The Toronto Maple Leafs’ powerplay is horrendous, appalling, terrible, you pick the word. Suppose you’re on social media during the game. In that case, there are many more colourful words and phrases being used to describe Toronto’s man advantage. I can’t use those terms here, but one goal in the last 42 powerplays creates some fascinating combinations of frustrated words. Unlike the hundreds of coaches who comment on Facebook, Twitter and fan forums, I don’t pretend to know better than an NHL coaching staff and hockey players. I’m not going to be writing how they have to win faceoffs, move the puck and get traffic in front of the net or suggest switching powerplay strategies to the umbrella, the spread or the overload.
What I can do is interpret Sheldon Keefe’s comments. He gave us some insight into why the powerplay is failing and it has nothing to do with strategies. The Leafs are at a point where they are beating themselves. “The guys who are out there right now are squeezing it, overthinking it, but that’s where we’re at and what we’ve done to ourselves, so we’ve got to find our way out of it.” You can imagine what the arena would sound like if there were fans in attendance. You’d hear the “go, Leafs, go” chant, you would listen to 18,000 fans yelling “shoot,” and there would be booing. All the Leafs’ have are the players cheering them on. “You can just sense, even on the bench, the guys who aren’t out there, every shot, every time the pucks in and around the net the guys are looking for it to fall,” said Keefe.
The Maple Leafs are Beating Themselves
Clearly, it has sunk into the psyche of the players. That’s been more and more evident as Toronto started giving up shorthanded chances and goals too. “We’re not on the right side of the special teams battle,” said John Tavares. “Obviously, we’ve been a really strong team at even strength and put a lot of wins together and done a lot of good things, but you need the special teams to come through, specifically on the power play, and I’m one of the key members on it. I’ve got to do a better job, and it starts with me.”
At this point, Leaf Nation should be hoping newly acquired goalie David Rittich shares the number for his mental coach. The Leafs are beating themselves. Remember back to the start of the season when the powerplay was clicking at nearly 43 percent? Let’s put that in perspective, the best powerplay percentage for a season is held by the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens at 31.9.
Players were confident, perhaps even cocky. All the talk was about which one of the two powerplay units would score more goals. Manny Malhotra, the coach who runs the powerplay, was the hero. Perhaps it was too good of a start. As the numbers fell back to earth, players started shaking their heads more and more coming off the ice. It was no longer a goal every second time on the powerplay; it was every fourth time. That wasn’t good enough for such a star power team, right? Then it was a goal every 10th time, 20th, and now 42nd time.
The Competition Caught On
Do you know who else remembers the start of the season? Every team in the North Division. They have some pretty good coaches and players too. They have figured out ways to clog up the lanes that Toronto abused back in January and February. They know the Leafs will drop passes in the neutral zone to create speed on entry, and they do everything they can to slow them at the blue line. The competition is beating the Leafs’ powerplay nearly as much as they’ve destroyed themselves.
This is not news to Toronto; Keefe said fixing the powerplay is the number one priority. For a head coach who has been experimenting with line combinations all season, you must wonder how long until he gives the powerplay duties to a different coach. The time might be right, as Nick Foligno will soon join the team, and William Nylander is done his quarantine.
Clearly, Toronto needs a fresh start on special teams. One way to get away from the commentary of 1-42. By putting a different coach in charge, the analysis shifts to “the Leafs’ powerplay is now X-X under coach (Dave Hakstol, Paul MacLean, etc.).” It’s not to say Malholtra should be canned, but assigning the duties to a different coach and putting a new player out there may help players break through the mental block.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.