Why the Maple Leafs are turning Auston Matthews into a penalty killer

Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews spoke about taking reps with the penalty kill unit at training camp, saying that he's taken part in meetings before, but taking the ice with them is different and that he's looking forward to getting more.

TORONTO — Imagine drawing a penalty against the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

A brilliant opportunity for you to score with the extra attacker. 

Then over the boards pop Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, two of the game’s premier defensive forwards. Rumour has it, they aren’t so shabby on offence either.

Surely, the threat of Toronto’s shorthanded counterattack — the power kill — will worm its way into the power-play skaters’ minds as they glide in for the faceoff.

“When you go out there against guys like [Patrice] Bergeron and [Brad] Marchand on the penalty kill, it definitely makes you think a little bit more. Just because not only are they very good offensively, but defensively they can knock pucks out of the air and stuff like that force you to make plays in tough positions and transition the other way,” Matthews explains.

“Obviously, we’re not trying to score every time we’re [killing a penalty], but there’s definitely a lot of opportunity there and something that I definitely want to embrace. Another challenge for myself, but something that I’m very open to — and I hope it works out.”

Mitch Marner, defenceman.

John Tavares, winger.

William Nylandercentre.

Auston Matthews, penalty killer.

No one can accuse the Maple Leafs of not trying to keep things fresh with their star forwards.

Tasking Matthews with killing penalties in this season, his eighth, makes sense — even though the Arizona native never played 4-on-5 as an amateur and skated all of three minutes and 29 seconds shorthanded the entirety of 2022-23. (Matthews’ career ice time on the PK is a whopping 24:19.)

Matthews has sat in Maple Leafs’ PK meetings for the past couple of seasons, and head coach Sheldon Keefe has gradually been mixing in more of Nylander in 4-on-5 situations, maximizing the versatility of his top talent.

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Matthews is strong in the faceoff circle (52.4 per cent), routinely ranks among the league’s takeaway leaders, and last winter led all NHL forwards with 92 blocked shots. All the ingredients of an effective penalty killer are there. (Side benefit: The one knock when Matthews’s name enters a Selke Trophy debate is that he doesn’t play PK like a Bergeron or Anze Kopitar.)

During Monday’s 4-3 preseason overtime loss to Ottawa, Matthews won both his faceoffs on the kill and blocked a shot. In one sequence, he picked off a Senators pass clean, rushed up ice, and set up Marner for a Grade-A shorthanded scoring chance.

“You’re down a man, but at the same time, like, it’s hockey,” Matthews says. “It’s a lot of anticipation, a lot of reads, and stuff like that. I feel like I got a good stick and can break up plays. I’d love to be utilized on it.

“The more reps I get, the more comfortable I’ll get. And we got some pretty good penalty-killers on the team already that I can lean on to ask questions.”

One question is: Why now?

Short answer: Necessity. 

The Leafs lost a trio of reliable penalty-killing forwards — Alexander Kerfoot, Noel Acciari, and Ryan O’Reilly — to free agency this summer. Someone needs to pick up the slack.

Unlike Marner and David Kämpf, don’t expect Matthews to kill every penalty, but he is among a group of good skaters, including Nylander and roster hopeful Noah Gregor, whose PK minutes should escalate. The role is open.

How PK Papi is deployed, however, will be based on game flow and score.

Keefe is wary of overtaxing his elite guys during the regular season, however, and every 4-on-5 shift for Matthews robs the club of an effective 5-on-5 burst.

“Sometimes you want to be able to keep Auston for the first shift coming out of the PK,” Keefe explained. “That 5-on-5 shift is an important one, and you can get a lot of favourable matchups coming out of that when the other team has just finished with a lot of their top players on the power play.”

As is the case with Nylander at centre, the Leafs are using training camp as a time of experimentation. So, PK coach Dean Chynoweth — who prefers an aggressive kill anyway — is taking time to get an open-minded Matthews comfortable with this new responsibility.

Marner admits Saturday’s maiden shorthanded run-through with his new partner was “a little chaotic,” but with chatter and practice, he’s confident Matthews can add another layer to his all-around game.

“He’s a smart guy. He’s very good with his stick. He knows how to pick off pucks. So, I’m sure once he gets even this first step done, he’ll be knowin’ how to do it,” Marner says.

And maybe, even down a man, the two can strike fear into the team with the advantage.

“Well, I think that’s the direction our league is going. A lot of teams are attacking on the penalty kill. You see it. A lot of teams are putting their best players out there for a reason,” Mark Giordano says.

“There’s four forwards on the ice on the other side, so you can attack a little bit more and maybe use that to your advantage. I think he’d be great.

“It makes sense, for sure.”

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