Photo Credit: James Guillory / USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs need to make some changes to their penalty kill

The Leafs’ special teams play was a huge reason they squeaked into the playoffs in ’16/17 and we should expect the powerplay to be among the league’s best again this season.

The penalty kill, though, is not quite as inspiring. At first glance, the Leafs were 11th in goals against per hour on the penalty kill last season. That’s above average, so why should we be worried about that? Well, things get a little murkier when you dig into the more predictive metrics. On the PK, the Leafs ranked 27th in shot attempts against per hour, 27th in unblocked shot attempts against per hour and 25th in shots on goal against per hour. That is not a good sign when projecting this season’s results, as it would seem they’re due for some heavy regression.

The major reason for the above average results despite a well below average process is that the Leafs had the third highest save percentage while on the penalty kill. The concerning part about this is that penalty kill sv% is an extremely volatile statistic and has virtually zero correlation to future success (Andersen ranked 8th in ’16/17 and 19th in ’15/16.)

This is to say that if the Leafs don’t fix their penalty killing process, they’re likely to give up a lot more goals this year than they did last year. When you’re in the bottom five in every shot suppression metric, one would assume there must be something systematically wrong with your penalty kill. The shocking thing about this is that the ’15/16 version of Mike Babcock’s Leafs (the one which came dead last in the NHL) ranked second in the NHL in terms of both denying shot attempts and denying unblocked shot attempts against, as well as ranking third in suppressing shots on goal. While the results are quite similar in terms of goals, the difference in process is really quite stark.

If the Leafs regress to a mere average sv% on the PK this year, they’re in trouble. They were legitimately one of the best in the league the year before, but were let down by the goaltending. Luckily, their process was still so good that there were rewarded with slightly above average results. Last year was the complete opposite. They were a mess, but they were rewarded with above average results (slightly better than ’15/16) due to an inflated sv%. You might argue that they brought Andersen in and he’s much better than what they had, and that might be true, but like I said earlier, sv% on the PK has historically been extremely volatile. A major reason for this is that you don’t spend enough time on the penalty kill during a season for a large enough sample size to be built and small sample size = tonnes of shooting/save percentage variation.

So, what the hell happened? I asked this question on twitter dot com (which is where you always get rational, educated answers) and received this response.

It’s such a simple answer and something I had considered, but when I looked at the total 180 in shot metrics I couldn’t believe that the issues could be personnel and personnel only. If I didn’t know any better and I just looked at the chart above, I would’ve assumed there was a coaching change in the offseason. I mean, the PK went from one of the staunchest shot suppressors in the NHL one year to absolutely bleeding shots on net the next. The thing that is blowing my mind is that seemingly the only thing that’s changed is personnel.

When looking into individual performances, I think the Leafs’ PK really missed Michael Grabner. Or they were just really hindered by Zach Hyman’s constant presence. During the ’15/16 season, Grabner was the forward who spent the most time penalty killing on a per game basis and by a significant margin, playing over three minutes per game on the PK. During the ’16/17 campaign, Hyman was given most of that responsibility and it didn’t quite go as planned. He spent 2:45 per game on the penalty kill and the Leafs gave up 21.76 more shot attempts per hour with him on the ice than with him off it. The year before, Grabner (in virtually the same role) gave up 8.53 more shots per hour with him on the ice than off of it. That’s a huge difference.

(By the way, if you’re thinking “wow both players are bad and make their team worse while on the ice during the PK,” go read this piece by our very own Ian Tulloch on the impact of zone starts on the penalty kill.)

One forward who played on both the ’15/16 and the ’16/17 versions of the Leafs PK is Leo Komarov and he posted well above average shot suppression metrics during both seasons. A lot of that has to do with the aforementioned zone start adjustment, as he seems to start a lot more shifts “on the fly” when the first unit is changing and the powerplay unit is attempting to get the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone. It’s a lot easier to break up an attempted exit/entry in the neutral zone than it is to get possession of the puck off a defensive zone faceoff in which you have one less player on the ice than the opposition. Then, if you do lose possession off the draw, the opposing team is immediately threatening. My point is, Komarov’s numbers are inflated while Hyman’s are misleading, but Hyman’s are still really bad relative to another player who was put in virtually the same situation in the same system the year before.

There are a couple of players I’d like to see given an opportunity on the penalty kill this season, although I’m not sure if one of them is going to make the team. The one I’m referring to there, of course, is Kasperi Kapanen. The Marlies used Kapanen on the penalty kill last season and, from what I’ve been told, he was very effective. Intuitively, this makes sense. He’s not the traditional veteran penalty killer who blocks shots like a maniac, but his incredible foot speed should allow him to wreck havoc on the opposition trying to set up a powerplay. He can stop and accelerate the other way in the blink of an eye, which could be extremely useful on the penalty kill. Lastly, his blazing speed would be a threat at all times and might make the opposition hesitant on their own powerplay in fear of giving up a shorthanded breakaway.

The other player I’d love to see given more time on the PK is Mitch Marner because he’s a complete psycho.

I’m kidding, but on a more serious note his combination of speed, puck pursuit and vision seem like they would translate well to the penalty kill. He reads the play well, which is really important for a penalty killer, but he can also get to where he wants to be thanks to his foot speed. Having one of Kapanen or Marner on the ice at all times on the penalty kill could potentially be equally as effective as it would be fun. Marner saw some brief time on the penalty kill during a couple of games in the middle of the season and there were some exciting moments, as you would expect.

Ultimately, the Leafs need to make some personnel changes if they want to get the same results they’ve received over the last two years. They can’t expect to get the high rate of saves they received last year, so they have to change something in order to give up less shots.

Given that the coaching staff hasn’t seen any changes, the lineup will be enduring minimal changes and the relatively good results from last season, I’m not sure this is something that is going to be addressed to begin the season, but I think it should be.

*all statistics via naturalstattrick.com


  • Leefer16

    Stats aside, the 16-17 PK was also very similar to 15-16. Take a look at home PK% vs the road. Year over year, they were VERY SIMILAR ! To see the team 2nd in road PK% in both years tells me to take things like different PK personnel and stats like blocked shots with a grain of salt.

    I would be interested to see 16-17 defensive pairing PK% – memory tells me Zaitsev/Reilly was not strong on the PK. I also have the impression that Hunlack started a lot more d-zone PKs than you would expect from a 3rd pair -d. Hunlack was a constant between both years so I am concerned that this pairing will be absent in 17/18.

    I will also be interested to see how Hymie does IN HIS 2ND SEASON !!! He was a rookie last year for cryin out. As Babs said in a recent interview when defending Hymie, he goes and gets the puck. I wish there was a stat for that. I’m not so sure Awesome and WeeWillie have the rookie seasons they had if Hymie isn’t in there digging out pucks for them.


  • Brandon

    Isn’t it possible that the difference between their PK ranking and shots against ranking is explained by the amount of high danger shots being given up. If that were the case, while the PK still needs work, we might not expect to see it get a lot worse than 11th rank this year. What do you think?

  • Drapes55

    One of the things I noticed last year on the PK was that they had 1 forward chasing the puck when it went back to the point and the other would stand in the middle of the ice to block any cross ice passes. The problem I saw was the forward chasing was always to far behind the puck that he was never really a threat to block a pass or at least get a stick in the lane, also the second forward was to deep which allowed for allot of point shots to get through uncontested. This caused problems because our D was not good at retrieving the puck once we lost it in our own end which allowed the other team to pick up rebounds and continue to keep the pressure on leading to more shots on net