The Toronto Maple Leafs have been dominant at even strength to start the season. Through five games, they’re at the top of the league in Score-Adjusted Corsi For Percentage, and top five in Shots, Expected Goals, and Actual Goals For Percentage.
Or, in less nerdy terms, they’ve got control of the puck. They’re shooting much more than other teams, and from more dangerous areas. They’re giving up fewer shots than most teams, though they’re also allowing somewhat dangerous shots and that’s caused them some trouble. But the flow of the game runs through them, and that’s part of the reason they’ve started the season 4-1-0.
But what about special teams?
|Year||PP%||PK%||PP xGF60||PK xGA60|
|2017/18||30.8% (1st)||79.2% (20th)||15.66 (1st)||6.07 (8th)|
|2016/17||23.8% (2nd)||82.5% (10th)||8.84 (1st)||7.72 (27th)|
The Leafs have had arguably the most dominant powerplay in hockey over the past few years; there are a bunch of “check out this five-second GIF of their formation” posts out there if you’re interested in the “why”, but the long and short is having more room to distribute amongst each other and find openings, having tons of skilled shooters to release when ready, and the coaching staff being unafraid to go with 4F+1D units to optimize opportunity.
The penalty kill has been a mixed bag. Toronto gave up a lot of shots last year but kept them out; this year they’ve prevented better but been less successful in surviving the kills unscathed. It’s five games in, though, so there’s a lot of noise. Not to mention, we know that penalty kills can often live and die on goaltending, and Frederik Andersen’s start to the year has been less than stellar.
Either way, Toronto looks to be on it’s way to clear the age-old 100% rule; combining your Powerplay and Penalty Kill percentages to figure out if you’re above or below average. Last year, Toronto finished at 106.24%, good for third in the league, and out of the gate, they’re clearing that. In other words, given equal powerplay and penalty kill opportunity, Toronto likely walks out a victorious team on your average night.
The key is to stay above equal, though, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Mitch Marner is the player that got me thinking about Toronto’s penalty differential, and the debate about his temporary demotion to the fourth line works out to be a good case study. I’ve suggested a few times, to some blowback, that Marner causes the Leafs a lot of grief with the penalties he takes. Not to the point of him being a liability, but because so many of them are needless.
Specifically, what I notice in Marner is that, in a quest to show his two-way ability and his footspeed, he often bites off more than he can chew, trying to win races back into the defensive zone that even the fastest skaters have no hope with. When he gets close, he’ll go for a hook or slash to try to make up ground. His linemates (Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk) also have their share of defensive deficiencies but tend to just entirely give up on the backcheck or not try as hard because they’re less confident that they have a shot at catching their lost man.
With that in mind, I looked at their penalties drawn and taken, and what penalties they were giving and receiving specifically. In fact, I did this for everybody currently on the Leafs, starting at the beginning of last season and leading up to today. Here’s Mitch:
|Holding The Stick||1||Cross Checking||3|
As expected. Marner takes 13 hooking and tripping penalties; by far the highest on the team for penalties that be considered an act of chase in open ice. Only three other players have been sent off for hooks at least five times; Zach Hyman, who tends to take them along the boards in puck battles and draws more than he gives (5 taken, 7 drawn, plus a 1 taken / 6 drawn in high sticking calls), Jake Gardiner, who usually takes his hooks and trips in reaction to recovering from losing the puck at the point, and Patrick Marleau, who is also a despite-all-odds chaser:
Marleau hasn’t been involved with the penalty box yet this year, but in San Jose, he took 6 hooks and 3 trips, while drawing just 3 and 1. Perhaps, that’s one of the reasons they team hasn’t been keen on putting Marner with him and Nazem Kadri, especially when Kadri’s rap sheet looks like a Family Feud survey results page:
|Goalie Interference||2||High Sticking||3|
|Delay of Game||2||Fighting||2|
|Holding The Stick||1|
Kadri’s reciprocation in slashing, cross-checking, and roughing penalties is another one of those things that connects with the eye-test and has you ponder a bit. Those penalties can all come in their own individual situations, but a player who constantly takes or receives that cluster is usually the one involved in post-whistle pushing and shoving.
As a pest and line-tower that gets under people’s skin, it’s fitting that Kadri gives 18 of those penalties and takes 19 back. On the Matthews line, Hyman takes the vet role of being “that guy”, but never seems to be too fussed about it once the other team starts to lose it:
That’s reflective in his numbers too. In the past year or so, he’s taken one roughing penalty and one cross-cross check, while drawing five and two respectively, plus two slashes. The third line has Van Riemsdyk who takes more roughing calls than he draws, but he makes up for that in slashes – I suspect that might have something to do with how much time he spends in front of the net, though. Lastly, Matt Martin tends to be about a wash (16 of those three penalty types for, 16 against, plus 14 mutual fights and an instigator drawn), and Dominic Moore had his share of aggression issues last year but both him and Eric Fehr are both black holes in penalty differential.
|Andreas Borgman||Connor Carrick|
On the point there isn’t really a ton to write home about. Jake Gardiner takes and draws a lot of stick penalties, presumably because he’s always in the vincinity of the puck. Nikita Zaitsev was the only remaining player on the team to take multiple puck-over-glass penalty last year, doing it four times; I wonder if having Gardiner to help him move the puck out of the zone will make much of a difference this year.
