leafs need to reevaluate special teams play

Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is taken to the ice by Micheal Haley #18 of the Florida Panthers. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Nikita Zaitsev #22 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is taken to the ice by Micheal Haley #18 of the Florida Panthers. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs have stumbled over their past five games only winning once and their special teams play is a big part of the problem.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Toronto Maple Leafs lately after a 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers in overtime, with their special teams being a main cause of the team’s struggles.

The Leafs have dominated the play at five-on-five during this rough stretch with a CF% of 56.42, which is fourth best in the league. They have also outscored teams 13-10 at five-on-five over their past five games.

Where the problem lies is with their penalty kill which was league average going into Saturday’s game at 79.5 percent, but dropped to 78.2 after allowing two power-play goals to the Panthers.

Over their last five games, the Leafs have been shorthanded 18 times which is fourth in the league and are 72.2 per cent during that stretch, sixth worst in the league. Frederik Andersen told Sportsnet‘s Luke Fox that it comes down to decisions and a lack of communication and it’s hard to disagree with that.

"“We just seemed a little flat and (that is) going to happen sometimes,” John Tavares told reporters after the game. “You’ve just got to find a way to get yourself going and keep yourself alive. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the special teams battle and I think that was a big part of it because there wasn’t much five-on-five.”"

Tavares is right, they lost the special teams battle and the main reason why is because their power play has been abysmal.

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The team has had the man advantage 20 times over their past five games, only Colorado and Winnipeg have had more opportunities during that stretch. Mike Babcock said recently that the power play would be the Leafs’ answer to the oppositions desire to take liberties on the team physically.

Well, opposing teams have called Babcock’s bluff and it’s worked out for them as the Leafs are five percent on the power play, scoring only once over their past five games. Teams have taken away the passing lanes for the Leafs especially Mitch Marner, who has found it tough to feed pucks to Tavares and Auston Matthews.

Sometimes teams go through slumps and a player needs to step up and try to rally his team through it. Babcock changed up the lines and it seemed to spark his players especially Marner, who scored twice to tie the game late in the third.

Maybe Marner will start to shoot more since he saw some success, or maybe teams will respect that and it takes away attention from Tavares. Having Andreas Johnsson over Zach Hyman could work out better for that line, since it gives another goal-scoring option.

At the same time, reuniting Matthews, Hyman and William Nylander also makes sense, since Matthews has slowed down a bit and is taking some physical abuse. It is going to take time for Nylander to get up to speed but he’s progressing in the right direction, as he made some great plays and almost scored his first goal.

Those complaining that Nylander might have “messed” with the team’s chemistry need to realize that one player doesn’t have that much of an impact, considering the rest of the team hasn’t been performing to their standards.

The Leafs will now travel to play the New Jersey Devils who have had their struggles lately, then have a chance to get some revenge on the Panthers when they come to town on Dec. 18.

Next. Explaining Frederik Andersen’s December slump. dark

What do you think about the Leafs’ struggles lately? What does the team need to improve on to get back on track? Let us know in the comments below.