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Leafs Look to Improve Play at Even Strength

At 43.3 percent, the Toronto Maple Leafs' power-play success has been the driving force behind their 7-2-1 start. But it isn't sustainable and even-strength play must improve.

There’s been a common theme when the Toronto Maple Leafs reflect on their performance through 10 games. The power play leads the NHL at 43.3 percent through games completed on Feb. 1. Other factors like "response" and timely goaltending have also been mentioned.

But with time to rest before their next game on Thursday at home against the Vancouver Canucks, the Leafs have multiple days of practice to work on their issues at even strength.

“Particularly on this past road trip, we saw a pretty dramatic reduction in our pace to how much we had the puck and how much we played on offense,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We played with the lead for the better part of most of those games and I didn’t think we managed that very well.”

Last season, the Maple Leafs ranked sixth in shot attempts rate (Corsi) at even strength at 52.03 percent. Through this early stretch, the Leafs are 16th at 50.8 percent. Although the Maple Leafs were a wild and entertaining team to watch last season, they also gave up leads at times without demonstrating an ability to recover. The hard lessons learned from their disappointing qualifying-round exit against the Columbus Blue Jackets last season magnified a desire to improve in their own end.

“I think we want to be a better defensive team, more consistent and to defend better,” John Tavares said. “At times when you do that, you’re not going to get some good chances to go your way when the game is kind of more open.”

With a 7-2-1 record, dissecting the game at even strength may seem a bit nitpicky. Toronto’s power-play has been impressive but relying on it alone is unsustainable.

If Toronto held their power play rate at 43.3 percent for an entire season, it would eclipse the all-time NHL record by any team in a completed season by a whopping 11.4 percent.

As of Feb. 1, the five best power plays recorded are from this season, with seven of them making up the top 10.

Top-10 power-plays of all-time per NHL.com

Top-10 power-plays of all-time per NHL.com

As good as Toronto’s power play is, it’s going to come down eventually. With fewer opponents this season, teams will learn how to adjust to Toronto’s tendencies, and the attention will quickly pivot to how well they play at even strength.

“I think teams are just playing a little tighter against us,” William Nylander said.” I mean, getting pucks out so we’re not able to get the second chances back or we’re stuck on walls. I think that’s part of our issue we’re working on.”

The Edmonton Oilers have been one of the better possession teams this season and they have made up four of Toronto’s 10 games this season. Keefe also cited playing with the lead as a factor that brings 5-on-5 possession numbers down.

When leading, Toronto is 21st in even-strength shot attempts rate at 43.87 percent. Last season, they were 10th at 46.75 percent. Keefe has addressed the even-strength issues by shuffling the forward lines throughout the season. At practice on Tuesday, Keefe moved forward Wayne Simmonds over to the team’s second line with Tavares and Nylander. Simmonds replaced Ilya Mikheyev who had occupied the spot for the last three games.

“On the road trip he was a real standout for us,” Keefe said of Simmonds. “He’s got a little more (ice time) each game with an injury to Jumbo (Joe Thornton) and it’s allowed us to move things around a little bit.”

Simmonds has three goals in 10 games this season.

“We just wanted to give that a look in practice today,” Keefe said of the new-look line. “We’ll talk about it and get a look at what we are expecting with from Vancouver’s lineup and then we’ll make the decision on what we want to do with our lines.”

Alex Kerfoot missed practice with an injury that Keefe categorized as “day-to-day” and likened the situation to what Auston Matthews went through earlier in the season. Matthews missed one game this season with a hand injury.

Pierre Engvall moved up to the third line in Kerfoot’s spot on a line with Mikheyev and Jimmy Vesey. Nic Petan was called up to the Leafs practice group for the first time on Tuesday and he skated on the fourth line with Travis Boyd and Jason Spezza.

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