The third pairing above is one that interests me. One, I really love that Connor Carrick is one of Toronto’s biggest thorns in the other team’s sides despite being a 5’10 on tiptoes defenceman. I wonder if there is some upside to gain there with a bit more discipline, though, as his aggressive penalties all come out in the wash, and he trails in dangerous/late hits (boarding, interference).
Andreas Borgman’s adjustment to the timing in North America will also be something to keep an eye on; two interference penalties this early in his career is a rough start. Being a regular with interference calls is usually a sign of not having timing down right (for example, the Bozak line’s 6-2 ratio last year), being too invested in finishing a check (Matt Martin’s three calls last year), or both mixed with a lack of mobility (sorry Roman Polak, your seven last year, plus two boarding penalties needed a call-out).
I suspect Borgman will be fine, as he adjusts to the smaller ice and quicker reaction times, and also stops worrying about “auditioning” for his spot. Calle Rosen is in a similar situation with slashing calls, but we know the league has been active on those to start the season.
|Holding The Stick||5||8||3||Illegal Equipment||1||0||-1|
|Goalie Leave Crease||0||1||1||Charging||2||0||-2|
|Boarding||5||5||0||Delay of Game||2||0||-2|
|Fighting||19||19||0||Puck Over Glass||7||0||-7|
The big picture, when looking at the 20 skaters that the Leafs have dressed, looks impressively like you’d think it would. They do best with holding calls, likely reflective of how hard it is to strip them of the puck when they’ve established the offensive zone. They do well with scrum penalties, likely because their only real heavyweight (Martin) doesn’t play for 85% of the game, so there isn’t usually anyone to step in and really cross the line.
High Sticking, their biggest flaw, is likely a stick discipline issue that needs to be coached into a team that’s got a core which is mostly built upon youth, and defensively irresponsible vets. Interference might be a hard one to figure out; I doubt Mike Babcock wants to take the finish-your-check mentality away from his team, and I know he likes the lanes clear in front of Andersen, but a balance needs to be found if they don’t want those moments to lead to penalty kills.
The net result of all of this is a penalty differential of +1 over the past two years, and given how 4-on-4’s, majors, and the like have spread themselves out, a powerplay differential of -5. That’s not horrific, but it’s not exactly taking advantage of the situation either. A team that could both succeed on special teams and find a way to be on them frequently, with most being powerplays, could do a lot of damage.
Figuring out how to drive that differential in your favour is a different question, especially in a sport where referees have the most leeway to be subjective and call on reputation and present result, but if I were looking for a way to gain an advantage in this league, finding a way to best balance risk-taking and discipline would certainly be one of the options I’d have circled.
For reference, my full tables are below. Note that I used all skaters that have been on the roster this year; departed players and those in the minors are not included. One last “no shit” thing to note: teams have a lot of trouble getting the puck off that Matthews kid.
|Zach Hyman||Auston Matthews|
|Holding||4||High Sticking||6||High Sticking||2||Tripping||5|
|Goalie Interference||1||Tripping||2||Holding The Stick||1|
|High Sticking||1||Cross Checking||2||Boarding||1|
|William Nylander||Patrick Marleau|
|Holding||3||Holding The Stick||1||Interference||2||High Sticking||2|
|Slashing||2||Hooking||1||Check To Head||1||Interference||1|
|Holding The Stick||1||Holding The Stick||1|
|Nazem Kadri||Leo Komarov|
|Interference||3||Cross Checking||3||High Sticking||2||Unsportsmanlike||1|
|Goalie Interference||2||High Sticking||3||Fighting||1||Interference||1|
|Delay of Game||2||Fighting||2||Holding The Stick||1||Boarding||1|
|Holding The Stick||1|
|James van Riemsdyk||Tyler Bozak|
|High Sticking||3||Holding||3||High Sticking||4||High Sticking||3|
|Slashing||2||Cross Checking||1||Roughing||2||Cross Checking||2|
|Puck Over Glass||1||Interference||1||Slashing||1||Unsportsmanlike||1|
|Fighting||1||Holding The Stick||1||Holding The Stick||1||Interference||1|
|Mitch Marner||Matt Martin|
|High Sticking||2||Tripping||3||Cross Checking||5||Cross Checking||3|
|Holding The Stick||1||Cross Checking||3||Slashing||1||Goalie Leave Crease||1|
|Dominic Moore||Connor Brown|
|Tripping||4||Interference||2||Holding||1||Holding The Stick||2|
|Cross Checking||3||Cross Checking||2||High Sticking||1||Interference||1|
|High Sticking||1||Holding The Stick||1|
|Puck Over Glass||1|
|Josh Leivo||Eric Fehr|
|Jake Gardiner||Nikita Zaitsev|
|Hooking||5||Holding||4||Puck Over Glass||4||Hooking||3|
|Morgan Rielly||Ron Hainsey|
|High Sticking||2||Tripping||3||Tripping||2||Holding The Stick||1|
|Cross Checking||1||Slashing||2||Interference||2||Cross Checking||1|
|Andreas Borgman||Connor Carrick|