The Toronto Maple Leafs special teams added some diesel to the overall regular season success of a team that amassed 111 points, which was good for the fourth best record in 2022-23.
The Toronto Maple Leafs power-play was again what kept the team on track. It was ranked second – only trailing a historic Edmonton Oilers PP that clicked 32 percent of the time.
The Leafs penalty killing unit, ranked 12th out of 32 teams last season, figures to get a tune-up with new assistant coach Mike Van Ryn overseeing what goes on under the hood with Dean Chynoweth, who was part of last year’s staff.
Gone are PK mainstays in forwards Alexander Kerfoot, Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari – plus defenseman Justin Holl and Luke Schenn – all of whom left the organization via free agency.
Holl was somewhat of a PK savant, especially in the playoffs when he thwarted a few cross-ice one-timers from Steven Stamkos with his rear-end.
Who will be on the Toronto Maple Leafs Top Penalty Kill Unit?
In the 2022-23 pre-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs flirted with center Auston Matthews on the PK. The experiment did not last long, but there is buzz that No. 34 may get some looks this coming season. Likewise for forward William Nylander, who has long been mentioned as a possibility when the Leafs are penalized.
Typically, teams employ three different combinations of penalty killing forwards that are rotated at 20-30 second intervals. This allows guys to stay fresher, but Keefe has shied away from using Matthews or Nylander in those roles, despite high-end talent like Connor McDavid getting the call for the Edmonton Oilers. McDavid is aggressive while on the kill and blocks a ton of shots.
The top PK-unit should again be anchored by the best all-around player on the Leafs, Mitch Marner. Odds are the head coach Sheldon Keefe will put Marner out there with third-line center David Kämpf, who he likes at the face-off circle (even if prowess at the dot is statistically a non-factor) and for his attention to defensive detail.
Look for Keefe to stick with Marner and Kämpf as the first two over the boards when the Leafs commit an infraction. Keefe has stated in the past that he likes Matthews going on the ice full energy after the Leafs successfully eliminate the man advantage.
The top defense pair should be T.J. Brodie and Jake McCabe, but look for Timothy Liljegren and Conor Timmins to push for more playing time on the PK.
Perhaps what the Leafs lack most come playoff time can be gained from giving the Leafs elite players a chance while there is a man in the box. When on the PK, Matthews and Nylander can attend to the gritty, greasy details like shot blocking, chipping pucks out of the defensive zone and tight checking. Those are the little things that add up to big wins.
Who are candidates for the Toronto Maple Leafs Second Unit?
Leafs forward Calle Järnkrok was effective at times last year and could be on a PK forward unit with speedster Sam Lafferty, who scored four total shorties as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks and Leafs last year.
Rookie forward Matthew Knies looked impressive against the Montreal Canadiens and picked up the first goal of the game on September 29, 2023, with a quick wrister.
It would be a great way for Keefe to give Knies some added responsibility and ice time, but don’t count on it happening, unless the Leafs have to deal with multiple injuries.
Noah Gregor, who is on a professional tryout with the team, didn’t kill many penalties for the San Jose Sharks in prior seasons, but know it may be the way he earns a roster spot.
“They lost quite a few penalty killers from last year. I think I can hopefully slot in there,” Gregor said, as per Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “Haven’t done a ton of killing in my career, but I think with my speed and my reads, I should be able to impact the team on the penalty kill.”
Veteran defenseman Mark Giordano should be rolled out with one of Timmins or Liljegren on the second-team penalty killing pair. Hopefully, Van Ryn can teach the Leafs’ defense how to clear the front of the net for whoever is in net for the Leafs.
Ultimately, as the old adage goes, the best penalty killer is the goaltender. Incumbent start Ilya Samsonov should start the opener at home versus the Montreal Canadiens but look for the Leafs to use a tandem similar to what the Boston Bruins did last year with Linus Ullmark, who won the Vezina for being the top goalie in 2022-23, and Jeremy Swayman.
The biggest beneficiary of that scenario would be rookie goalie Joseph Woll, who could push to be the Leafs No. 1 by the end of the season.
With respect to the Bruins, center Patrice Bergeron, who recently retired, and forward Brad Marchand, who both played on the team’s top line, were always on the top PK unit.
Something for Keefe to consider while he has time to kill before the season starts.