Tyler Dellow of the Athletic recently wrote a piece about the fall of the San Jose Sharks once potent powerplay which contained some interesting Leaf related information.
It’s not surprising to see one of the Leafs powerplay units showing up in second place in terms of goal rate, as they were second in the entire NHL in 5v4 goals per hour (8.14) behind only the Buffalo Sabres (8.7.) It is interesting, though, to note which unit it was that produced so efficiently. The unit of James van Riemsdyk, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Nikita Zaitsev scored powerplay goals at a rate of 12.9 goals per hour. That is outrageous production, but it also means that the unit of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Leo Komarov, Connor Brown (mostly) and Jake Gardiner produced at a much lower rate. Unfortunately I don’t know how to scrape data like Dellow does and there are no public websites which allow you to analyze separate powerplay units, so I don’t know exactly how much less efficient they were, but since the team as a whole produced 8.14 G/60 at 5v4 vs. the top unit’s 12.9 it must’ve been a decent drop off.
The weird part is that Nylander ranked fifth in the entire NHL in 5v4 P/60 (first when looking at all PP situations!) and Matthews ranked 20th. The problem was that unit relied almost solely on those two, as the next best producer on that unit was Connor Brown, who ranked 186th. That is quite a steep drop off, especially considering Nylander and Matthews played on opposite half walls. Gardiner was stationed at the top usually in the middle of the ice while Komarov was the net presence (top of the crease) and Brown patrolled the middle of the slot. On the other unit Zaitsev patrolled the point, van Riemsdyk was the net presence and Kadri usually patrolled the middle of the slot while Bozak and Marner manned the half walls. Here is a visual of what I mean, this is a jumbled up unit because at this point Babcock was still sometimes deploying two defence and three forwards, but this is simply for formation visual purposes.
There are a few things that stand out to me here as stark contrasts. The first is the drop off between the two guys who patrol the immediate area surrounding the net. van Riemsdyk is an offensive specialist and has some of the best hands in the NHL from in tight to the net, while Komarov is, more or less, a defensive specialist. They’re totally opposite players being tasked with the same job and while van Riemsdyk is a perfect match for the role, Komarov is not. It shows on the scoresheet, as Komarov produced 3.52 P/60 at 5v4 (193rd) while van Riemsdyk scored at a rate of 5.91 P/60 (36th.)
Another decent drop off from one unit to the other is the second closest player to the net, the middle of the slot. Brown is a good player and was a fantastic find in the sixth round, but he’s not Kadri, who is deployed in the same role on the other powerplay unit. Again, it shows up in the production rate. Kadri produced at a rate of 5.76 P/60 (39th) while Brown produced at a rate of 3.57 P/60 which, like I said earlier, ranked 186th in the NHL.
One thing that may have hurt Brown’s production in that role was the fact that he’s right-handed, so the best opportunities from that area could come off one-timer passes from the right side wall, which was patrolled by Nylander. The reason I think this may have played a significant role is because Nylander took a higher percentage of the team’s shots while on the ice on the powerplay than any other Leaf. If he were a lefty, like Matthews, he may have been more likely to receive one-timer passes in the slot because Matthews didn’t shoot near as much and was very reluctant to shoot from the outside the middle of the ice, similar to his 5v5 tendencies.
The percentage on the bottom of the chart represents the share of the team’s shots said player contributed while on the ice at 5v4. That 32% for Nylander is the highest on the team and what’s concerning about that is where those shots are coming from. Nylander is taking 32% of the shots his team takes while on the ice at 5v4 and he’s taking these shots from the faceoff dot. This isn’t the lowest percentage of shots, that would be shots from the blueline, but it isn’t the best area to frequently shoot from on the powerplay, either. On the other unit the player closest to the net (van Riemsdyk) took 25% of the team’s shots while on this unit Komarov took only 12% of those shots.
Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a big difference in shooting talent between van Riemsdyk and Komarov, but you still want to get Komarov some more shots from where he’s shooting from. Something similar happened with Brown and Kadri.
Again, Brown isn’t Kadri and their teammates know that, so maybe it’s just a confidence thing. Maybe Nylander and Matthews are more comfortable doing it themselves from the half wall than giving it to lesser players in the middle. I’m getting speculative here, but at the end of the day your powerplay is going to be much more efficient if your shots are coming from the most dangerous areas on the ice. This could be an area where Patrick Marleau could help out. Replace Brown in the middle of the slot with Marleau and that unit might start using the middle of the ice more often. This would also allow you to move Brown to the front of the net, moving Komarov off the powerplay if you deem that to be the optimal move.
The other thing is, and I’ve mentioned this before, Nylander and Matthews are playing their “strong sides” on the powerplay. This means the puck is on the board side of the ice while on their sticks rather than the middle of the ice, which takes options away and forces the player to shoot across his body. This also takes away the potential for a one-timer. Nylander is really good at the catch and release across the body, but it would still benefit him and the team greatly if he switched sides with Matthews on the powerplay.
It’s crazy to think that this already top-tier powerplay could improve with just a couple minor tweaks next year, but it’s definitely possible. Their 5v4 shooting percentage was high at 14.25% (7th), but I’m not sure it’s unsustainable considering the talent and assuming the second unit takes a higher percentage of high danger shots next season. Let’s just hope that top unit continues at its torrid pace.