Ever since Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander joined forces and dawned the blue and white, the Toronto Maple Leafs powerplay went from the league doghouse to penthouse overnight. The Leafs shot up from a measly 15.4% on the man advantage (29th in the league) in 2015-16 to an impressive 23.8% (2nd in the league) in 2016-17. The next season, the Buds were even more effective, converting on 25% of their PP chances (still 2nd in the league). Coach Mike Babcock’s formula for the powerplay those two seasons was simple and effective: have two equally talented units split the time to maximize chances. This strategy created internal competition forcing players to compete with that extra ounce of desperation since Babcock was going to pull a powerplay unit off the ice in an instant if they weren’t generating chances.
It also forced opposing teams to pick their poison, choosing which unit to match with their top penalty-killers. That pick your poison approach combined with the desperation and talent from the Leafs youth had the ability to break open a game in an instant. If you weren’t prepared to defend against them, they were going to make you pay. When John Tavares joined the team on July 1, 2018, Babcock decided it was time to form a talent-loaded number one powerplay unit. At the beginning of the 2018-19 season, the Leafs man-advantage looked unstoppable, and for a while it was. Marner and Morgan Rielly were the primary puck-handlers, working the puck up high, either setting Matthews up for a quick wrister or getting the puck down-low for Tavares to use his great hands around the net.
However, as the season went on, opposing teams had found more effective ways to counter the Leafs powerplay formula. Toronto’s powerplay conversion rate would slip to 21.8% (8th in the league) by season’s end. Not terrible, but a disappointment considering the talent. In the first round playoff series against Boston, their powerplay would fall to below 20%. The Bruins penalty kill unit effectively took Tavares away as an option down low, while also putting pressure on Marner. It wasn’t until the ultimate game seven that Babcock and his coaching staff would finally change things up. Their answer: swap the side Matthews and Marner played; it was too little, too late. Next season Tavares would move to the bumper and Nylander would move up to the top unit where he was put in the net-front position.
Even when Babcock was replaced midseason by Sheldon Keefe, this powerplay strategy would stay intact. The team would finish the season with a 23.1% success rate on the PP (6th in the league). A slight improvement, but any positives here would get thrown out the window when the team went horrendous 2-for-13 on the man advantage versus Columbus in the qualifying round of the playoffs. What the Blue Jackets did so well was keep the Leafs attackers to the outside, not allowing high danger chances anywhere near the net. Boston and Columbus had revealed weaknesses in the Leafs powerplay approach. Toronto would need to re-think the powerplay again.
Manny Malhotra would be named a new Maple Leafs assistant coach for this season, owning responsibility for the forwards, and most importantly, the team’s powerplay. Under Malhotra, Toronto’s man advantage would go back to having two balanced units. The first unit would have Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner playing on the flanks, Morgan Rielly playing point, Joe Thornton as the bumper and Wayne Simmonds in front of the net. Unit two had William Nylander at left flank, Jason Spezza on the right, T.J. Brodie as the point-man, John Tavares as the bumper and Zach Hyman as the net-front presence.
The Leafs coaching staff would also change things up when the situation called for it. It was not uncommon for Tavares and/or Nylander to join Matthews, Marner and Rielly when the team went on the two-man advantage or on late-game powerplays when the team desperately needed a goal. Going back to a more balanced approach on the man advantage was working beautifully for the first two months of the season. The Leafs were moving the puck with such speed and precision that other teams were having trouble catching up. Toronto was first in the league in powerplay percentage with a 31.7% success rate on March 9. Since then, however, the Maple Leafs PP results have fallen off a cliff.
The problem with the Maple Leafs powerplay is a multifaceted one, so let’s unpack. Perhaps the most obvious issue is that it gets harder to get by on skill alone as the season (and your career) goes on. It was all fun and games when Auston Matthews and company broke into the league, but it’s year five for them now. It’s time to get serious. Everybody and their mother knows that Auston Matthews has a wicked wrist shot and that Mitch Marner is one of the most talented playmakers in the league. When teams are less organized early in the season, you may be able to catch a player on the weak-side napping, leaving just enough space for Marner to thread a pass right onto the tape of Matthews’ stick for a scoring chance. We’re now past the midway point of the season, so teams have been watching a metric ton of video and everybody knows that Marner is looking for that play. It’s become a predictable play which is not an admirable trait for offensive stars.
