Analyzing the Maple Leafs’ slumping power play and how they can fix it

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston discuss the Jets trying to chase down the Maple Leafs and Toronto’s power play being a cause for concern.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have lost four straight games and an inability to convert on the power play has played a role in all four losses. The lack of power play success is not the only reason, but it’s a big reason the Maple Leafs have failed to pick up two points in recent games after starting the month with five straight wins.

Sunday, against the Canucks, Toronto had a five-minute power play, scoring once before losing the game in overtime. Against Winnipeg last week, the Maple Leafs had a 5-on-3 power play for over one minute midway through the first period in a game they led 1-0. The Leafs failed to score and conceded a power play goal just one minute later before losing the game 5-2.

The game before that, against Calgary, Toronto had a four-minute power play midway through the third period in a tie game that it failed to capitalize on. The Leafs lost in overtime. And the game before that, against Montreal, the Leafs had a power play midway through the third period while trailing 3-2. Toronto failed to score and lost in regulation. You get the point.

Dating back to March 11, a span of 18 games, Toronto’s power play is a league-worst 2-for-46. This comes after posting the best power play in the NHL to that point at 31.7 per cent. Only the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens have ever finished a season with a power play percentage better than the rate the Leafs were clicking at and while nobody should have expected the Maple Leafs to continue humming along at over 30 per cent, a nosedive like this seemed closer to impossible than probable.

So, what’s gone wrong? How does a team go from the best power play in the league at over 30 per cent to the worst at under five per cent? The good news for Maple Leafs fans is that the power play isn’t broken. From a process standpoint, they’re still creating lots of chances. I know this is the last thing fans want to hear when their team isn’t scoring, but that’s the truth.

However, there are also identifiable areas the team has slipped in during its power play drought that can be improved. So, here are the three biggest takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ recent power play struggles and what it needs to do to get back on track.

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1. The worst is (likely) over

Sustaining a 30-plus per cent power play throughout an entire season is unlikely. But for a team that has had a power play success rate of over 20 per cent over the past three years, continuing at under five per cent much longer than 18 games isn’t happening. There would be a legitimate reason for concern if the Maple Leafs weren’t generating quality chances during their power play drought, but they are.

Toronto’s expected goals, a reflection of shot quality and quantity, during its 2-for-46 stretch sits at 10.5. So, all things being equal, based on the chances they’ve had the Leafs should have 10 or 11 power play goals in their past 18 games. That would put them around 22 or 23 per cent, which is perfectly in line with the 22.3 per cent clip the Leafs’ power play has operated at since the start of the 2018-19 season.

Two power play goals and an expected goals total of 10.5 leave a difference of negative 8.5. That is by far the worst differential between chances and results in the NHL since March 11.

The Maple Leafs rank 13th in expected goals on the power play since March 11 and eighth in expected goals per 20 minutes. They’re getting their chances, but they just aren’t burying them.

2. Hitting the Net

While the Leafs are still getting plenty of good looks, they are not hitting the net nearly as often as they were before their power play slump. Toronto ranked first in slot shot attempts before the current slump and it ranks first since as well. However, the Leafs are hitting the net on fewer than half of their shot attempts overall, ranking 28th in shooting accuracy since March 11.

Pucks haven’t been going in so perhaps shooters are trying to be a little too precise with their shots. One out of every four Leafs shot attempts were blocked when the team was scoring on the power play in its first 27 games. That number sits at just over one out of every three during the 18-game slump. Perhaps plays aren’t developing as quickly as they were when the Leafs’ power play was scoring, and as a result, penalty killers have been able to get into shooting lanes more often. Perhaps a combination of both is contributing to the lack of goals, but even still — neither can fully account for the dramatic drop in production.

3. Net-Front Shooting

Other than missing the net more often, the only other meaningful drop from a process standpoint is a dip in shots from the net-front, inner slot area. Over half of all goals are scored from this area and even though elite shooters like Auston Matthews can score regularly from distance on the power play, most goals come from around the net. Matthews has both of Toronto’s power play goals in its past 18 games – the rest of the team has combined for zero goals on 50 shots.

More shots from in tight either from deflections, quick puck movement, or rebounds should lead to more goals. The Leafs averaged 0.77 inner slot shots per two minutes of power play time in their first 28 games, which was good for first in the NHL. That number has dropped to 0.46 per two minutes since, falling to 12th overall. A 40 per cent drop in shots from the most high-danger scoring area on the ice is less than ideal. Again, they are still producing an above-average amount of shots from here so this does not fully explain away the lack of results on the power play, but it does contribute to the drought.

In the end, a lot of what has worked in the past is still working. The Maple Leafs’ zone entry success rate is identical to what it was before the slump. Toronto spends approximately the same amount of time in the offensive zone, has a good amount of traffic in front of the net, and creates quality scoring chances at a high rate. The cross-ice pass hasn’t been taken away either. Toronto’s forwards are completing more cross-ice passes, and at a higher success rate, during the slump than they did before.

There will be some inevitable regression to the mean, but the law of averages alone won’t fix some of the shortcomings we are seeing with Toronto’s power play. Slower puck movement and a lack of execution show up in the numbers with more shots being blocked, more shots missing the net, and fewer shots coming from the most contested scoring area on the ice.

Improve in these areas and the Leafs will start filling the net on the man advantage once again.

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