The Toronto Maple Leafs first day of work with their special teams in training camp revealed some significant personnel changes.
Auston Matthews got his first action as part of the Toronto Maple Leafs penalty-killing unit. Head coach Sheldon Keefe previously discussed his plan of using his star centre while shorthanded.
The other notable change saw John Klingberg replace Morgan Rielly as the quarterback of the first power play unit.
The preseason is the appropriate time for experiments, but each of these moves carries some risk should they continue when the regular season starts.
Boom or Bust Feel to Toronto Maple Leafs Special Teams Moves
The Toronto Maple Leafs power play will already have a new look this season thanks to the addition of new assistant coach Guy Boucher. He will bring fresh ideas, part of which likely involves the threat of a heavier shot from the point.
The Leafs power play has ranked in the top 2 each of the past two seasons. Last season they finished second behind the Edmonton Oilers with an efficiency of 26.0%. During the 2021-2022 season, they led the NHL at 27.3%.
Rielly, along with Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander have been the mainstays of the Leafs successful power play unit.
At the helm on the backend has been Rielly with his above-average skating, puck handling, and playmaking ability, but without the threat of a substantial point shot. Wrist shots for tip-ins or screens were the most frequent threat from the blue line.
Moving Klingberg to Rielly’s spot is understandable, and the safer of the two moves.
The risk of inserting Klingberg into Rielly’s spot involves messing with a good thing or ruffling Rielly’s feathers with his demotion to the second power-play unit.
Rielly has always been a leader with a team-first attitude, so a drop-off in power play production is the only real concern.
The intriguing part is imagining a Leafs power play with a legitimate shooting threat from the point. It could increase their power play efficiency which will translate to more wins.
Klingberg has a history of power-play production, but should the Leafs struggle with the extra attacker they can always revert to Rielly.
Auston Matthews on the Penalty Kill Brings Great Risk
The biggest risk of the Toronto Maple Leafs change in special teams personnel is adding Matthews to the penalty-killing units.
There are plenty of advantages to increasing Matthews’ job description.
He can win important defensive zone draws to start short-handed situations. He is strong on the puck and can win battles for possession. He is always among the league leaders in takeaways, also helpful while playing short.
Matthews also led NHL forwards in blocked shots last season. He did this while not killing penalties. Playing short-handed means more shot blocks and puts him in harm’s way more often.
Managing his ice time also becomes a bigger concern. Keefe must walk a fine line to be sure Matthews is not overtaxed.
Having your best players play more increases your chances of winning, but you don’t want to overuse them or put them at risk of injury.
Matthews and Marner seeing lots of time on ice should lead to better team results, but with it comes risk.
The Toronto Maple Leafs losing either of their best players becomes a more distinct possibility when killing penalties. At the very least, it should give them pause for thought.