Less predictability and more creativity is in serious demand with the Leafs powerplay. How many times have you seen Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly play hot potato with the puck along the top and the outside, looking for the perfect set-up. The only way these guys change things up is by having Matthews and Marner switch sides; hardly awe-inspiring. If you look at the powerplay goals that the Leafs have scored this season, the attackers are moving which causes chaos for the opposing team. Whether that was by design or not, it was just one more headache for other teams. Marner and Rielly’s pass-first mentality has also become all too predictable. It’s not that they should get away from what makes them talented players in the first place, but they need to incorporate their shots much more. Both own pretty good shots and can afford to be more selfish.
Often times, they are thinking pass first, and by the time they realize that they have a shooting lane, the opposition catches on and takes their time and space away. Too many times have one of these two shot the puck right into the shin pads of a penalty killer. Playing this style is not taking advantage of all five attacking players on the ice and especially the two in prime real estate that can get traffic in front of the net.
Teams are willing to let Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly handle the puck from the low-danger areas on the outside so long as they can take away the two options in the middle. It’s simply not enough to have two players in the middle of the ice anticipating a hot pass or a rebound, they need to be integrated in the play. It’s not like the Leafs are lacking in personnel that can raise hell in front of the net. Zach Hyman, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton are all solid options there, but it’s tough to make a difference offensively when the puck isn’t finding you too often. The puck isn’t being passed around to the bumper position too often either, which makes even less sense.
Being placed right in the middle of the offensive zone is not only a prime location for scoring one-timers and burying rebounds, but also to “bump” the puck over from one teammate to another. John Tavares plays there on the first unit and given his skillset, it’s mind-boggling that Matthews, Marner and Rielly aren’t always looking to play the puck to Tavares, even to use him as a diversion to the real danger if nothing else. Tavares is paid $11 million and having him stand around waiting for rebounds is a waste of money and talent, and the Leafs aren’t a team that can afford to waste player salary.
As of April 6, the Maple Leafs powerplay has gone 1 for their last 32 chances. This doesn’t necessarily spell doom and gloom for the rest of the season, but something has to change, and fast. If you look at the Auston Matthews’ powerplay goal that broke their 0-for-29 streak on the man advantage (https://www.nhl.com/video/matthews-second-goal/t-322404102/c-8000484), the play addresses some of the problems previously mentioned. Mitch Marner has the puck, shoots it through (not into) traffic which causes chaos in front of the net. If you’re not sure where the puck is going to end up, you better believe it’s going to cause problems for your opponents.
Despite the Leafs basically oozing with pure talent, they have reverted back to their predictable ways on the powerplay which allowed Boston and Columbus to contain them so well. Toronto isn’t looking to move their pieces around, leaving the penalty killing team with a straightforward job. The play for those teams is pretty simple: let the three outside threats handle the puck all they want, as long as the puck stays outside. If one gets close, just make sure you have a player step up to take that area away as fast as possible. Most important though, is to collapse as a unit right in the middle of the ice in front of the net. This takes away the last two options, and the ones that are in the most dangerous area of the ice.
The Maple Leafs need to get back to basics by getting movement from their outside threats, which will lead to more scoring opportunities for the two players closest to the net. Even the classic way of generating scoring chances of working the puck down-low doesn’t seem to be in the team’s playbook. If it’s good enough for Wayne Gretzky, it should be good enough for you. Sometimes the best play is the simple play.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Toronto powerplay was the best in the league. It won’t magically go back to that right away, but we all know what this group of players are capable of doing offensively. This is not an issue that Kyle Dubas and the management staff can fix by trading for a shiny new player before the league’s trade deadline.
The answer to this problem lies with the players already in the Maple Leafs dressing room.