There are new players, new coaches and new systems, but it’s been the same old terrible penalty kill for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And it’s not easy determining exactly why.
Everyone on the team seems to have a different theory, although one that both players and coaches keep coming back to is that the organization’s recent history is in their heads.
The past three seasons, the Leafs have finished 30th, 30th and 28th in the NHL in the category and are again dead last at 70.9 per cent after 14 games this year.
Since Ron Wilson was named head coach in 2008, Toronto has killed just 75.3 per cent of its penalties, allowing 229 goals over 260 games – nearly 50 more than the average team in that span.
For those new to the situation, it’s an alarming stretch of futility.
“I mean, we’re at 30th,” centre David Steckel said Monday after practice. “So it’s the bottom of the barrel. No matter what we’re doing, it’s not going to get any worse at this point.”
One of the big fixes in the off-season was supposed to be bringing in assistant coach Greg Cronin, who has had solid penalty-kill units in previous stops.
The other was to add players such as Steckel and Philippe Dupuis, who Wilson has used together as his two forwards in one-third of the team’s shorthanded situations.
Neither change has paid off, however, which leaves the head coach taking a lot of the blame for three-plus years of PK woes.
“I don’t know if we can work on it anymore than we do,” Wilson said. “Sometimes we might be working on it too much and our focus is on not screwing up and therefore you do.”
Part of the problem may be in goal. Toronto allowed one power-play goal on two opportunities in a 7-0 loss to the Boston Bruins last Saturday, and Wilson said rookie netminder Ben Scrivens admitted he had misplayed the cross-ice pass.
According to behindthenet.ca, the Leafs have been among the bottom three teams in the league in save percentage while shorthanded the past four seasons. This year, their goaltenders have saved just 80 per cent of the shots they’ve faced when down a man, better than only the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets.
The team declined to make Cronin available Monday to talk about changes he’s tried to implement to the penalty kill, but the players said they’re following a system where they’re aggressive when the puck is loose and attempting to be in solid position the rest of the time.
That’s led to some criticism they may be too passive when down a man.
“Some teams might press when [the other team]has full control of the puck,” said Dupuis, a former Colorado Avalanche who has been the Leafs’ top penalty killer, statistically speaking, with three goals allowed in 29 minutes of ice time.
“That’s up to the coaches to decide. We weren’t doing it in Denver last year; we would let them set up. Same thing here. I think most teams in the NHL, that’s what they’re doing.”
“We’re looking at video, everyday,” defenceman Mike Komisarek said. “We’re always analyzing what the other team’s tendencies are and what they’re trying to do.”
Steckel added that, while the Leafs are 9-4-1, they need to improve when shorthanded before it begins to cost them more ground in the standings.
“I’ve made it a point and the coaches have the last couple of days here that it’s losing games for us,” he said. “We’re giving up key goals. It can’t be just, ‘Oh here we go again.’
“We’re trying to change the mentality as a group. We’ve lost a couple games because of the penalty kill and we need to realize that sooner than later. We’re going to need it and we better start fixing it now.”