VANCOUVER – Up until the coaching change, the term “special teams” had become a misnomer for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Perhaps “ordinary teams,” “troubling teams,” or “costing-us-points teams” would’ve been more apt.
Both the penalty kill and talent-rich power play had sunk to the bottom third in the league, and one would need both hands to count all of the Toronto losses that coincided with the other side winning the special-teams battle.
The frustration was compounded by the facts that the Leafs are among the NHL’s top 10 at scoring 5-on-5 and that GM Kyle Dubas had recruited two new high-profile assistants, Paul McFarland (PP) and Dave Hakstol (PK), whose objective was to remedy what had been an exposed weak spot in the Boston playoff defeat.
The arrangements and the personnel had been tinkered with, yet still the results were atrocious — and costly.
If you think we’re making too big a deal over odd-man situations, consider this:
In games the Leafs have won the special-teams battle, they are 9-1-0.
In games the Leafs have lost the special-teams battle, they are 3-7-4.
Five-on-fours matter. And Saturday’s victory over the St. Louis Blues reminded just how much.
Despite drawing half as many penalties as the Blues — that’s another issue — Toronto went a perfect 2-for-2 on the man-advantage and added a pretty Zach Hyman shorthanded strike on one of their four successful penalty kills.
“I don’t think we were overly terrible before, but I think once you string a couple kills together, you start to build confidence and then you start to roll,” Hyman says. “We’re on a bit of a roll here, so we have to keep going.”
Such will be the challenge on this Western Canada swing, which features showdowns in Vancouver Tuesday and Edmonton Saturday. The Canucks and Oilers sit tied for first overall in power-play goals (28).
“You have to be aggressive,” Hyman says, “but you have to pick your times and be smart about it.”
It would be too simplistic to credit the coaching switch alone to the special teams feeling special again. There are other factors at play here, such as the increased urgency that comes with being on the sad side of the wild-card line, a regression to the mean, and a return of healthy bodies to the top units.
Point man Tyson Barrie’s addition to the first power-play shift — something Mike Babcock resisted — has had the dual effect of jolting a struggling player and balancing the second unit. (Morgan Rielly and Jason Spezza, now a lineup staple, linked for a 5-on-4 goal Saturday.)
A healthy Hyman adds much-needed bite to the PK, and Marlies call-up Pierre Engvall has leapfrogged some of the roster’s other depth forwards because of his prowess when down a man.
In one PK sequence Saturday, Engvall had a chance to dump the puck but instead ragged it back into his own zone, circled and drove up-ice. Impressive poise for a guy with all of nine NHL games on his resume.
“He killed 20 to 30 seconds there by skating it back and then having a little rush. Just a big guy that can skate really well, and he’s smart out there,” Hyman says. “He’s got that long stick, so it really is disruptive.”
In the eight games since Keefe took the helm, the Leafs have operated at a 42 per cent power play and a 90 per cent penalty kill. They have won the special-teams contest five times, drawn twice and lost it just once — a trend that should bode well for their playoff hopes.
They’ve generated the same number of shorthanded goals (two) as they did in 23 outings under Babcock, and they’ve experimented with fresh looks and new faces, slowing climbing to 10th on the power play (20.9 per cent) and 25th (76.5 per cent) on the kill.
A source close to the situation (no one quoted elsewhere) says McFarland and Hakstol have been granted more of a voice in the systems under Keefe, hence the structural and personnel adjustments.
“All they were doing is executing Babcock’s plan,” the source said. “You get paid to listen to him.”
When we asked Keefe to explain the improvement, he was quick to share credit with his inherited assistants.
“I really trusted Dave to do some different things,” Keefe said. “There have been different things that he’s been wanting to do or wanting to adjust or wanting to change, and we supported him in that.
“Dave’s done a great job in preparing the team there, and we’re seeing progress.”