After the Toronto Maple Leafs saw yet another early playoff exit, this time at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the discussion began yet again. Who do they trade? Who do they fire? Who do they add to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
Of course, this year, the discussion was a little bit tougher to have. They addressed every single need they had heading into the 2020-21 playoffs, and if you’re a consistent reader of my content, you’d know that I was pushing this before and after the playoffs.
They needed defensive help, so they added Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie, and Zach Bogosian. They needed a capable backup goalie, so they traded for Jack Campbell, who wound up being their number one this year. They figured they could use some extra veteran help, so they signed Joe Thornton and traded for Nick Foligno. They even signed Wayne Simmonds to address the grit factor. Honestly, what else could Kyle Dubas have done?
Well, one of the biggest flaws the Maple Leafs had this season was their lack of success on the power play. I never thought I would see myself write that sentence. They had two of the top five scorers in the NHL this year in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and of all areas to improve on, we’re talking about the one they should have thrived in the most?
The way I see it, the Leafs have the answer to their power play woes sitting right under their noses. And there’s a clear-cut way to at least get a head start on solving it.
Departure of Hakstol Opens up Options
The Seattle Kraken announced on Thursday that they had named Leafs assistant coach Dave Hakstol as the first-ever head coach in the team’s history. Despite rumours floating around that the former Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet was a frontrunner for the job, the Kraken decided that Hakstol was their guy, leaving the Leafs down an assistant coach.
Hakstol’s coaching career truly began in 2004 when the University of North Dakota hired him as the head coach of their men’s hockey team. He spent 11 years with the team before he found his first NHL head coaching gig with the Philadelphia Flyers. In just over three years as the Flyers’ head coach, he led the team to two playoff appearances (both losses in the first round) but was let go by the team 31 games into the 2018-19 season.
The following summer, the Leafs added Hakstol to their coaching staff for the 2019-20 season. With John MacFarland running the power play at the time, Hakstol took over penalty kill (PK) coaching duties. In 2019-20, the Leafs’ penalty kill was sitting at 21st in the league with a percentage of 77.7 percent. In 2020-21, the penalty kill numbers slightly improved, but the rest of the NHL seemed to improve as well. So they dropped to a 24th in the league with a percentage of 78.5 percent.
While the Leafs’ penalty kill improved down the stretch of the 2020-21 season following the acquisitions of Foligno and Riley Nash, it still wasn’t really where they wanted it to be. So, the departure of Hakstol likely won’t hurt them too much.
Malhotra Can Be Effective in a Different Role
In September of 2020, the Maple Leafs hired Manny Malhotra as an assistant coach. The veteran of just under 1000 NHL games had spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks, largely focusing on the penalty kill as well as faceoffs. This made perfect sense, considering the Mississauga native was an elite defensive forward and penalty kill specialist during his NHL career.
Yet, for reasons I can’t explain, the Leafs used him as a power play coach in 2020-21. They obviously had a hole to fill with the departure of MacFarland before the season. But Malhotra’s career single-season high in points was 35, which was during the 2008-09 season with the Columbus Blue Jackets. His role in the NHL was always as a defensive specialist, so putting him in charge of the power play seemed strange then and still does now.
If you watched the Leafs’ power play during the 2020-21 season, you would know that it was simply painful to watch. All the offensive firepower in the world, and they struggled with so much as getting set up. They heavily relied on the “drop-pass” technique, which in turn wasted a good part of their time with the man advantage just trying to settle in. And oftentimes, they looked like they couldn’t even get settled before the opposing penalty kill would squeeze them out of the zone and force them to regroup.
Meanwhile, Malhotra’s time coaching the Canucks’ penalty kill was solid. It wasn’t anything game-changing, but it was better than what the Leafs achieved with Hakstol. His best season penalty kill-wise was 2018-19, where the Canucks finished with an 81.1 PK percentage, good for 11th in the league.
Malhotra is already known to be a good players’ coach, and if the Leafs have an opening in a role he’s clearly better suited for, I don’t know why they didn’t already make that move, especially since he’s already familiar with the players and has the experience as a player to pass on to some of the Leafs’ younger penalty killers, like Pierre Engvall and Alex Kerfoot.
Bruce Boudreau Would Be an Elite Addition
If the Leafs were to move Malhotra into a penalty kill coaching role, that leaves an opening on the power play front. And who better to add into that role than Bruce Boudreau? In his four-plus-year coaching tenure with the Washington Capitals between 2007-08 and 2011-12, their power play sat at second in the league with an overall percentage of 21.8 percent. Obviously, having Alex Ovechkin at the top of the circle will help your power play, but a good man advantage starts with a good coach.
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Then, in four-plus years with the Anaheim Ducks, their power play averaged a percentage of 18.2 percent, which sat at 13th in the league. Not as dominant as the Capitals, but again, they didn’t really have the offensive star power Washington did. After that, across three seasons as the head coach of the Minnesota Wild, their power play was good enough for 10th in the league with a percentage of 20.7 percent.
On top of this, it appears as though Boudreau, who’s a Toronto native, would be willing to take a demotion to accept a job with his hometown Maple Leafs. Despite over 12 very respectable seasons as an NHL head coach, the fact that he would be willing to take on a lesser role in order to work with the Leafs is extremely telling. And honestly, I don’t see why the Leafs don’t take this opportunity if it’s still there.
All in all, the Leafs have a glaring issue to address ahead of next season in their power play. And as it stands, they have an opening on the penalty kill, a good penalty kill coach in a power play role, and a there’s proven power play coach on the market with loads of head coaching experience that’s looking for a job. And, seemingly, he would love an opportunity to work with his hometown team.
How the Leafs are going to address their roster ahead of this season is still unknown, and frankly, an entirely different discussion to be had. But there are some issues that I believe could be fixed with a couple of quick calls for a gig behind the bench. The Leafs have the talent to have an elite power play, and if you have a coach with that kind of pedigree who wants to work with the team, you have to take that chance.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.