How Maple Leafs should shuffle power-play units

Caroline Cameron and Doug MacLean delve into the Maple Leafs power play unit and discuss what an optimal lineup would look like for Toronto.

For the first two months of the season, the most dangerous offensive force in the NHL was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top power-play unit. Overcoming a very ineffective second group, the Maple Leafs ranked third in the NHL in power-play conversion at 29 per cent, bested only by the Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets.

However, since Dec. 4, the Leafs’ power play has been decidedly cold, and though there have been a couple games in that stretch where it has managed to break through, overall the team has only managed the 25th-best power-play conversion rate at 11.4 per cent.

That’s a stretch of 16 games for Toronto, but only 76 minutes and six seconds of power-play time, so we’re dealing with small samples here. Despite that, 16 games is nearly 20 per cent of an NHL season, so it’s no surprise that Mike Babcock, whose job is to win games in the short term, has decided to split up that vaunted top unit to look for a bit more balance, and maybe lightning in a bottle.

While the Leafs’ top unit, which included all of the team’s top three centres, was scoring at a torrid pace, the risk of being forced to use a tired pivot shortly after the power play ended due to the top unit playing nearly the entire two minutes seemed worth it. Now, with the power play no longer scoring, the breakup had to be expected.

The question I have is, have opponents who have now had time to game plan for all that talent shut down Toronto’s power play, or did the Leafs just hit a bump of bad luck in the road?

Splitting the Maple Leafs’ offensive numbers at Dec. 4, we can see that Toronto is getting fewer scoring chances of every type, and hitting its passes to the slot less often, while focusing more on East-West passes. As a rule, I’m a fan of East-West puck movement, and the kind of passes that Mitch Marner specifically makes on the power play through the middle of the ice create great scoring chances that force goaltenders to move and make saves in transition.

One problem with East-West passes, though, is how many of them on the power play tend to be between the two points, which is an artifact of old style power plays that relied on one-timers from the point — something that isn’t nearly as successful these days.

Since Dec. 4, 80.5 of the Leafs’ 129.4 East-West passes per 60 are between the points, meaning the power play has been forced up high more often, instead of being able to take advantage of teams down low.

Now, before Leafs fans start panicking about the club’s power play being shut down and all that talent going to waste, let’s put these numbers in a little bit of context here:

• The Leafs’ ranking in high-danger chances on the power play since Dec. 4th: first
• Shots on net from the slot: second
• Shot attempts from the slot (scoring chances): first
• Passes into the slot: first
• East-West passes below the tops of the circles: 11th.

Does that sound like a power play that’s doomed to fail for the rest of the season to you?

It’s true that the Leafs’ lead in those categories compared to the first two months of the season is much smaller. Until Dec. 4, their 32 high-danger chances per 60 minutes were nearly 12 more than the next best team in Colorado’s 20.6, and their 52.7 scoring chances on net per 60 dwarfed the next-most dangerous shooting team in Winnipeg, who was putting up 38.1 scoring chances on net over the same period.

So is the Leafs’ power play still as earth-shatteringly elite as it was? No, but it’s still likely the most dangerous man advantage in the league, there’s just a slump in terms of finishing going on.

Even though the underlying numbers remain strong, I don’t think Mike Babcock is necessarily wrong in breaking up the top unit. The fact is, the Leafs have enough high quality offensive players to run two strong units and keep their players more ready for the transition back to even strength, if the egos can be managed.

Keeping in mind how the Maple Leafs run their power play, we can look to even strength numbers for individuals to see who should slot where, starting with the top unit.

Obviously, the first unit the Leafs should ice on every power play should be built around Mitch Marner. For the third straight season, Marner is among the league leaders in scoring chances created per minute on the power play, and his chemistry with Tavares is undeniable. There’s no reason to change the roles either of those players have played so far, so Marner is the quarterback on the right side half wall, and Tavares is the net-front man.

Morgan Rielly has continually demonstrated his ability to support the power play from the centre point, so he should stick on that top unit as well.

Normally I would say Nazem Kadri should keep his spot as the bumper in the middle of the ice, but we’re trying to spread out the talent a little bit, and I like the idea of Marner having a one-timer option in the high slot, so slotting in right-handed Kasperi Kapanen there makes sense, especially as he’s establishing himself as a goal scorer this season.

On the left half wall, the options start to thin out a little bit, but Patrick Marleau could be a decent option there to cash in on rebound chances.

The second unit is clearly to be built around Auston Matthews, who is very different from Mitch Marner, but I believe could be as dynamic in the same spot. Matthews’ stickhandling prowess and incredible release on shots make him a threat from that spot that reminds me of Alex Kovalev, forcing teams to back off and give him space.

Kadri fills his regular spot as the bumper on this unit, and without Matthews on his left, will get more shooting opportunities, while slotting William Nylander on that left side half wall gives Kadri an opportunity to receive one-time passes from a high-end playmaker.

Jake Gardiner fills the support role from the centre point, which only leaves one spot to fill — the front of the net. For that, I would look to the Leafs’ third-ranked player in high-danger chances per minute at 5-vs-5 this season, Andreas Johnson.

It’s unlikely that either of these two units will be as strong as the top unit was for the Leafs at the beginning of the season, but both have the potential to be among the league’s best, and every player is slotted in a spot that takes advantage of their strengths.

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