Back in October, I wrote about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ habits in the penalty box. Okay, not in the actual penalty box itself, but how they get themselves involved with it. How they draw penalties, and how they take them. After all, there are a decent amount of goals scored in this ol’ National Hockey League that come from special teams; about 17-18% of Toronto’s goals for and against are courtesy the powerplay and penalty kill, respectively. With that in mind, let’s catch up some stuff.

Firstly, let’s forget what I said about the Leafs being dominant at even strength. That was an early season fad that was too fun to enjoy. Toronto plays safe hockey now, usually gets outshot and outchanced, but gets to brag about line matchups and working really hard. I guess that makes all of this more important now, though; if they’re playing 5-on-5 to survive, the PP and PK is where they have to thrive. Have they thrived compared to last year?

Year PP% PK% PP xGF60 PK xGA60
2017/18 20.9% (11th) 84.0% (5th) 11.12 (1st) 7.52 (16th)
2016/17 23.8% (2nd) 82.5% (10th) 8.84 (1st) 7.72 (27th)

Yes and no. Toronto seems to have taken what was already the most potent power play in the league in terms of shot location and frequency and ramped it up to 11(.12). The penalty kill is slightly better from the same accord, and interestingly enough, that has… made their percentages worse on the power play and better on the penalty kill? Combined, top half of the league in both statistics is still a pretty excellent net outcome; Toronto’s combined special team percentage (one of the original ‘advanced stats’, as many old-school coaches will tell you) is 104.96%, good for 6th in the NHL behind Colorado, Nashville, Winnipeg, San Jose, and Pittsburgh.

Despite this, Toronto has just a +4 goal differential on special teams, which is still good for 10th in the league, but nowhere close to the other to the other top-feeders in special teams efficiency. Pittsburgh and San Jose are +20 and +19. Winnipeg and Tampa Bay are +13 and +12, and Nashville, Colorado, and New Jersey sit in the +9, +9, +8 range. What makes the Leafs unique here is that they don’t really get a lot of opportunities to “go to work”, really; they sit 22nd in the league in combined powerplays + penalty kills, 28th in powerplay opportunities, and 18th in penalties against, good for a -15 opportunity differential heading into Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Compared to last season, the Leafs have drawn about one fewer penalty per two games (3.4 vs 3.89) and taken about a third fewer themselves (3.66 vs 3.9). I do believe this to be, to an extent, a product of pace; Toronto has been playing their games tighter, more structured, and with fewer risks taken or given. This means less chasing and less desperation from either side and while the difference that makes is likely somewhat counterbalanced by the referees now promoting calls they would’ve left last year due to quantity into callable territory, it likely has allowed for fewer major events where a penalty is a worthwhile risk.

Another theory that some might bring up is the effect of younger players developing reputations, and not getting the same rope as they did when they were the rookie class. But when we look at who is getting differential, that’s probably not the case. The kids, for the most part, are at the top, which is probably a product of them being skilled and fast, something that doesn’t change even when the ability to use it constantly is downplayed:

Kapanen’s sample here is particularly small and includes just one drawn penalty, so it’s difficult to give him a medal for it, so to speak. I did want to include him in the group, though, if only for the fact that we’ve seen similar on-paper results like this out of him in previous call-ups, and eye estimation has him as a pretty good drawer of these penalties for the Marlies (at some point I’d like to do this with them, but because the AHL doesn’t list drawn penalties and many archives don’t even show the time remaining on the feeds, this may have to wait a bit for me to amass manually).

(PRE-NOTE: In an act of genius and/or sleep deprivation, “Interference is repeatedly misspelt in these charts”. I’m going to get ahead of this now so I can still publish, and hopefully get around to re-uploading charts with better spelling shortly)

The Matthews line, in particular, looks very good. As a collective, they’ve drawn 34 penalties and taken just 15, a +19 ratio as a line. I’d wager that Hyman is the most volatile in both directions because he’s the most active in “battle” situations and a player who has to rely on physical separation more than shiftiness. That’s no knock on him, especially because he still manages to get the other team in the box more often than him, which was the case last year as well. Nylander’s ratio has dramatically improved; the last time we did this article, which covered all of last year and the first few games of this season, Nylander’s running count was 18-12 in favour of taken; this season he’s a +7. Overall, this group is still on the dominant and disciplined side and puts the Leafs on the powerplay the most often.

The shutdown line takes a lot of penalty volume, which isn’t shocking given how Kadri and Komarov play. Their outcome still remains positive, which is a driven mostly by Kadri’s much more positive last year; what was a mere squeak ahead in 2016/17 is now a runaway effort at +7. Also, Leo Komarov’s penalty for his visor at the start of the year remains the funniest thing on this list. As a group, this group has taken 32 penalties and drawn 25, a +7 on the whole.

