When the Toronto Maple Leafs traded away Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown, they lost two players that ranked one and four, respectively, in ice time (TOI) on the penalty kill. They also lost the second-highest TOI player when Ron Hainsey departed for their provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators. That’s three of the most frequently used players on the penalty kill, a devastating blow for a team that finished 17th in Corsi-against-per-60 (94.08) and 17th in penalty-kill percentage with 79.9%.
Is It Really a Devastating Blow?
The quick answer is no, it isn’t. While he was shedding salary and term, general manager Kyle Dubas also took away two of the team’s worst penalty killers in Zaitsev and Hainsey. Brown is the exception of Mike Babcock’s skater deployment.
In addition to the loss of those three, Dubas also elected to let Par Lindholm find a new home. This was another move that will affect how Babcock and his staff design the penalty kill. Lindholm was one of seven players to hit the 100-minute mark in penalty-kill time, but he struggled to keep shot attempts against down relative to his peers.
The Leafs’ GM, in removing hindering contracts, took away some Babcock’s favorite toys when he’s faced with a disadvantage. Players that struggle for the majority of a game but work exceptionally hard, are often given the opportunity on the penalty kill. It’s a poor way to set yourself up when a man down.
Two of the Leafs’ best (if not the best) penalty killers last season were Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen. Babcock was comfortable enough to make them two of seven players he deployed for over 100 minutes, building a rare trust between coach and skill players when the opposition is up by a player. The personnel subtractions should allow Kapanen and Marner to get increased time on the penalty kill.
Do the New Additions Affect the PK?
Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot played 5:40 and 4:37, respectively, for the Colorado Avalanche, so there isn’t much to evaluate from 2018-19. At 5-v-5, both were positive impact players and allowed less shot attempts against relative to their teammates. Good players don’t magically turn bad when the team loses a player on the ice. It’s a safe assumption that below-average players will remain below average as the number of skaters on the ice changes in favor of the opposition.
Jason Spezza didn’t hurt the Dallas Stars while he was on the ice during the 2018-19 season, and he’s considered a bargain signing by Toronto. He played even less than Barrie and Kerfoot on the penalty kill (1:21) and he should be given the opportunity to center the second PK unit.
Martin Marincin – one of the most disliked players by the vocal Leafs fanbase – is back on a one-year deal. Though he’s not a new addition, Marincin has value on the penalty kill with Hainsey and Zaitsev out of the picture. Despite his detractors, he has played mostly stable hockey for the Leafs in the past and 2018-19 was no different. With limited usage, he was one of the top players on the team for shot attempts against at 5-v-5.
Unsurprisingly, this carried over to his time on the penalty kill (34:21). Given the makeup of the Leafs’ defensive group, Marincin stands to get bottom pairing minutes again, which could be supplemented by an uptick in 4-v-5, 3-v-4, or 3-v-5 ice-time.
Cody Ceci is an unknown right now. He didn’t have good numbers in Ottawa and it’s uncertain how he is going to fit into the Leafs’ lineup at this point.
How Could the New Penalty Kill Shape Up?
Of the seven players who managed to hit the 100 TOI mark on the penalty kill, only Marner, Kapanen and Hyman remain. The first two should be locks on the wing, and it would be worth moving on from Zach Hyman as a regular with a man down. Auston Matthews and John Tavares saw just under 18 minutes on the penalty kill (combined) and will be bogged down with even-strength and power-play minutes. They need a break sometime.
That leaves newcomers Kerfoot and Spezza to center the penalty kill lines as both have proven that they are capable of being positive impact players. By adding Kerfoot and Spezza to the penalty kill, the Leafs can replace Brown and remove the struggling Hyman. They now inject two players up front who are normally used as centers, rather than four players normally utilized as wingers.
Those four players are capable of performing well and it spreads out Babcock’s favorites. On paper, it also gives the Leafs two better units than they had last season. Will that be how it plays out on the ice? No one can confidently say so, but you can confidently say that they won’t be worse than 17th in the league.
- Rielly-Player X
- Muzzin-Player Y
Without knowing exactly how the Leafs’ top-six defenders will shape up, I’m not going to guess on the pairings. The penalty kill is different from the power play in that you don’t need to front-load your units. It’s more beneficial to spread the wealth, and splitting Muzzin and Rielly allows the Leafs to do that if they are less confident in the rest of the lineup. Their partners, should be two of the following three:
Marincin: If he’s a regular player then he should see penalty-kill time. He’s an effective player in the role he is given.
Barrie: He can move the puck, generate chances and, generally, have a positive impact on the ice. It’s reasonable to think that his forward-moving play would be useful in all situations.
Dermott: When he comes back from injury it’s likely he finds himself in a gradually increasing role. Babcock likes him and he’s a solid player, despite struggling in his limited penalty-kill time. The absence of maintaining common teammates, and TOI, likely contributed to Dermott’s poor showing compared to his peers.
Overall PK Expectations for 2019-20
The Leafs are bringing back four very good penalty killers from last season. There will always be players who are relatively worse than their teammates. That’s less of an issue (but not entirely devoid of criticism) if you are a top-ten team in any or all in-game situations. That’s where they need to get to.
The Leafs are in a better position to succeed on the penalty kill today than they were at the conclusion of the 2019 playoffs–if only because Dubas, intentionally or unintentionally, took a page from Billy Beane and removed below average players from his head coach’s arsenal.