Losing John Tavares for a minimum of two weeks carries with it several complications for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Playing an essential role in the Maple Leafs machine, much of Mike Babcock’s process will have to be tweaked until the captain returns in two weeks, or so, from his broken finger.
The coach must now choose a new centre to tackle the most difficult forward matchups from the opposition, lean on someone new to take the most critical face-offs, and potentially re-work the entire power play framework to answer for the temporary loss of the veteran pivot.
In large part, the latter might be the least important of the three listed above. While carrying out the role as the top power-play bumper at above a replacement level, the Leafs still have the depth of talent to remain highly dangerous on the man advantage despite the loss of a 47-goal scorer from one season ago. Even if they haven’t showed it with that 47-goal man lately.
While the Leafs and their fans shouldn’t and will not take any solace in it, Tavares’ injury does present a convenient divide to look back and analyze the successes and failures of the Maple Leafs’ revamped special teams design after new assistant coach Paul McFarland instituted multiple positional shifts at the outset of the season.
After 40 minutes and 26 opportunities through eight games, here are the developing trends, key observations and key areas to hone in on once Tavares returns.
The effectiveness is waning
It started hot.
With four goals on 24 registered shots across 15 opportunities with the man advantage through the first three games, and two high-danger looks from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner that beat netminders but caught iron, the Maple Leafs made McFarland look like a genius in the early going.
Flipped to his opposite wing to incorporate a one-time release and to lessen the mechanics involved with his shot, Matthews scored on the power play in each of his first two games, exploding for five goals through the first four nights of the season while looking the part of the Rocket Richard front runner.
It was all quite silly.
The chemistry that Tavares and Marner share was put into action with the top unit as well, as the two shook Joonas Korpisalo from his positioning with a give-and-go exchange between bumper and shooter on the second night of the season in Columbus.
Though to a certain extent left only with scraps, the second unit also capitalized on its chances in the first three games, with William Nylander burying on Carey Price after being spotted creeping toward the net on the weak side versus the Montreal Canadiens.
It all worked early, until it seemed there was enough tape out there for the opposition to intervene.
Toronto has feasted only on the Minnesota Wild in the five games since, scoring twice in less than three minutes of power-play ice. In the other four games combined, against the Blues, Lightning, Red Wings and Capitals, the Leafs have registered one goal on eight opportunities, and clocked in an unimpressive 10-5 shot share in 15 minutes on the man advantage.
All told, the Maple Leafs rank ninth in power play percentage with a 26.9 percent conversion clip, which is primed for regression even before considering that the Leafs are manufacturing shots and scoring chances at only a slightly above average level compared to everyone else.
Entries have been awful
The best explanation to go along with the numbers the Maple Leafs have carved out for themselves is that they are lethal from their sets, but have struggled to settle into them. And the eye test certainly supports this theory because the most significant power-play pain point for the Leafs through six games has been their inability to routinely enter the zone with controlled possession.
Like most teams, the Leafs wind up one of their fastest, shiftiest and most capable puck handlers from deep in their own end, and place the onus on him to gain entry of the offensive zone by himself or with a pass at the point of attack. Mitch Marner and William Nylander are the first options for the first and second power play units, respectively, and have carried out the function to different degrees of success.
Marner has largely struggled with it, having committed more giveaways than any other player league-wide in man advantage scenarios, while Nylander has far more efficiently helped the Leafs gain entry to the zone, albeit with far fewer opportunities.
Toronto has scored three power-play goals to this point as the result of a successful zone entry, with Marner gaining the zone for just one.
The more effective way to set up offensive zone possession has been with success at the faceoff dot. Taking over 80 percent of the faceoffs with the Maple Leafs on the man advantage to this point (how about that for underscoring the potential impact of his loss?), Tavares is one of just four players in the entire league that has won possession for a power play more than 20 times from the circle.
Four of those wins have led directly to goals, and none better, or more immediate, than this one:
Matthews and Alexander Kerfoot are the secondary carry-in options for their respective units. For the most part, Matthews follows the same strategy as Marner, aiming to hit the blue line with speed and if pressured work the puck to a free area to establish possession. Kerfoot, meanwhile, leans on a more old-school method.
Understanding his strengths and limitations, Kerfoot has on three occasions successfully chipped the puck into the offensive zone and won possession by applying immediate pressure on the opposing defender he sent into a chase position.
While controlled entry is always the preferred option, perhaps showing a tried and true method from time to time would help Marner cut down on turnovers and more regularly enter the zone with possession as to let the talented half-court offense go to work.
Marner is no stationary shooter
You can never be exactly sure about the process of the Maple Leafs assistants, for reasons no more obvious than the fact that they’re not ever made available it the media. To infer, however, on the decision to have Matthews and Marner switch sides on the power play, it seems the biggest difference now from before is that McFarland isn’t willing to compromise Matthews’ potential impact.
Limited to 25 power-play goals in his first three seasons, stationing Matthews at his opposite wing this season on the man advantage appears to be a decision designed to unlock the full arsenal of weapons belonging to the most talented goal scorer on the roster. Where as before, it seemed as though the preference was to keep Marner in the best position to succeed.
With four players taking on new set positions under McFarland, the adjustment process seems to be impacting Marner most. While he’s remained productive, scoring twice already (which is as many as Matthews) and totalling a team-high six points with the man advantage, he has displayed some obvious limitations as well.
Namely, he’s not a stationary shooter.
A lot of the talk through training camp and into the regular season was focused on Marner shooting more and, like Matthews, potentially introducing a one-time shot to his attacking portfolio. However it already seems clear that Marner shooting from distance is far from the best option for Toronto in a set position. As such, after attempting a one-time shot in each of the first four games, he has since abandoned efforts to overpower netminders entirely.
Marner did score with a one-touch release on the aforementioned marker on Columbus’s Korpisalo. But the shot was more about accuracy, not power, as Marner and Tavares successfully shook the netminder from his position with a quick exchange of passes beyond his sightline.
Though he was successful shooting from a standstill once, Marner is at his most dangerous when moving with possession of the puck. One of his more electrifying power-play moments came in the opener versus the Senators when he created some momentum for himself after collecting a short pass from the point by back-peddling into the circle and towards the net and using the generated power to rip one off the bar.
The importance of movement for Marner was evident again on his second power-play marker of the season scored versus the Wild.
Fairly lethal in their sets but struggling to settle into them, the Leafs’ top power-play unit has delivered relatively strong results despite the learning curve associated with changes at every position, save for the Morgan Rielly quarterbacking role. While losing Tavares for a prolonged stretch will impact the power play most, like every other facet of the Leafs’ game, one silver lining is that the area that needs to most polish is something he’s not directly involved with.
Should the Maple Leafs shore up their zone entries in the captain’s absence, the club should be far better equipped to take advantage of one side of the special teams when he does return.
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