Of the long list of flaws Toronto Maple Leafs general manger Kyle Dubas shouldered blame for during his season-ending, buck-starts-with-me press conference — the William Nylander stalemate, another flat third period in another Game 7, the shortage of Nestle Drumsticks in the press box mini freezer — the most startling might have been a penalty kill that flopped from mediocre to atrocious when it mattered most.
As if Dubas should’ve been out there on the Scotiabank Arena ice diving in his suit to block Torey Krug bombs from the point, or pushing Zach Hyman and his torn ACL to the hash marks so he could take those critical defensive-zone draws wearing dress shoes.
"I think the blame should go to me on the penalty kill," Dubas said. "We could’ve done a better job — I could’ve done a better job — in finding guys for depth to help the coaches in that regard. I think if there’s blame to go around for that, it should go to me."
Yes, some of the culpability for Toronto’s pitiful post-season PK — in our mind, special teams provided the difference in deciding a tight opening series that has since launched the winner, Boston, into Stanley Cup favourite territory — should fall to roster construction.
But the blame should at least be shared with a coaching staff that failed to adapt and a group of players that simply didn’t get the job done.
The Leafs’ penalty kill was successful in killing just nine of the Bruins’ 16 power plays, for an alarming 56.3 per cent success rate. Of 2019’s 16 playoff teams, only Tampa’s PK was worse, and the Lightning didn’t win a single game.
At home, where Toronto went 1-2, the Leafs’ kill was a laughable 28.6 per cent effective.
Since the NHL began tracking kill rates, no playoff team has ever reached a seventh game with a PK so porous. The only team to come close? The 2018 Leafs, who pushed those same Bruins to seven games last April despite a 66.7 per cent PK.
"The bottom line is, you can’t keep giving power-play goals up," coach Mike Babcock said. "Not that they didn’t make plays or anything like that, but we weren’t in the spots we were supposed to be in.
"We’ve had pretty good penalty kills since I’ve been here. Pretty good. But it isn’t good enough right now."
Truth be told: The Leafs’ kill wasn’t so effective in the regular season, either.
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning led the NHL with an 85 per cent rate, and all four teams still alive were more efficient on the PK than the Leafs, who ranked 17th overall at 79.9 per cent. That was good enough for sixth in Atlantic Division, ahead of only Ottawa and Detroit, two teams that are purposely rebuilding and one whose players mocked their own PK on an Uber driver’s dash camera.
This continues a downward trend for Toronto’s efforts shorthanded, which ranked 10th overall in 2016-17 (82.5 per cent) and 11th in 2017-18 (81.4 per cent).
Now, imagine how significantly 4-on-5 situations would’ve hurt the 2018-19 Leafs last season if they weren’t the least-penalized club in the entire league (503 PIM).
OK, you get it. The PK needs improvement. So, how does it get fixed?
Win the draw
For starters, Babcock needs to use a real centreman to win faceoffs on the kill.
Winger Zach Hyman took the most PK faceoffs this season and went 69-72, which is actually a significant improvement from 2017-18, when he went 58-82. Until the trade deadline, when he was shipped to Winnipeg for healthy scratch Nic Petan, centre Par Lindholm went 61-65 on PK draws.
John Tavares, a proven centre who regularly killed penalties on Long Island, was used all of 16:13 total on the PK in 82 games as a Leaf. Even though he won the majority of his PK draws (23-20), Tavares was Babcock’s 12th-most-used penalty killer.
While a portion of Leafs Nation was happy to wave goodbye to Leo Komarov in free agency last
summer, the veteran excelled in man-down situations, going 73-59 in PK draws in 2017-18, and the kill was better for it.
Nazem Kadri has vastly improved as a faceoff man. Is it possible for him to adapt and find some minutes here?
Find more personnel
Unfortunately, two of the Leafs’ four most-used killers, Connor Brown (trade bait) and Ron Hainsey (UFA), are at risk of moving elsewhere and a third, Hyman, will be rushing back from ACL surgery.
Defenceman Travis Dermott, expected to play a larger role in 2019-20, will miss at least six months due to shoulder surgery.
A full season of Jake Muzzin will help, but the PK group is simply too thin. This is where Dubas comes in. If the Leafs can’t trust Frederik Gauthier to win draws and defend in these scenarios and wish to save Tavares for 5-on-5, they need to trade for or sign a fourth-line centre who can deliver.
They also need — say it in unison! — more defencemen.
Because Dubas needs to shed money and UFAs generally get overpaid, trades are the logical way to go. How much would a Jacob Trouba, Colin Miller, Chris Tanev, Brett Pesce, Esa Lindell or Radko Gudas improve this PK’s back end?
Yes, this would mean sacrificing some prospects and/or offence, but when you compare Toronto’s defensive depth to that of the NHL’s final four — Boston, Carolina, San Jose, St. Louis — the risk justifies the reward.
Free-agent defencemen who could help the PK include Anton Stralman, Patrik Nemeth, Ben Lovejoy, Jordie Benn, Ben Chiarot and, yes, bringing back Hainsey (one year at a reduced cost).
The reason why Detroit centre Luke Glendening’s name keeps coming up in Leafs trade rumours is because he would improve this area, and pickings are slim when it comes to UFA pivots who excel in their own zone. (That’s why role player Jay Beagle earned a small ransom from Vancouver last summer.) UFAs Marcus Kruger, Greg McKegg, Valterri Filppula and Eric Fehr (the return!) might be worth kicking tires.
Shake up the coaching staff?
When Dubas confirmed Babcock’s return to bench next season, it was telling the GM gave no endorsement for assistants Jim Hiller and D.J. Smith — both of whom have the greenlight to interview for promotions elsewhere.
Smith is a players’ favourite who has had his name thrown in the hat for head gigs with the Islanders (last off-season) and Senators (now). He has also overseen a PK in decline, and his troops failed to adapt to the potent Bruins PP for two seasons running.
Maybe a fresh voice, outlining new schemes is in order?
"Smitty’s done a good job of letting us know what they’re looking for and how we’re supposed to counteract it," Brown said during the unit’s playoff struggles. "How they scored their goals, it’s nothing we hadn’t seen before. So, it’s up to us to execute."
And it’s up to the Maple Leafs, from Dubas on down, to remedy one of their most costly weak points.