The Toronto Maple Leafs are known for their offense. This is a top-heavy team that will win or lose based on the performance of five key players (no order of significance): Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly.
Note that four of those players are forwards, which tells you a lot about the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They consistently have one of the best power plays in the NHL, but when playoff time comes, the Leafs problem has, for the last two years, been scoring, ironically enough.
One of the biggest differences between how head coach Sheldon Keefe, who has been an underrated bench boss, has deployed those players this year is on the penalty kill. Marner has been a mainstay, but so far this season, Matthews has spent an average of 1:43 minutes per game on the PK, while Nylander has spent about a minute less than No. 34.
Consider the first 20 games of 2023-24 as a prolonged biology test. Keefe will mix elements to see what precipitates. He will discard what doesn’t gel and ultimately will find the parts that coalesce the best. The early campaign games matter but more for being a breeding ground and less for style points.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Using Stars on the PK Could be Huge
The greatest-of-all-time, Wayne Gretzky, has a famous anecdote in which he reveals what finally propelled the 80s Edmonton Oilers over the dynasty New York Islanders. Back in the Long Island Coliseum days, the visiting team had to walk by the home team dressing room.
After falling to the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals, a deflated Gretzky shuffled down a corridor and caught a glimpse of the Islanders taking off their equipment. They weren’t celebrating. They were painfully removing elbow and shoulder pads. Bruises marked their skin more than spots on a cheetah. Gretzky was astonished and it hit him: this is what the Oilers needed to look like at the end of it all.
The Oilers won their first of four cups in five years the next season.
This is what the Toronto Maple Leafs need to understand. They need to block shots. They need to chip pucks out. They need to get in passing lanes and take the body.
Problem is that the Leafs best players, other than Marner, have not – to this point – been asked to kill penalties. Is there a better way for their star players to learn how to excel doing playoff hockey things than in a gritty, tough, pressure packed environment like the PK?
Plus, it gives Matthews and Nylander, who is off to the best start to his entire career, more ice time.
It seems that general manager Brad Treliving will try to keep this core intact for as long as he can. Hopefully, Treliving hasn’t priced the Leafs out of Nylander’s desired price tag.
If Treliving plans on paying four forwards half of the team’s allotted salary cap, then Keefe might as well play them to the bone – in every type of situation and definitely the type of paradigm that closely resembles playoff hockey. Maybe then the Leafs will be known for something more than scoring goals.