Going into that 2nd period of that October 27th game in Chicago down 2-0, the environment surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs was palpable. Words like anger, shock, and frustration were thrown around. Considering the state of where the Blackhawks were at the time, a 5th straight loss that night could have led the Maple Leafs down a very dark and dangerous path. Instead, there were some honest words spoken in the Toronto locker room and they came back to win in dramatic fashion.
Fast forward to today and the Maple Leafs have since gone 9-1-0, scored 32 goals (T6th), allowed 18 goals (T6th), and have controlled 57% of the high danger scoring chances (3rd). We as a fanbase tend to ride the highs and the lows of this hockey team too intently, so when in the middle of the good times… instead of just bragging, it will be much more prudent to understand why the Maple Leafs are succeeding right now.
The Power Play
Now let me be the first to say that after last season and the start to this season, I wasn’t sure the current group of players would ever score on the power play again. Any person you’d talk to before this hot-streak would have forfeited the power play because for one stretch last year, this team got scored on more than they were successful on the man-advantage. It was certainly hard to trust Manny Malhotra, a former player who didn’t last in the NHL for 991 games because of his offence. There were rumors of players refusing to try different spots on the power play, a clear lack of confidence in players that at 5v5 look like all-word talents, and it ultimately became one of the many reasons this team choked in the playoffs. In comes Spencer Carbery, former head coach of the Hershey Bears and along with him comes a fresh voice with new ideas.
One of those main ideas is much less stagnation amongst the players, specifically on the first unit. Before, it was very simple:
There really isn’t much more to say about the previous set up, the players stayed in their “zone” and passively moved the puck. As opposed to now, where the first unit of the same players is constantly moving and simply opening up different opportunities for our best shooters. We’ve seen a number of permutations and the Leafs have recently scored in each of these situations:
This type of evolution is forcing the opponent’s penalty killers to guess on the fly which set up the Leafs will be in each and every time they enter the zone, which is giving the Leafs a clear competitive advantage and the main reason why they are leading the league in PP% since October 30th with 41.7%.
The Penalty Kill
On the flip side of special teams, the PK has been equally as dominant for the Leafs as they are rocking a 90.9% success rate, which is 4th in the league since October 30th. With the departure of Zach Bogosian, I was very interested in how the coaching staff would decide to disperse those valuable PK minutes. Combined with the fact that new assistant coach, Dean Chynoweth has taken over the penalty kill from new Seattle Kraken coach David Hakstol.
To everyones pleasant surprise, Chynoweth has made it evident that the strategy on the kill will be aggressiveness and tenaciousness. With that in mind, he’s relied heavy on Muzzin, Kampf, Marner, Brodie, Rielly, Kerfoot, and Kase to fulfill his ideas. Now with the eventual return of Kyle Clifford (via trade) and Ilya Mikheyev (via injury recovery), Chynoweth will have more penalty killers at his disposal. Furthermore, the Leafs are benefitting from more options who can take faceoffs shorthanded… which is a welcomed change on the PK after forcing someone like Zach Hyman to take them for the better part of the last 5 years.
The Third Line
The value of this third line (Engvall-Kampf-Kase) can be laid out quite succinctly with their 5v5 stats since October 30th:
- Only start in the offensive zone 16.67% of the time
- Controls 55.17% of the High Danger Scoring Chances
- Controls 56.02% of the Expected Goals
To explain this in words, this line almost never starts a shift in a position where offence is expected of them, in fact, you could go as far to say that most would consider their job done well if they spent the majority of their time in the defensive zone while avoiding to get scored on. However, this line continues to tilt the ice in the Leafs favour after each of their shifts and this has actually had a tremendous effect on the top six production. There really isn’t anything logical that you can ask more of from this line!
Jack Campbell was even great when this team went on an embarrassing 4 game losing streak. However, since October 30th, Campbell’s stats are (rank amongst goalies with at least 3 GP):
- 7 Wins and 1 Loss (T1st)
- 0.963 Save % (T1st)
- 3 Shutouts (T1st)
- 12.01 Goals Saved Above Average (1st)
- 0.897 High Danger Save % (T4th)
- 3.89 High Danger Goals Saved Above Average (3rd)
With Jack lately, the eye test is almost always matching up with the numbers. He looks about as calm and as confident as we have ever seen since joining the Maple Leafs, not to mention his demeanor seems to have changed a bit allowing him to avoid getting too hard on himself for some bad goals. He has been without a doubt, the MVP for the Leafs this season and is starting to get recognition for his efforts as he has been mentioned multiple times in public discourse around the United States Olympic Hockey Team.
Confidence In Close Games
Lastly, I want to briefly touch on the teams comfortability in tight games lately. Now this is purely an “eye test” perspective but I am seeing a bit more assertiveness in the Leafs game when the score is close. Most recently against Nashville and New York, those games were tightly contested, against two teams who were playing some great hockey. On the surface, I think most of this success is due to coaching… just the ability to implement a system and be a good enough coach to have the players be confident within that system to not curl up into a shell and hope the shell stays intact, but instead continue to dictate the terms of the game and control play even when playing with a lead.