The One Thing Wrong with the Toronto Maple Leafs Penalty Kill

Toronto Maple Leafs - John Tavares and Auston Matthews (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
Toronto Maple Leafs - John Tavares and Auston Matthews (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs struggles short-handed have long been talked about.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs rank 21st league-wide in penalty kill percentage, clipping at a rate of 80%.

With the goal of transitioning the franchise from a Stanley Cup contender to Champion, Toronto needs to improve short-handed.

The Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, both divisional rivals of Toronto, rank 4th and 9th in penalty kill percentage respectively over the same time period. It is paramount for Toronto’s success they improve on the PK.

So, what is ailing them from succeeding down a man?

Sheldon Keefe and Co. do not play one of their top two centremen, ranked by faceoffs won, on the penalty kill.

Take a look at the stats below, analyzing the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning this season at even strength and on the penalty kill, identifying who takes the most draws in both situations.

2019-20 Penalty Kill Stats


Boston Bruins:

Top Two Centers at Even Strength: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci
Top Two Centers Short-handed: Patrice Bergeron, Sean Kuraly

Tampa Bay Lightning:

Top Two Centers at Even Strength: Anthony Cirelli, Brayden Point
Top Two Centers Short-Handed: Anthony Cirelli, Steven Stamkos

Toronto Maple Leafs:

Top Two Centers at Even Strength: John Tavares, Auston Matthews
Top Two Centers Short-Handed: Zach Hyman, Frederik Gauthier

It is clear Bruce Cassidy and Jon Cooper coach two of the best teams in the NHL, who also excel at both ends of the ice. They have recognized the importance of winning the faceoff short-handed and how that translates to a successful penalty kill.

Another example can be found with Craig Berube and his defending Stanley Cup champions, St Louis Blues, deployment of Ryan O’Reilly. The talented center leads his team in both even strength draws won as well as short-handed draws won.

Toronto’s top two centers, John Tavares and Auston Matthews, rank 6th and 8th respectively on the team in faceoffs won short-handed.

Back in early March, Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan was asked about Matthews’ Rocket Richard quest and the former NHL player had some high praise for his franchise star

"“I always thought when he came up that he was one of those rare players who had the ability to lead a league in scoring and also be its best defensive player. I can remember [former Red Wings teammate Sergei] Fedorov and in basketball with Michael Jordan. That’s putting him in some elite company.” (source; TSN)"

It is pretty apparent that Toronto Maple Leafs management believes in Matthews’ defensive abilities and dependability to handle risky situations.

Matthews showed improvements in his own end this season ranking tied for first among forwards this season in takeaways (stats;, along with someone who is applauded for his quick stick and Selke-worthy play, Mark Stone.

So, if Matthews’ excels defensively and can win draws consistently, why does he not receive any penalty kill time?

Many will point to the fact Sheldon Keefe would rather save his strong goal scorers for even strength and powerplay situations, however, Mitch Marner receives a fair share of short-handed minutes and he is the Leafs best setup man.

Plus, the luxury of having two star centers is the option of playing Matthews’ short-handed and still having a bonafide number #1 center and an excellent goal-scoring option to play the powerplay (John Tavares).

Matthews would definitely be a great addition to penalty kill #1, but if Keefe would like to save the perennial 50-goal scorer for more favourable minutes, the captain is an exceptional secondary option.

John Tavares has experience playing the penalty kill, having ranked second on the New York Islanders in short-handed faceoffs won in his last two seasons with the franchise (stats;

This would allow Matthews to handle more of the offensive load and give Toronto’s best faceoff winner a chance to do so down a man.

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It is hard to believe with Sheldon Keefe running the show in Toronto he would not experiment playing his star centers on the penalty kill. He has shown tremendous creativity and willingness to try new things when outdated methods prove to be imperfect.

With the special task of trying to deliver a Stanley Cup to the hockey mecca of the world, it is almost guaranteed Keefe will opt for a new look PK when the NHL returns.