On an eventful Thursday night full of attention-grabbing moments – usually highlighted by one player in blue and white asserting their glove into the face of an opposing player in white and blue – one ho-hum moment kind of slid under the radar.
The Leafs took yet another Too Many Men on the ice penalty, which was their 13th so far this season, a staggering total that “leads” the NHL at this point. Most of the league has half as many bench minors (or fewer) than the Leafs.
I think back to last season's Maple Leafs, where the team’s power play struggled down the stretch (OK, the last two-thirds of the season) and the consensus seemed to be “Ah, they’ll figure it out when the playoffs start, they’re too talented for it not to work” … only for it to keep struggling. It was a problem, and in the end it hurt them. Trends don’t often disappear when playoffs begin.
This Too Many Men thing is a problem, and so there’s got to be at least some consideration given to it coming back to bite them at the wrong time in the playoffs.
I wanted to know if there’s been a trend in how or why they’ve given away so many power plays this way, so I went through every one of their Too Many Men calls (“TMM” going forward) this season and determined that there are, in fact, a few trends.
First, they’ve struggled with the long change, not in getting their forwards off the ice, but their defenders. That makes sense. When your D can only change on the offensive side of centre they’ve often got tough decisions to make (“Do I have time to get off the ice here, or will that expose us defensively?”). Of course, that challenge exists for all teams, and the Leafs have fallen behind here.
Toronto TMM calls by period:
Four of the six TMM penalties they've taken in the second period involved a defenceman trying to get off the rink. To be more specific, Morgan Rielly has struggled with this, as on four occasions he’s been involved in the mix-ups, either struggling to get off or jumping to get on. You can see him in this clip below bottom right, racing across the ice from the weak side to change when he gets worried about the puck coming back at the Leafs awfully fast.
Funny enough, the biggest offenders have been the people you’d most expect to know what proper line change execution looks like, and captain John Tavares has been involved on four occasions as well, even more directly than Rielly. More on that in a second.
The other main trend is tied to turnovers. This is my strongest hunch as to why the Leafs have been busted more than any other team. Too Many Men calls happen most frequently when the puck is near the bench area while players are in the midst of a change, and forced to decide whether to play the puck or not. When the puck is near changing players, it makes the refs pay attention, and they blow the play dead far more quickly than when the puck is elsewhere. Players never change when the puck is around their bench, or when it’s going to be around their bench … at least they don’t on purpose. That means this pucks-at-the-bench-while-changing mishap comes about by surprise, and usually after a turnover.
The Leafs are a very good team at protecting the puck in terms of rate, in that they don’t turn it over frequently compared to how often they have it. They’re eighth in the NHL, rate-wise, in turnovers. But because they have it so much – they’re second in the NHL in possession – they’re 29th in the NHL in total turnovers, relinquishing the puck 105.6 times per game, according to Sportlogiq.
I should also note they’re second in the NHL in takeaway rate, meaning there’s a lot of surprise change of possessions in Toronto's games, which leads to more opportunities for line changes to be exposed. When the puck stays in one end, refs rarely call TMM on a player jumping on the ice five or even 10 feet too soon.
With that then, Toronto needs to be all the more prudent on each change, given the likelihood of the puck surprisingly changing direction in their games. The Leafs players coming on the ice have been too eager to jump out, but it’s hard to blame those players when you see what some of the guys coming off the ice are doing.
That brings us back to Tavares, starting with the game against the Lightning. If you aren’t sure you’re going to change, maybe don’t motion to the bench you’re coming off? At the top left of the screen at the start of this GIF is 91 in white (a little hidden behind a teammate), who takes a hand off the top of his stick and gives the bench a wave to signal for a change (he had been out for a full shift already). Then the Leafs turn it over and he corrects course back into the play. His teammate saw him wave, saw the turnover, and rushed out on to the ice.
Tavares did it again versus Seattle. Nick Robertson turns it over on a rush, Seattle gets it, and Tavares is at the end of a shift. He raises his stick to the bench to start to say “I’m coming,” but Seattle plays it right up that area, and an over-eager Leafs player who had a leg on the boards dropped down and got in the way of the play.
Earlier in the year you’ll see Tavares do it against Vegas too. He’s centre screen and at the centre ice dot here in blue, and gives the one-arm raise “Yup, one for me” change motion to the bench before noticing a couple charging Vegas players and changing his course back into the play. In all these situations you can see how he would be a little vision-obscured (behind players or in a crowd) for the player coming on to follow, and guys just trust that because he’s signalled he’s coming off.
Speaking of veterans, watch Jason Spezza do it here, too, against the Flames. He’s top right of the screen in white, behind the play (at the start). This one is egregious, as he signals, stands up straight, then sees the chance to join a rush and he … stays on the ice.
All I know is it’s common to see coaches blamed for TMM calls, and there are times when they’re certainly to blame. Sometimes a coach will tell four guys they’re going on instead of three, or they don’t communicate clearly, or they call two left wingers and no right, so two guys change for one. These things happen.
After an audit of all 13 TMM calls against Toronto this season, I saw one time I couldn’t make sense of what happened and I think Keefe saying “my bad” after the replay. I don’t see this issue as being on the coach. This is pretty simple stuff that’s on the Leafs players to communicate like a minor hockey team. Yell your change, make sure that change is coming off, and for the love of god, don’t touch the puck the second you jump on if the other guy isn’t off.
It’s just one of those little “details” you hear analysts talk about regularly, and it should never be a big picture problem for a team.
But when you’re taking TMM penalties at a per-game rate that implies it could happen in the post-season, it might be one of those details worth a quick mention and focus when preparing for the games that matter most.