Predicting Maple Leafs’ Penalty Killers in 2019-20

There’s plenty of hype surrounding the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s a plethora of new, exciting faces on board, Auston Matthews could make the leap into a true top-five player in the NHL and the thought of a William Nylander bounce back to his right is mouth-watering. Frederik Andersen could take a charge at his first career Vezina Trophy and Morgan Rielly could get his name to the top of the Norris Trophy debate.

Heck, there’s even two new assistant coaches on Mike Babcock’s staff in the form of former Philadelphia Flyers bench boss Dave Hakstol and former Florida Panthers assistant Paul McFarland. While McFarland, just 33 years old, is set to handle the forwards and their star-studded power play, it’s Hakstol that’s likely to run the defense and penalty kill after former assistant D.J. Smith landed the head coaching gig with the Ottawa Senators.

Ah, the penalty kill. An underrated and thankless job, penalty killers are paramount to any team’s success and the 2019-20 Maple Leafs are no exception. With some big-minute penalty killers from last season now interestingly suiting up for Smith’s Senators, it makes sense to wonder who will form Hakstol’s group of penalty killers this time around. Let’s have a look at the club’s penalty killing in general and who we can expect to see out there this season.

2018-19 Maple Leafs Penalty Kill

It’s safe to say that the Maple Leafs penalty kill from last season left a lot to be desired. After finishing 10th with a 82.5% mark in the 2016-17 season, 2017-18 finished just outside of the top 10 at 11th with a mark of 81.4%. However, the group fell to the bottom-half of the league in 2018-19, tying the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders for 16th with a 79.9% mark. It’s also worth noting that the Maple Leafs were the most disciplined team in the NHL last season, finishing with the fewest minor penalties with 207.

Zach Hyman Maple Leafs
Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman will miss the first month of the season but is an integral part of the team’s penalty kill. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The 2019-20 version of the penalty kill needs to be better, although it will have new faces aboard. Vital penalty killer Zach Hyman is set to miss the first month of the season after offseason ACL surgery and the penalty-killing trio of Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey are all now member of the Senators.

In fact, the quartet of Zaitsev, Hainsey, Hyman and Brown ranked first to fourth in penalty killing ice time on the 2018-19 Maple Leafs. The fifth member on that list is Par Lindholm, who was dealt to the Winnipeg Jets at the 2019 trade deadline and signed with the Bruins this summer. Needless to say, there are spots open on this season’s penalty kill.

Let’s take a look at who will fill those spots, in no particular order.

Penalty Kill 1

Frederik Gauthier, Kasperi Kapanen, Morgan Rielly, Martin Marincin

After the five players noted above, Kasperi Kapanen’s 1:37 of average penalty killing ice time per game was the highest on the Maple Leafs a season ago. He’s a lock to kill penalties this season and his speed in doing so wreaks havoc on four-forward power play groups. Of his 32 NHL goals between the regular season and postseason, four have come shorthanded, including this beauty in the 2018 playoffs in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins.

Gauthier was rarely used on the penalty kill last season; however, he’s averaged 1:39 of shorthanded ice time per game to this point in the preseason. He’ll be used as a penalty killer for two reasons: his ability to get his long stick in passing lanes and his work in the faceoff circle. Speaking to the latter, Gauthier won 53.7% of his faceoffs last season, but more importantly won 56.4% of his draws in the defensive zone.

Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Gauthier
Maple Leafs forward Frederik Gauthier will likely be on faceoff duty on the team’s penalty kill in 2019-20. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The defense pairings could go either way and will largely be determined by who has the fresh legs to begin the kill. There will be four main penalty-killing defensemen on the Maple Leafs including Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Cody Ceci and Martin Marincin — assuming the latter makes the team. Judging by his head coach’s recent comments, it appears that will indeed be the case.

Rielly finished fifth among Maple Leafs defenders in penalty killing ice time last season. However, with Zaitsev and Hainsey out of the picture, an increase in shorthanded ice time is likely. Sandin and Barrie will not be killing penalties this season unless the team is in a pinch, so the noted four defensemen will be go-to guys.

Penalty Kill 2

Jason Spezza, Mitch Marner, Jake Muzzin, Cody Ceci

Like with Gauthier, Spezza is likely to be on faceoff duty when the Maple Leafs are tasked with a defensive zone draw on the penalty kill. Babcock and Spezza have both said there will be penalty killing time as part of his fourth-line role this season, and considering his faceoff numbers from a season ago, it makes sense.

Jason Spezza
As part of his new role with the Maple Leafs this season, Jason Spezza will be tasked with taking faceoffs on the penalty kill. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Spezza cleaned up the faceoff circle to the tune of a 58.2% winning percentage with the Dallas Stars last season, but also won a whopping 60.1% of his defensive zone draws as well.

Marner got his first taste of NHL penalty killing duties last season and looked ripe for the part. While averaging 1:21 of shorthanded ice time per game, his ability to control the puck was a clock-killer — he added a goal and two helpers on the kill to boot. There’s no doubt he’ll be relied upon to do the same this time around.

Muzzin and Ceci are penalty-killing locks. The former averaged 1:28 of shorthanded ice time with the Maple Leafs after the mid-season trade from the Los Angeles Kings while the latter logged big penalty-killing minutes with the Senators at a team-leading 2:30 per game. It’s possible Babcock would want to keep Rielly and Ceci together on the penalty kill, so take these defense pairings with a grain of salt at this point.

Additional Penalty Kill Candidates

The bulk of the shorthanded ice time will be given to the eight names above and Hyman once he returns. However, some other Maple Leafs skaters will see some penalty kill time this season.

Trevor Moore ; Jonathan Bernier
Maple Leafs forward Trevor Moore is likely to use his speed in some penalty killing opportunities this season. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Among them is Babcock-favorite Trevor Moore. He didn’t see much shorthanded time at all a season ago, but he’s averaged 1:11 on the kill this preseason and has assets you look for in penalty killers including speed and tenacity. He’ll get his opportunities.

Another candidate could be newcomer Ilya Mikheyev. At 6-foot-3, he has the size and reach that could disrupt passing lanes and he’s been given an opportunity to display that ability with 1:38 of average shorthanded per game in the preseason. He certainly won’t have a role on the power play and could be used to eat up some penalty kill ice time to provide others with a breather, if necessary.

The Maple Leafs will need an additional defender to log penalty kill time when a fellow defender takes said penalty, and that spot will go to Travis Dermott, once healthy. He is set to miss at least 12 games to begin the regular season thanks to offseason shoulder surgery. However, his ability to retrieve pucks and his agility lends himself to penalty kill duties.

It’s a new group with a new coach running the show. While we have yet to see this group in regular season action, one things is for sure: the Maple Leafs penalty kill needs to improve in 2019-20.