Maple Leafs' power play thriving despite apparent flaw

·7 min read

After a slow start to the season saw the Toronto Maple Leafs post a 4-4-1 record in October, the team found its footing and ranks second in the league by points percentage since.

A lot of that success can be attributed to a +22 goal differential on special teams over that span, which makes up a lot of the team’s season-long total differential of +29. The power play has been the best in the league over that time and it isn’t particularly close. The Leafs have scored over 13 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-4, while the second-place New York Rangers have scored at a rate of just over 10 per 60.

While they’ve shot the lights out during that stretch (they’ve converted on over 20% of their shots at 5-on-4) the Leafs also lead the league in expected goals rate. For the season as a whole, they’re creating chances at 5-on-4 at a rate almost identical to the league-leading Edmonton Oilers.

Unsurprisingly, the team’s power play catching fire coincides with Auston Matthews doing the same. After missing the first three games of the season recovering from offseason wrist surgery, Matthews didn’t score his first power-play goal of the season until Nov. 2 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Since the calendar flipped to November, Matthews has nine goals and 15 primary points while being on the ice for 25 of the team’s 30 total power-play goals. Interestingly, Matthews racked up four goals and eight primary power-play points in the six games between Mitch Marner’s injury and the sudden extended Christmas break in mid-December. Over those six games, Matthews peppered the net with shots at a rate that doubles his season-long shot rate at 5-on-4.

The team-wide numbers themselves over that small sample were almost identical, they shot the puck slightly more often and their expected goals rates were actually down, but barely. The notable difference here is that arguably the best scorer on earth is taking a much higher proportion of those shots, which obviously makes those shots a lot more likely to actually go in the net.

Intuitively, it makes sense that Matthews takes over the power-play unit without Marner there. Marner is an incredible playmaker who can do a lot of things with the puck that most players simply can’t. As a result, Marner demands a lot of puck touches on the power play, which also means less puck touches for Matthews.

Needless to say, having so much talent on your top unit is a great problem to have, as William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly are stars themselves and they all act more as tertiary options. The issue here is that Marner recently scored his first 5-on-4 goal since Jan. 2, 2020 — a period of over 100 games! Even Marner couldn’t believe it finally went in the net.

Of all of Marner’s strengths, he’s not exactly going to beat a goaltender clean from any sort of distance very often and he knows this.*

*Full disclosure, this piece was written before the game Wednesday night when Marner decided he was 2008 Ilya Kovalchuk.

Since the beginning of the 2019 season, Marner shoots far less often than any of the other three forwards on the unit, to the point where Rielly shoots at a similar rate. Everybody on the ice as well as everybody at home watching on TV knows the last thing Marner wants to do is shoot the puck with the man advantage. This causes an issue when combined with the fact that Marner is so often the one with the puck on his stick, including carrying the puck into the zone in the first place.

When Matthews has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone he’s a threat to score from anywhere. This creates a sort of gravitational pull on the opposing penalty-killing unit where they need to take away space from him ASAP, which often opens up lanes for him to expose. It’s similar to how merely the presence of Steph Curry on a basketball court creates spacing for his teammates.

Watch how three of the four Oilers penalty killers get sucked into the wall when Matthews simply retrieves the puck in the corner. Matthews makes a quick play to Tavares at the dot and the power-play unit now has a lot of open ice to set up a shot pass for the tip to Matthews in the middle.

Or here, when the Islanders penalty killers think they have Matthews cornered high in the zone and might even have a chance for a quick break themselves, only for Matthews to whip a pass down low to Nylander before getting the puck back for a one-timer on net.

The fact that Marner isn’t much of a shooting threat negatively affects his ability to create space and expose open lanes for his teammates. Rather than the penalty killing unit having to rush at the puck carrier, they can simply keep Marner to the perimeter while worrying about the other four players on the ice, especially the three forwards. It can become almost like having two defencemen on the top unit. Whereas most units have one defenceman that the penalty killing unit will gladly let shoot from the outside, opposing teams can play both Rielly and Marner in a similar fashion.

Considering Marner has the puck almost as much as Matthews, this can be a big issue, especially when teams have years of game tape to plan and prepare for it. Teams can let Marner try to beat them while worrying mostly about giving Matthews as few looks as possible while boxing out the home plate area. It’s been a good strategy and the result is that Marner has just five primary points at 5-on-4 this season over 29 games played.

Marner’s power-play production this season hasn’t been the biggest issue since the team boasts the second-best power-play conversion rate in the league, but it could become a big talking point if that unit hits a cold stretch. Especially considering the fact that they scored two power-play goals in five straight games as soon as Marner was out of the lineup in December.

Maple Leafs stars Auston Matthews, right, and Mitch Marner talk during a break in play. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
Maple Leafs stars Auston Matthews, right, and Mitch Marner talk during a break in play. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Last season the team was scoring at the highest rate in the NHL at 5-on-4 over the first two months before falling off a cliff over the last 30-plus games, scoring at a rate better than only the lowly Anaheim Ducks, who scored 10 total power-play goals all season. The Leafs have already had a much longer stretch of success than they did last year before falling off, but if they hit a cold stretch here it won’t take long for Marner to start drawing all of the heat, fair or otherwise.

The Leafs have shown some different looks this season with significantly more movement around the zone, specifically in Marner’s case, and players making switches to different spots on the ice, which has helped them maintain their power-play production. But the breakout has still mostly consisted of Marner being the primary carrier off the neutral zone drop pass. Marner usually has Matthews supporting as his main escape valve, but it’s worth wondering whether shifting more of that load onto Matthews and even Nylander would make the unit that much more dangerous.

Or, maybe Marner’s recent 5-on-4 goal scoring takes a huge weight off his shoulders and he continues racking up points, making all of this nothing but something to point and laugh at a couple of months down the road. Besides, they’ve been the best power play in the league for 30 games at this point. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

On top of Marner’s three power-play points against the Ducks on Wednesday, he also danced around Kevin Shattenkirk on the 5-on-4 entry that led to a great chance and a drawn penalty, leading to the 5-on-3 where he set up a Tavares goal.

Regardless, the Leafs' power play is going to be a fascinating thing to track over the second half of the season.

*data & visuals via evolving-hockey.com, naturalstattrick.com and hockeyviz.com

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