The first question for this week’s installment of Blue’s “Bag of Pucks” mailbag comes from Tommy Cat via Twitter:
What Leaf special team are you most disappointed in this year?— Tommy Cat (@TommyCa59436681) March 8, 2020
This isn’t even close for me, it’s the penalty kill.
As of this writing the Leafs have a 77.3% success rate while short handed. That puts them in a tie for 22nd in the NHL.
This probably wouldn’t bother me as much as it does if it weren’t for Kyle Dubas’ pledge to put better personnelle on the ice to kill penalties last season. After losing to the Boston Bruins in the 1st round of last seasons playoffs, where the team was shorthanded 16 times and allowed 7 goals for a 56.3% success rate, Dubas was asked about the special teams and had this to say:
“Well, I think from a management point of view, certainly, I can do a better job in arming our roster and arming our coaching staff with players that can help us in each of those facets. I think the powerplay, our powerplay has been very good in each of the regular seasons that I’ve been here, and produced in the playoffs, and I want to see it improve and adapt. With the talent it has and knowing the job that Jim (Hillier) does, I have a lot of faith in that.
I think the penalty kill…. I think the blame should go to me for the penalty kill because…. I think I could have found guys to help the depth and help the coaches in that regard so I think if there’s blame to go around for that it should go to me.”Kyle Dubas
After this statement I expected something to back it up, but not a lot really came of it outside of adding Ilya Mikheyev, who has been a terrific addition to the unit with his speed and long reach, and promoting Pierre Engvall, who is a good depth option.
Jason Spezza was signed for centre depth, but he isn’t a penalty killer and never has been. They also added Nick Shore, who played some short handed minutes under former bench boss Mike Babcock, but he was never a big help either. That was about it as far as forwards go.
On the blueline they took on Cody Ceci, who leads all Leaf defenders in TOI/GP while shorthanded, but they lost last years leaders in Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev, and didn’t look to bring in any depth at all. In fact, if you look at the top 6 defenders in TOI/GP while shorthanded, Ceci is the only player that wasn’t in the organization last year. That’s only interrupted by Kevin Gravel, who has played just 3 games for the big club after being signed as a UFA on July 1st.
Other additions to the club, such as Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot provide scoring depth and help to the powerplay, but as Kyle Dubas said, the powerplay has never been an area of concern.
The better move would have been to target another penalty killing defender in place of Tyson Barrie, and a 3C that can grind and defender in place of Alex Kerfoot. It’s not that I don’t like Kerfoot as a player, but even at the time it made sense to me to have a centre cut from a defensive mold behind John Tavares and Auston Matthews, if you weren’t going to have Nazem Kadri there.
So now the Leafs find themselves fighting for a playoff spot. If they make it into the show they’ll most likely take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning sport a 23.5% success rate while up a man, which is good for 5th in the NHL.Tough task.
There is an off chance they could see the Boston Bruins again though, a team with a 25.1% success rate on the powerplay, which is good for 2nd in the NHL, and a team that has schooled the Leafs two years in a row in the playoffs.
I won’t count the Leafs out, anything can happen, but those two teams will be tough to handle.
So, yes, the penalty is my choice for the biggest disappointment.
From @TheSieve15 on Twitter:
Yes hi, frequent flyer club member here. How can anyone justify scoring 3 goals total against the 27, 28, and 30 place teams? Especially with such a massive cap hit on forwards.— NottaSieve (@TheSieve15) March 7, 2020
Teams run hot and cold, that’s just the nature of the game, so this is just another tough pill to swallow in a year full of tough pills to swallow.
There’s no consistency among this group right now. The hope is that as they age that can be learned and developed. However, at the moment, fans are going to have to excuse the immaturity until the offseason at least, when personnelle changes can be made.
The good news is the team is still 2nd in the NHL in goals for.
The bad news is they are 28th in goals against.
It’s a good thing Florida sits 29th in that category.
Why not run Hyman- Tavares-Mitchy, ? – Matthews- Willy Wonder. Nylander is playing the best hockey of his career.
It’s starting to look like Sheldon Keefe is as stubborn as Mike Babcock ever was.
Since he has taken over behind the bench he switched up Babcocks pairs of Matthews with Nylander and Tavares with Marner, to go with Matthews with Marner and Tavares with Nylander.
None of them ever see the 3rd line. Which is another strange thing in my opinion, considering they have had games where they simply have no jump whatsoever. Why not give the big 4 a line each in games where they are coming up short like they did over the California swing? Crazy thought, I’ll just move on.
On paper the pairs Keefe have been rolling make sense. Marner is an assist machine, while Matthews is a pure trigger man. To have an elite setup man and an elite sniper together just makes sense (offensively). Having Hyman with them, as a defensive conscience, also makes sense on paper.
Meanwhile, John Tavares and William Nylander have clicked. They’re both equally adept at setting up and finishing plays, so having them together also makes sense on paper.
Again, that’s on paper.
With just 3 goals in their past three games you would think a line shakeup would be in the cards and the ones proposed are as good as any combination.
I especially like the Tavares line. With Hyman and Tavares being the best players we have in the top six on the defensive side of the puck and both having a knack for scoring in tight to the net, it could be a great recipe for success with Marner setting them up. Meanwhile, with Nylander having such a great year and being a threat to score himself, it would take away the predictability that Marner brings to the line and could open up room for Matthews to do more.
If Nylander continues to play LW I’d suggest promoting Kapanen to the top 6. He hasn’t always done well further up the lineup but he seems to have added a level of grit and determination to his game that could help on that line.
Great suggestion, eh Keefe?
Will it take trading one of JT, Matthews, Marner or Nylander to turn this team around?
Short answer? Yes.
I honestly believe this team is too off balance to be a true contender. With that said I also wouldn’t sell one of those players right now if I were the GM. Kyle Dubas is trying to add pieces to shore up the blueline for cheap (ex: getting Barrie at 50%), and I think I’d take another swing (or two) at that strategy if I were him. This offseason would see the departure of players such as Kasperi Kapanen and/or Andreas Johnsson for defensive help before any of the big 4.
With Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev as the big free agent priorities this offseason, it’s going to be a quiet year on that front. However, Frederik Andersen and Zach Hyman need to be renewed the year after, followed by Morgan Rielly and possibly Rasmus Sandin the following year. By the time they all come and go there will be talk about re-signing William Nylander and Auston Matthews, and unless the salary cap jumps by leaps and bounds, there won’t be a lot of space to add top 4 defenders before then.
So, the simple answer is yes, I believe they will eventually move one of those 4 players for both the return and the cap space. However, I wouldn’t rush them out the door just yet, because, even though I don’t believe in the way the team is being built, I’ve been wrong before, so I’m willing to see it through a little longer.