During the early part of the 2020-21 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs power play seemed unstoppable. A top unit boasting one of the top goal scorers in the league in Auston Matthews and a deceptive playmaker in Mitch Marner, they were always a threat with the man advantage.
In the first two months of the season, the Maple Leafs had a 35% rate on the power play. However after the 27th game of the season, things started to go downhill. They went 11 straight games without a power play goal as they struggled on the man advantage. The Maple Leafs became too predictable and teams caught on with their entries and setup. Ultimately, they finished 16th overall with a 20% conversion rate. A significant drop from where they previously were as one of the top power play teams.
The addition of new assistant coach Spencer Carbery to run the power play could be a huge boost for the Maple Leafs to shake up their old system, as you knew exactly what they were going to do. In the preseason, we’re already getting a glimpse of what to expect, as the Maple Leafs don’t look as predictable like they did last season. The movement, positioning and creativity is miles ahead of what it was, but there are three key factors that will make them successful and put them back as a dangerous team on the man advantage.
Nylander Becomes Shooting Option on Off Wing
After stepping up in John Tavares’ absence in the playoffs, forward William Nylander seems to be continuing his dominance during training camp. He seems to be on a mission with his play as he’s on the cusp of possibly having a career year.
Nylander’s movement and control with the puck is on another level. Although he already had strong puck skills, that part of his game seems to have been taken to new heights. He’s taking control of a shift easily, getting around defenders or driving to the net. If he is to have a career year, being bumped to a power play unit that’s already stacked is definitely going to help.
We’ve seen him quite a bit as a shooting threat on his usual wing position in the past. However, he’s going to be relied on heavily with his new objective on the power play. With Marner assuming a different role and Matthews on his off wing for a one-timer, the Maple Leafs now have a second shooting option in Nylander. In the past, it was always set up at the top, find Marner so he can distribute it off to Matthews for a shot either on his strong side or tee him up for a one-time shot.
The Maple Leafs have a new weapon at their disposal with Nylander on his off wing to make the top unit less predictable. We already saw a glimpse of the set up in training camp as they seemed to be ironing out the game plan. Defenceman Rasmus Sandin sets Nylander up as he gets a shot off with Tavares as the net front presence, either for a tip or block the goalie’s sight for Nylander to shoot.
The Maple Leafs replicated this exact same set up in their first game against the Montreal Canadiens as it’s the exact same setup that we witnessed days before. Nylander gets the pass from Sandin, sends it on net and Tavares is there to tip the puck in to make it 2-0.
Nylander definitely becomes another scoring threat on that power play unit to decrease the attention that Matthews gets on a nightly basis. Instead of focusing on him, defenders now have to worry about Nylander as he also has great power and accuracy in his shot. If he doesn’t shoot, his creativity as a playmaker makes him extremely versatile to try and open lanes and make quicker passes. This could also be the case if he cycles the play and switch positions if Matthews is on his strong side.
Marner In Bumper Spot
Carbery seems to have found a spot for Marner to thrive on the man advantage and provide a key role. When camp started he found himself in the middle of the ice assuming the bumper role.
While we’re so used to seeing him as the setup man on the wing or at the top of the blueline to distribute the puck to Matthews, this is a move that could make the Maple Leafs even more unpredictable in this situation. It’s revealed that both Carbery and Marner have focused in on watching Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brayden Point as a prime example of finding success.
While Nylander and Matthews look to be the primary shooters on both sides, Marner has the smarts to be elusive in order to be open for a shot up the middle where he can be the middleman for a quick pass to either player. As he’s trying to have more of that shooter mentality, being in this spot should bode well for him. It’s a chance for him to take advantage of his scoring opportunities and not be as patient as he was in the past.
According to Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun, Marner really wants to be known as a “surprise shooter”. Nothing is more surprising than a quick wrist shot in the middle of the ice from an unsuspecting shooter. (from ‘KOSHAN: Marner’s attention to shot development could pay off, especially on power play’, The Toronto Sun– 9/25/21).
If he can also become a goal scoring threat on the power play, it’s definitely going to be a headache for the opposition. The fact that he’s lower and more involved with the play, he can be more engaged as well and will sow some doubt if he’ll pass or shoot. He’ll get better looks to shoot and open up lanes for his teammates as he can distribute the puck quickly. While there were players in the bumper spot in the past, they weren’t utilized properly. Marner could be the key in that spot.
Shift the Play Down Low
If there was one play that wasn’t utilized much, but the team had some success when they did use it, was setting up a play down low behind the net. The Maple Leafs were extremely predictable with their setup, as they would always start off from the point and work their way down to the net.
Doing the reverse, where the Maple Leafs cycle down low and crowd the net by drawing in a number of defenders will be something that the opposition won’t expect. It’ll expose a lapse in the defense as they focus in on the puck carrier, leaving the shooter wide open for a perfect scoring chance. The clip below is one example on how successful this play can be.
As Michael Amadio is down in the corner, he evades pressure to get free. With one opposing player trying to keep up, the other thinks that Amadio would continue to go around the net and moved away from his assignment in trying to block Michael Bunting. As he’s behind the net, Amadio drops the puck to a wide-open Bunting for a one-time shot and he buries it for the hat trick.
Bringing the play down low forces pressure on the opposition into a panic. With a team that’s swift with their puck movement like the Maple Leafs, they’re able to get players out of position quickly.
We’re seeing a glimpse as to how the power play will unfold for the upcoming season. The Maple Leafs now have a system in place that will play to the strengths of their power play units in order to make them less predictable as they were in the past. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how successful this team could be with a better plan in place.
Hockey has been a big part of my life since watching my first Leafs game to currently coaching minor hockey. I previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. Aside from hockey, I also enjoy drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.