Things don’t look so good for Line Three, and that has a lot to do with James Van Riemsdyk, who has the worst raw differential on the team. Slashing penalties were something he received more than gave last year, but that table has turned in 2018; perhaps a byproduct him adjusting to the (slowly fading) crackdown we’ve seen this year. Marner’s stick discipline has improved compared to last year; his rate of hooking and tripping penalties have dipped, and he’s drawn those types of calls a little more this year as well. Overall this line has taken 26 penalties and taken 24, giving them a -2 net differential.

One more thing, though: the Leafs have taken six too many men calls this year. Five of them involved this line (and as such, Marner has served them so he could potentially be sprung for the breakaway). I’m not sure if that’s random or if it’s something that they’re doing poorly, but it’s a notable enough imbalance to point out.

The longest-surviving fourth line is a bit of an issue. Martin’s differential and tendency to take penalties shouldn’t be much of a shock; even if you remove the fighting majors, that’s a pretty healthy 10-6 in favour of calls taken, with half of them coming from checking-type calls. Moore hasn’t been quite as hot-headed as he was in Boston, but we’ve seen moments where he’s been burned.

Not a ton to talk about here. None of these players have played enough to have a huge sample to talk about. Onto the defence:

Jake Gardiner has already drawn as many penalties this year as he did last year. Comprehensive zone entry data would likely be necessary to back this up, but I wonder how much of that is because he spends more time as the puck carrier on his pair this year; Zaitsev is more of a chip and chase guy than Carrick was last year. He’s also taking more of them, which could be anything from tougher matchups, to a role that involves different position, to him straight up struggling a little this year. Zaitsev’s differential remains in the red this year; taking and drawing at a similar ratio to his 21-13 pace in the previous year. Since Zaitsev’s injury, Gardiner has taken just 2 penalties in his last 13 games.

The second pair’s numbers are about what you’d expect them to be. Rielly is the carrier on his pair most of the time, which allows him to draw penalties, but usually has it for shorter bursts than Gardiner and doesn’t draw as frequently as a result. Hainsey looks for other options pretty quickly and as such, is rare to draw calls. Interestingly, while his differential isn’t great, he still isn’t taking many penalties of his own. Maybe there’s a reverse Ben Smith thing going on here, where others are the ones drawing calls when he’s on the ice because he’s gotten the puck into their hands (Smith rarely took penalties last year, but the team’s constant need to be on the chase meant someone else on with him would have to cheat and get caught).

Andreas Borgman has taken more interference penalties than any player on the team, and that’s a bit concerning. His skating ability is good enough that he shouldn’t be behind the play, so I wonder if that’s a timing adjustment thing. To supplement that point, he’s taken penalties in just 2 of his last 23 games. Carrick’s balance is a concern in its own right as well; I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy his tenacity and aggression, but there are some moments where he goes overboard. That he’s taken more roughing, slashing, and cross-checking (often aggresion-based penalties) than he’s drawn is an example of that, and that he has no non-aggressive draws (hooking, tripping) etc might indicate that he isn’t playing with the puck as much as he was before.

We don’t really have enough data on Dermott just yet, though Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe pointed out a few months back that he’s a player who impacts you on both sides of the coin. At a point this year, the rookie defenceman was the leader in penalties taken and drawn, with a positive differential, with his AHL affiliate. I’m very curious to see how things shake out with him long-term up here.

Polak, of course, is a huge problem. The majority of Toronto’s differential issues can be solely placed on his shoulders; the team goes from -15 to -3 if you take him out of the picture. He’s aggressive, slow, a maker of bad decisions, and a person in a bad decision. We all know this. It happens ever year, and it’s the worst it’s ever been this year. It probably won’t make a difference towards his spot in the lineup.

Similar to the bottom of the forward group, there’s not a lot to talk about here. Rosen probably had the same timing issues as Borgman when he first came in, and also had the slashes for and against in the most aggressive stretch of the crackdown. Marincin was barely up with the team, and usually isn’t a needle-driven in either direction.


Lastly, here’s where Toronto’s differentials stand on different types of penalties right now. Interference and Cross Checking are their clearest issues. The pace that they’ve drawn interference calls has particularly risen, and the rate at which they’ve taken them even more so. High sticking was a huge problem last year, but it seems to have subsided now. Goaltender interference penalties are pacing out to occur much less frequently, which is good. Their top three draws of last year (Holding, Slashing, and Roughing) remain the same.

Ultimately, there isn’t a strong conclusion to this, but I did think it was a good idea to update the data here, just so it can be referenced in case the team or individual players fall into or break out of patterns.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully you enjoyed this post. If you did, don't hesitate to share it on Twitter or Facebook; having more readers will help the site grow. As well, consider a subscription if you're interested in reading additional work that isn't available to guests.