There isn’t a whole lot we’ve actually learned about the Toronto Maple Leafs so far in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs that we didn’t already know. No lead against them can be considered safe. We already knew that. When they move their feet and use their speed, they’re nearly impossible to stop. Been there, done that. They’re a dangerous team…in both ends of the ice. Broken record.
The one thing we have learned about them is that for reasons nobody seems to be able to explain, their penalty killers go AWOL in the playoffs. The Leafs penalty killing in general has been abysmal, with a kill rate of just 54.5 percent, which is dead last among playoff teams. And if you want to talk specifics, it was an absolute tire fire in their 6-4 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 4 of their first round series. At times they looked clueless on the penalty kill and paid for it. The Bruins got four minutes of power-play time, but needed only 2:09 of it to record two goals. That gave them at least one power-play goal in each game and five on 11 opportunities.
This is nothing new for the Leafs over the past three seasons they’ve appeared in the playoffs. In the regular season, they’ve been in the upper half of the league two of those seasons, but they finished 15th of 16 teams in the playoffs two years ago, last among playoff teams last spring and they’re last this post-season. All told, Mike Babcock's Leafs have allowed 32 goals on 49 penalty kills over the past three years, for an overall kill rate of 65.3 percent.
As the kids say, Woof. A quick check of the stats sheet indicates that Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev were each on for all but 24 seconds of the Bruins’ 2:09 with the man advantage. Zach Hyman was on for 1:30 and Mitch Marner 1:18. Auston Matthews was on for exactly zero minutes and zero seconds, as was John Tavares. Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin were on for 24 seconds each. Are we missing something here?
Over the course of the four games, the Maple Leafs have been shorthanded for a total of 16 minutes and 30 seconds. Of that time, Tavares has been on the ice for 47 seconds, Matthews 49. Rielly has been on for 4:37 and Muzzin 5:37, compared to Hainsey at 12:12 and Zaitsev at 11:36.
“We’ve got to fix it,” Babcock said. “The bottom line is you can’t keep giving power play goals up, those are just freebies those two (the Bruins scored in Game 4). Not that they didn’t make plays or anything like that, but we weren’t in the spots we were supposed to be in. In the end, you’ve got to do what you’re supposed to do and if their scheme is better, their player executes, then so be it. But, you’ve got to do what you’re supposed to.”
The definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results, so how about the Leafs try something different? Because those players who were not in the right spots were repeatedly out of position and they’ve repeatedly let their team down with their inability to kill penalties. Tavares has never been much of a penalty killer, although he did average 1:34 of shorthanded ice time last season with the Islanders. Fine. But would you care to take a guess how much shorthanded ice time Matthews has had in his three seasons in Toronto? It’s 5:05. That’s total, not per game. His per-game shorthanded numbers are a ridiculous one second in his rookie season, followed by two seconds in Years 2 and 3. How does anyone know whether or not Matthews, the franchise player who will be paid an average of $11.6 million over the next five seasons, can kill penalties or not if he never gets the chance? Connor McDavid had 38 seconds of kill time per game this past season, Sidney Crosby 34 and Steven Stamkos 35.
It’s always baffled me why coaches don’t put their best players out more to kill penalties. They’ve risen to the top of their craft because they’re really good, very determined and opportunistic. Those are all attributes you look for in penalty killers. Whatever the Leafs do, Babcock is right, they have to fix this. Putting guys in who haven’t killed penalties all year could be a recipe for disaster, but really, can they be any worse than the players Babcock continues to throw over the boards in that situation? Because even if they manage to get beyond the Bruins in the first round, there’s no way they’re coming in the same area code as the Stanley Cup by giving up goals on almost half the penalties they take.