Maple Leafs' penalty-taking a problem to address before it becomes costly

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev (65) high sticks Ottawa Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot during second period NHL hockey action in Ottawa, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. Mikheyev received a two minute penalty on the play. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

They deploy a system that prizes puck possession and have more than enough elite skill to frustrate opponents and twist them into knots.

So you can’t blame Sheldon Keefe for looking at his Toronto Maple Leafs and shaking his head about how unfavourably they compare to the rest of the NHL in the discipline department so far.

“The penalties have been crazy. It’s just not good enough,” Keefe said after Thursday’s 4-3 victory in Edmonton.

Call it a concerning symptom, but not a full-blown issue for the team sitting atop the North Division. The Leafs surrendered two power-play goals against the Oilers, including an equalizer in the third period, after surrendering a power-play equalizer against the Calgary Flames in the third period of Tuesday’s game.

They danced with further danger in both cases by taking a penalty inside the final three minutes but delivered big kills to secure important regulation victories.

The Leafs have taken 4.64 minors per 60 minutes this season, making them the sixth-most penalized team in the league. They were 26th (3.08) in that department last year.

And while this is a team that sought to add some edge by signing Zach Bogosian and Wayne Simmonds in the off-season, it’s not as if they are guilty of over-aggression. The 11 minors they’ve been assessed over the last two games are almost all stick fouls: tripping, interference, tripping, slashing, tripping, interference, slashing, puck over the glass/delay of game, holding, tripping, tripping.

“I think those situations usually are a symptom of other things,” Keefe said Friday. “Last night I think a couple of the slashing penalties probably maybe shouldn’t have been called and yet the door’s open because [the referees are] looking for slashes on the hands and when you’re slashing a stick it can be misinterpreted as on the hands.

“So just don’t do it.”

That’s a big part of the message his players will get before Saturday’s return game against the Oilers at Rogers Place, but the coach won’t leave it there.

Keefe intends to use next week’s lighter schedule -- it includes only home games against Vancouver on Thursday and Saturday -- to review tape and see if there’s some clearer instruction he can deliver.

It is some of his skilled players that have spent the most time in the penalty box. Zach Hyman has a team-leading five minors, followed by Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot at four.

Kerfoot took three of those on Thursday night and was visibly frustrated by the tight standard being enforced by referees Graham Skilliter and Chris Schlenker.

“When you look at it, a lot [of the time] the players are doing what you’re asking them to,” said Keefe, speaking generally about the tripping calls the Leafs have been assessed. “They’ve got their stick down on the ice, they’re looking to win pucks. We’ve taken a lot of penalties this season where we’ve won the puck, yet the follow through of winning the puck gets into skates and trips people up.

“So I don’t know if that’s happenstance or something that we can bring to the players’ attention. Definitely what we know is we’ve taken too many and that’s allowed teams to get back into games.”

Were the Leafs not faring reasonably well on the penalty kill, it’s unlikely they’d have a 7-2-0 record right now. A screaming hot power play is masking the issue, too, because it’s helped the team score four more special teams goals than it's allowed overall despite Toronto boasting the second-worst penalty differential in the league at minus-11.

But all of these stats should be viewed like blinking warning lights on the dashboard.

The North Division is full of elite shooters and Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton and Winnipeg have above-average power plays. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Canucks rebound from a slow start and produce the high-end form they showed with the man advantage last season, either.

So while the Leafs are off to a successful start, they’ll be aiming to play at five-on-five more often than they have so far. They’re an elite offensive team trying to play better defensively, but they should be able to do it within the boundaries of the rulebook.

“It’s something we’ve talked about, something we’ve got to clean up,” said Marner. “It’s unacceptable and something we’ve got to be better at.”

A problem worth addressing before it becomes a real problem.

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