We are roughly three weeks removed from a painful slump that saw Frederik Andersen struggle and eventually reveal an injury he had been playing through. Since Freddie has been out and Jack Campbell has come back, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been firing on all cylinders.
Fresh off of setting a new franchise record for wins to begin a season, Campbell has been posting Vezina-like numbers and his play has drilled a new wave of confidence into the team in front of him. The Leafs are 8-0-1 in nine games since Campbell came back from injury, and for the most part, there isn’t really much to complain about.
Notice how I said “for the most part”. There is still one glaring issue that needs solving, and that would be the power play.
Maple Leafs Power Play Struggles
It still feels weird to say that sentence out loud. When you have a team that features the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly, the team’s power play should be one of their strong suits, shouldn’t it?
But evidently, whatever they’re doing isn’t working. Prior to Monday’s game against the Flames, the Leafs hadn’t scored a single power-play goal since March 9th against the Winnipeg Jets. That’s 11 games over almost a month without a power-play goal. Back when Travis Boyd and Jimmy Vesey were both still in the blue and white.
And even when they did finally break their power-play drought, it didn’t come before allowing a shorthanded goal to Flames center Mikael Backlund. Since they broke the drought, albeit a small sample size, the Leafs are 0-for-3 on the power play, proving that there is still work to be done.
It’s funny, I call this a “glaring issue” even though the Leafs only lost one game, and it wasn’t even in regulation, over this stretch without a power-play goal. So it’s not like the Leafs’ weak power play cost them games on multiple occasions. But still, heading into the playoffs and not being able to capitalize on the man advantage is a recipe for disaster. So it’s still an issue that needs solving.
Enter Alex Galchenyuk.
Making a Case for Galchenyuk on the PP
If you follow me on Twitter or you have read any of my recent pieces, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of Galchenyuk. I’ve been very impressed with his play since arriving in Toronto, and even though he hasn’t snapped on the scoresheet with four points in 10 games, the effort has been there night in and night out. And he’s been getting his chances, he just hasn’t been able to get all the bounces in his favor.
So what do you do when you want to get somebody going offensively? You put them in a situation where they have a better chance of scoring. Ergo, the power play. And with the Leafs’ man-advantage units needing a boost and Galchenyuk looking to get his offensive game going, it seems like a match made in heaven.
So, the question is, who do you remove to make room for Galchenyuk? I’ve come up with two names and a different scenario for each. Wayne Simmonds or Joe Thornton.
Simmonds and Thornton Struggling Offensively
Let me clarify that I have nothing but respect for both Simmonds and Jumbo. I believe they’re both crucial parts of this Maple Leafs team and I think they both have a role in the lineup. But the reality is, you’ve got two guys who have been struggling offensively.
Thornton has been held pointless through the Leafs’ nine-game hot streak since Campbell returned, and he only has two points since the start of March. That’s two points over a span of 18 games.
Meanwhile, Simmonds has three points in ten games since returning from his injury. He hasn’t been quite as snakebitten as Thornton, but he hasn’t contributed anything to the power play.
I like both of these guys where they are in the lineup as of now. I think they both fit in the protected roles they have at even strength. But the reality is, with the way the Leafs’ power play has performed over the past month, you have to do something to shake things up. And in this case, one of Thornton or Simmonds would have to be the sacrificial lamb to shake things up on the power play.
So, first, let’s take a look at how I would run the power play units without Thornton.
A Power Play Without Thornton
Simmonds – Tavares – Matthews
Marner – Rielly
By doing this, you bring Tavares up to the top unit to replace Thornton, you’ve got Matthews at the top of the circle to shoot, Simmonds in front of the net, and Rielly and Marner acting as the quarterbacks.
Hyman – Spezza – Galchenyuk
Nylander – Muzzin/Brodie
Having Nylander on the point, with Spezza and Galchenyuk flanking from the top of the circle on either side and Hyman in front of the net, there’s potential to do damage. And you also have the flexibility to swap out Muzzin for Brodie on the second unit. Both have power-play experience and bring different elements to their role.
Now, let’s have a look at what a power play without Wayne Simmonds would look like.
A Power Play Without Simmonds
Nylander – Tavares – Matthews
Marner – Rielly
Only difference between this unit and the top unit without Thornton is that Nylander gets promoted from PP2 and takes Simmonds’ place in front of the net.
And for those who would complain about Nylander not being strong enough to take that job, it’s worth a reminder that he was one of the better net-front players in the league last year. He has great hands in tight and would thrive there.
Hyman – Thornton – Galchenyuk
Spezza – Muzzin/Brodie
The difference between this unit and my second unit without Simmonds is that Nylander is no longer here, meaning that Galchenyuk takes on a whole other level of responsibility. But luckily for him, he would have two of the best passers on the team in Spezza and Thornton setting him up as well as Zach Hyman there to wreak havoc in front of the net.
Setting Galchenyuk up for Success
Notice how in both of my scenarios here, Galchenyuk is positioned at the top of the circle. This is intentional. That was the role he had on Montreal’s top power-play unit for years, and it’s a role that he not only fit into but thrived in.
Playing alongside John Tavares and William Nylander on the second line, the former third overall pick has been somewhat forced to adapt his game and play in more of a checking role, similar to what Hyman does with Matthews and Marner.
And it’s not to say that he hasn’t thrived in this role. As I said, the effort has been there night in and night out. But it’s not a role he’s used to. He was always a shoot-first guy in Montreal as opposed to the kind of guy who would go into the corners and retrieve pucks like he’s done for Toronto.
And you saw instances of that on Wednesday night against Montreal. With Nylander scratched due to COVID protocols, Ilya Mikheyev saw a promotion to the second line and all of a sudden Galchenyuk was playing in Nylander’s role. And while he didn’t score, he once again had his chances.
If I had to pick, I would probably replace Thornton on the power play for the sole reason that he’s struggled much more of late than Simmonds has, and Simmonds can still be an effective net-front presence. But both of these scenarios could work.
We know that Sheldon Keefe loves to heavily lean on his top power-play unit, so if the Leafs do end up trying one of these methods, it’s safe to say Galchenyuk isn’t going to get lots of power-play time. But like I said, the Leafs are at a point with their power play where they have to try something new. Because what they’ve been doing for the past month hasn’t been working.
And what better way to fix this problem than by getting the newest Leaf going offensively and killing two birds with one stone.
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.