Maple Leafs’ Improved Special Teams Play Key to Playoff Run

During the 2020-21 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs finished fifth overall in the NHL regular season with 77 points and a .688 winning percentage. They were also fifth in goals for with 187 in 56 games, or 3.34 goals per game; and, they were sixth in goals against with 148, or 2.64 per game.  

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The one thing that hurt the Maple Leafs last season was the team’s special teams. Despite being fifth overall in goals-for and sixth in goals-against, their power-play scoring rate was only 20.0%, which put them in the middle of the league in 16th place. The team’s penalty-kill units allowed goals at the rate of 21.5%, which gave them a 78.5% success rate on the penalty kill. That placed them in 22nd place.

Assessing the Success of Maple Leafs’ Special Teams’ Play

With all of the new advanced statistics fans can use to assess their teams, one age-old way to rate special teams remains. It is to add up the power-play success rate and the team’s penalty-kill success rate. If the resulting number is over 100, your specialty teams are looked at as positive. If it’s under 100, the special teams are regarded as a negative.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, leads the Toronto Maple Leafs with nine power-play goals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If you add up the 2020-21 Maple Leafs’ power-play success rate (20%) and their penalty killing success rate (78.5%), the combined total comes to 98.5%. Using this calculation, the Maple Leafs’ special teams were a negative. Overall the team finished 17th in combined special teams last season.

The Special Teams Have Improved This Season

This season the special teams are a completely different story. The Maple Leafs are presently in fifth overall in the NHL standings with a winning percentage of .713% after 36 games played. They are also fifth in team scoring with 123 goals for, or 3.42 goals per game; and, they are also fifth in goals against, allowing 93 goals, or 2.58 goals per game.

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That’s almost exactly where they finished last season in the standings; however, the team has actually improved its winning percentage to .713 from .688. The Maple Leafs are up slightly on their goals for 3.42 this season, compared to 3.34 last. And, the team is down slightly on their goals against 2.58 to 2.64. Auston Matthews leads the team this season with nine power-play goals.

The Maple Leafs’ Biggest Difference This Season Is Special Teams’ Play

One of the Maple Leafs’ biggest differences between the two seasons lies is in the performance of their special teams. To this point in the 2021-22 season, they have scored 30 times in 101 opportunities on the power play, for a success rate of 29.7%. That’s a 9.7% improvement over last season and good enough for second place in the NHL, trailing only the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers are clicking at a 30.3% success rate. 

David Kampf Toronto Maple Leafs
David Kampf, one key piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs penalty kill unit (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On the penalty kill, the Maple Leafs have given up 17 goals in 101 penalties taken, for a success rate of 83.2%. That’s good enough for sixth place overall, behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ 90.5%, the New York Rangers’ 85.6%, the Anaheim Ducks’ 84.8%, the Calgary Flames’ 84.2%, and the St. Louis Blues’ 83.7%. Key players on the penalty kill include David Kampf, Alex Kerfoot, and currently Ilya Mikheyev.

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Looking back at any team’s goal of being over 100 on its combined special teams, if we add up the Maple Leafs’ two success rates of 29.7% on the power play plus 83.2% on the penalty kill we get 112.9. That’s a huge improvement of 14.4% from last season, and it’s good enough for second overall in the NHL for the combined success rate for special teams. The only team better right now is the Carolina Hurricane with a combined success rate of 114.8%. 

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One interesting point to add is that, although the Maple Leafs’ power-play and penalty-kill goals are up from last season, their five-on-five goals are down. Last season they were second in five-on-five goals scored with 132 (2.35 per game), which put them three goals behind the Vegas Golden Knights. 

The Maple Leafs were eighth in goals-against five-on-five with 95, or 1.70 per game for 56 games. This season after 36 games they are ranked 10th in both five-on-five goals for, at 2.25 per game, and five-on-five goals against at 1.86 per game. If they can get their five-on-five rates back to last year, and maintain their special team rates from this season they are going to continue to be a tough team to beat. 

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, a key piece of the Maple Leafs’ power play(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Of course, we can’t talk about success with the Maple Leafs without talking about the playoffs. Looking at how their special teams fared against the Montreal Canadiens last season, the Maple Leafs went three for 22 on the power play in that series for a 13.6% success rate. They gave up three goals in 17 penalties for a success rate of 82.4%. Combined they were 96.0%, which was 2.7% lower than their mediocre regular-season rate. 

For Postseason Success, Better Special Teams Are Needed

If the Maple Leafs want to get past the first round of the playoffs this season, regardless of who their competition will be both their power play and their penalty killing have to be a lot better than they were last postseason. 

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If the team can maintain its regular season rates into the playoffs this season, it could take them a long way into the playoffs. That should be one of the goals for this season’s continued improvement.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]