The Toronto Maple Leafs want junk. They want to generate a lot of it, and they want to win games with it.
Of late, it's working.
The Leafs power play broke out in a big way in Tuesday's win against Colorado, with four of the team's five goals in a 5-1 win. That bumped Toronto up to 21 per cent on the man advantage, good for 12th best in the league.
What's intriguing is how they're doing it. The Leafs go into Friday's game in Carolina leading the entire NHL with 122 shots attempted for every 60 minutes on the man advantage, a dramatic improvement over last season.
The Leafs also lead the league in scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances generated on the power play, according to war-on-ice.com.
|Last season||This season|
|CF/60||48.7 (27th)||51.1 (17th)|
|CA/60||58.7 (27th)||53.9 (24th)|
|Possession||45.3 (27th)||48.7 (19th)|
|CF/60||86.1 (27th)||114.2 (2nd)|
|CA/60||103.4 (28th)||86.2 (5th)|
|Shooting %||8.6 (22nd)||7.9 (25th)|
|Save %||0.906 (25th)||0.912 (17th)|
Those are two stats the Detroit Red Wings excelled in last season under coach Mike Babcock, who has – with help from assistant coach Jim Hiller – so far successfully duplicated that success through 19 games in Toronto.
"The power play looked like a real power play," Babcock said after their win over the Avs, which improved the Leafs to 5-2-2 in their past nine games. "We've been working on that since Day 1 in training camp."
While there has been a lot of focus in Toronto on how much more structured the Leafs look this season, their biggest improvements are on special teams, where coaches can often have a considerable impact through systems work.
The Leafs continue to sit just below the middle of the pack in most measures of even-strength play, but when up or down a man, they rank with the elite in the league in categories such as shot attempts and scoring chances.
Babcock's methods on the power play are somewhat unique. He uses four forwards on the 5-on-4 unit more than any other coach in the league. He also asks the one lone defenceman – usually Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly – to stay back at the point as a fail-safe.
Whenever there's a shot taken, the four other players are asked to overload the other team down low by going to the net.
That has two outcomes. Either the Leafs get a rebound – and potentially another shot on goal from a dangerous position. Or they recover the loose puck and restart their cycle, trying to open up another shooting lane in the penalty kill.
"We're trying to outnumber them," said winger Joffrey Lupul, who has three points on the power play this season. "We've got the two guys coming in off the wing, the flanks, trying to outnumber them. If they've got two guys there, we're hoping to have three. If they have three, we're hoping to have four. You saw it last game. You can make some good plays when you've got guys on the backside. That's what we talk about in here."
"We were doing it early, too," added teammate P.A. Parenteau, who has three power-play goals in his past three games and has been a significant catalyst there all season. "It was just a matter of getting bounces. It's been good for us."
The Leafs offence in general looks much different than it has the past few seasons. Without Phil Kessel, the power play no longer runs through one player. As a result, Babcock has stressed the need for all five players to be able to shift around into each role, whether it's the loner at the point, the two men in front or the two flankers that Lupul refers to.
While it might sound counterintuitive to not simply look for a Grade A opportunity to score, generating all those shot attempts per power play has its benefits.
No. 1: It makes the unit unpredictable because anyone could shoot at any time. Without an Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos to rely on, this makes some sense for the Leafs.
No. 2: It makes life much more difficult for goaltenders, who can often stop the original opportunity anyway.
No. 3: Even when you don't score, it creates chaos, which wears down a penalty kill, and a tired PK equals more room to create nice plays.
"When you do it a couple times, it opens up seams after that," Parenteau explained. "Once you shoot the puck, they gotta commit; they gotta go get it and the battle is on.
"That's the system. We've got a guy coming down the wall that's there for any scraps. We're not afraid to shoot the puck because we know most times we're going to get it back."
Why doesn't every NHL team do it that way?
"I'm not sure why," Parenteau said. "To be honest."
At the dressing-room stall next door, Leafs penalty killer Nick Spaling chuckled.
"I always played more passive. Waited. Make a few passes before you shoot it," Parenteau said. "But this is the way they want to do it here. We're having success with it so I like it."
Mike Babcock likes what he sees, too.
"It takes you a while for everyone to understand where to be and how fast the puck's supposed to move and what the other team's doing and where their stick is and what to take advantage of," Babcock said. "Those are all things that you build a piece at a time.
"You got to give the guys a lot of credit. They've worked real hard."