In a season as short as this, you don’t really have much time to experiment. Especially when every game is, in essence, a 4 pointer. The Leafs’ power play last season was the 6th best in the league, scoring at a rate of 23 percent, pretty good. It was even better after Mike Babcock got fired as Sheldon Keefe moved William Nylander up to the first unit to play with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Under Keefe, the Leafs’ power play scored at a roughly 26 percent clip, which would’ve been good for 2nd in the league, behind Edmonton. The Leafs 4 stars played 101 of the 162 power-play minutes the team had last season, despite only being a unit for less than 50 games. Not even Tyson Barrie’s brutal point shots could ruin the chemistry and skill that the power play had. They were dynamic and downright dominant at times. This year though, Keefe decided to change things up.
The Leafs signed two players in the offseason who used to be great players in the NHL but are now a shell of their former selves. Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds can be valuable to an NHL team in 2021. I don’t think anyone would argue against that, but if they are on your first power-play unit, your team isn’t very good. I’m not sure if Keefe is trying to make them feel involved or if he genuinely believes that splitting up the power play is a good idea. Whatever it is, the first two games have shown that the head coach is overthinking it. Every elite power play in the league not only stacks their top unit but plays them for 80 percent of the man advantage.
The Oilers had the best power play in the league last season, unsurprisingly. They scored on almost 30 percent of their power plays. Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were on the ice together for about 75 percent of all Oilers’ power-play minutes. It’s not a coincidence. It’s so hard to score at even strength nowadays, and because of that, you need to take advantage of your power plays. The best way to do that is to play your best players as much as you can. Look at the Canucks, the Bruins and the Lightning. They all do the same as the Oilers and with similar success. If the Leafs have one thing going for them, it’s their elite talent, and it’s crucial they use it.
I highlighted how excellent the Leafs’ power play was last season, and it’s continued to be solid this season with 4 power-play goals in 2 games. But the numbers are a bit flawed. Those goals have come from Nylander X2, John Tavares and Zach Hyman, assisted by Nylander and Tavares. It was very telling to see that when the Leafs got a power-play chance that they desperately needed to score on late in the game yesterday, the big boys were out there. To no one’s surprise, they scored almost instantly. It was the same scenario on Wednesday night when the Leafs got a 5 on 3. Out went Tavares, Nylander, Marner and Matthews, and again, almost instantly, the Leafs scored.
If I was Sheldon Keefe, I’d honestly put Hyman out there instead of Rielly and just let Marner run the point, but I doubt we ever see that happen.
The 2021 Leafs power-play stats are honestly hilarious to look at. In 1 minute and 39 seconds of power play time, the big 4 have 2 goals. In almost 7 minutes with a man advantage, the Matthews, Marner, Simmonds Thornton power-play unit has 2 high danger chances. Put Big Joe, Wayne Train and Spezza on power-play 2 and give them 30 seconds at the end of each power play to put something together. You’re trying to win hockey games, not appease veterans’ egos. The Leafs have a lot bigger issues than the power-play, but it would help mask everything else. The problems at 5 on 5 are worrying, but I don’t think it’s too complicated to figure out the issues. I’m hoping that rock bottom for the 2021 season was the performance against the Senators on Friday. If the right changes are made, the season should be mostly joyous from here, with some bumps along the way. It is the Leafs, after all.