Yes, I know, this sounds like a really weird thing to be looking into. After all, the penalty kill isn’t meant to be a point of the game where you score, it’s where you try your hardest to make sure the other team doesn’t score.
However, an ideal penalty kill should at the very least attempt to generate offense at some points. If you have a penalty kill with no offensive threats, it’s much easier for the power play that you’re up against to work, because they don’t have to worry too much about the other team coming back and scoring.
Look at the best penalty killing teams by traditional stats in the league this season. The Kings lead the league in penalty kill percentage with 91.9%, with Drew Doughty being second on the team in shorthanded ice time with 52:28, and Anze Kopitar leading that in forwards with 38:44. The Sharks have the second best PK% with 88.5%, with Hertl and Couture having the second and fourth highest PK ice time among forwards. The Ducks are fourth, and have Manson, Montour, and Lindholm on their back end on the PK. The Blackhawks are fifth and have Keith, Saad, Anisimov, and Toews on their PK.
Something that I’ve noticed over the last few years is that it seems like the Leafs haven’t scored a lot of shorthanded goals. And that’s because they haven’t. Since Babcock took over as coach, the Leafs have a grand total of nine shorthanded goals, which is tied with Edmonton for seventh in the league, sixth if you don’t include the Golden Knights two shorties in significantly less ice time (that’s still more than the Leafs this season, who have yet to get one). This is also despite the fact that the Leafs have been shorthanded 590 times during that span, tied with Los Angeles for 11th most in the league. In terms of rate states, the Leafs have a 0.54 GF/60 on the PK, tied with Washington for the fourth lowest in the league.
So, why is this the case? Let’s look at who Babcock has deployed on the penalty kill in the last three years, and see if that’s the issue.
One way to look at this is who has been used the most over the last three years on the PK for Toronto, and look at their even strength point production to see if Babcock is deploying offensive or defensive minded players. Here’s a list of every player with a least 50 minutes of PK TOI over the last three years for the Leafs, plus Dominic Moore and Patrick Marleau, who have been frequently used their this season.
And yeah, a majority of these players don’t produce a lot. Only four forwards have above a 1.00 P1/60, that being Hyman, Brown, Moore, and Marleau. Marleau isn’t a mainstay on the PK, but more of a replacement if one of the four forwards this year take a penalty. Moore is so high because of his hot start early on, mostly due to a 20% shooting percentage. That leaves Hyman and Brown. While Hyman is famous for not being able to get points, he hasn’t been horrendous offensively, and in fact had four shorthanded goals last season for the Leafs. Brown is in a similar boat, although he produces a bit more, and had one shorthanded goal last season against the Devils, although Cory Schneider practically handed it to him.
As for defense, they don’t really have any heavily offensive blueliners. Hainsey’s off to a good start, but has an on-ice shooting percentage of 12.65%. Ironically, the year that Rielly bursts out offensively is the year that Babcock takes him off the PK.
So, based on this, the Leafs have forwards that could potentially score on the PK, aside from Moore and Komarov, but the main issue is their defense. They don’t use their best puck moving defensemen on the penalty kill, and while Hainsey and Zaitsev can move the puck well, they can’t when they are fatigued, which they usually are because they’re the only defensemen used. And while Hyman and Brown are good offensively, they aren’t the greatest at transitioning the puck up the ice, and when they’re the best players at that, you aren’t going to generate that much offensively.
So, why is Babcock using these players? Well, he probably believes that they are so good at killing penalties that it’s worth it to not generate much offense. But, are they, or do they just look like they are, and are getting good results.
In terms of overall performance this season, it’s not great, as the Leafs are 16th in the league in PK% with 80.6%, and have a 100.69 CA/60 on the PK. So, they aren’t outstanding overall, but they haven’t been terrible either. Let’s look at the individual players:
Only four of the Leafs penalty killers met the 50:00 TOI requirement, while the other three forwards didn’t (I also threw Rielly in there because he had a 28:07 TOI). Komarov and Hyman have been excellent on the penalty kill, while Hainsey and Zaitsev are middle of the pack. As for the players that didn’t meet the minimum TOI, Rielly has been good on the PK in his limited time, Marleau’s been middle of the pack, while Brown and Moore have been pretty bad.
So, the penalty kill isn’t flawless, and some changes could be made. Hyman and Komarov have been really good on the PK, so they should stay there, but Brown and Moore haven’t been. So, you could easily bring in a couple of defensively responsible forwards, who also generate offense. Mitch Marner is someone who jumps to mind with this description, and you could probably have either Marleau, Matthews or Kadri center him. If Babcock doesn’t trust Marner and the other forward on the PK, you could easily play Marner with Komarov, and the center with Hyman.
As for defense, Hainsey and Zaitsev have been solid, but not amazing enough to justify playing them the entire penalty kill. In fact, they could probably improve if their roles were reduced, and the penalty kill didn’t literally kill them. So, put a couple of other defensemen on the PK in order to help rest Hainsey and Zaitsev, such as Rielly and Gardiner. Again, if Babs doesn’t trust a Rielly-Gardiner PK pair, he can split Hainsey and Zaitsev and play them with the others.
So, this proposed penalty kill would look something like this:
Komarov – Marner
Rielly – Hainsey
Kadri/Marleau – Hyman
Gardiner – Zaitsev
This could give the Leafs a more balanced attack on the penalty kill, and strike a bit of fear in their opponents. Not only would each unit have a forward with dynamic offensive abilities, they also have a defenseman who can transition the puck. And none of these players are defensive liabilities, so if it’s a “hemmed in their own zone for two minutes” penalty kill, they can be trusted. Maybe in a 3v5 situation, you run Komarov or Hyman with Hainsey and Zaitsev to shut it down, because you aren’t worried about offense at that point.
So, to conclude, the Leafs have an opportunity here that they aren’t utilizing. While it rarely happens, generating offense on the PK is such an underrated part of the game, because the opposing team least expects it. While Babcock likes his shot-blocking, gritty penalty killers, it hasn’t been perfect, and he could maybe change this a bit to help improve it. There’s no saying that it will work, but we won’t know until we see it.