TORONTO – 27th. 29th. 30th. 30th. 28th. 28th.
Chained to the lower ranks of the league basement, the Leafs penalty kill has been a consistent source of despair in Toronto over the past six seasons, never ranking higher than fourth-worst in the NHL. But with better goaltending, new stewardship, and considerable change in personnel, the unit is finally trending upward and now ranks seventh-best overall thanks in part to a 92% success rate (47-for-51) over the past 16 games.
"We've got a lot of confidence in it," Carl Gunnarsson told TSN.ca before he and his teammates took off for Winnipeg on Monday afternoon. "We're being aggressive the way we want, and I think everyone knows exactly what they're doing out there. It feels good. When we get a penalty we feel pretty confident that we're going to kill it."
Nothing matters more to an effective penalty kill than goaltending and, to date, the Leafs have gotten a much sturdier performance in goal from their one-two punch of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens. The pair have combined to post a shorthanded save percentage of .875 this season, up from the paltry team mark of .843 a year ago. "Me and [Scrivens] would like to think that we're playing better and obviously we're working hard and we're part of it which is true," said Reimer, "but having said that it's the guys in front of us that are limiting the chances and just working their butts off.
"I have a confidence in the guys that they're going to work their butts off to block shots and keep shots to the outside for the most part. And if not and things get through they have a confidence in me that I might be able to make that save. There's that level of confidence."
Among the worst in the NHL in such situations a year ago with a meek .808 save percentage, Reimer has rebounded in fine fashion this season. To date, the 24-year-old has posted a stingy .889 save percentage with his team shorthanded, a mark that ranks seventh among goaltenders who have played at least 14 games. "I think we give up less chances this year on the penalty kill," he said. "If you have a .900 save percentage on the PK, less shots, less chances, there's going to be less goals."
New direction, attitude
Likely looking for a fresh, new perspective, Randy Carlyle reassigned controls of the penalty kill from one assistant coach in Greg Cronin to the more experienced Scott Gordon. Like Cronin, who helped spur some improvement from the group in the second half last year, Gordon has pushed for aggression. "If I had to pick one thing, it's probably we are 10 times more aggressive," Dave Steckel said of the most identifiable area of improvement so far. "I think we've been aggressive intelligently and that's the difference. We're not running around with our heads cut off chasing the puck. We are getting the puck where we want it, into pressure points where it's advantageous for us to get pucks, pressure it and allow us to get the puck down the ice 200 feet."
With increased fervor, intelligent aggression and a willingness to clog shooting lanes and block shots, the Leafs have been able limit quality opportunities to opposing power-plays and have done so at critical times.
Trailing by a goal in the third period against Pittsburgh on Saturday – the Leafs would come back to tie before losing in a shootout – the Toronto penalty kill erased a Nazem Kadri delay of game penalty. The kill was highlighted by a gutsy shot block on Evgeni Malkin from Gunnarsson.
"Power-play is a lot about skill and making plays and then PK is just sacrificing and showing you're doing all you've got for the team in another way than power-play," said Gunnarsson. "I put a lot of pride in that." Gunnarsson's effort helped wrap a perfect performance (3-for-3) against Pittsburgh's third-ranked power-play unit.
Change in Personnel
Of the 11 players who typically kill penalties for the Leafs this season, six are new recruits.
Jay McClement has been the most noteworthy and impactful of the additions, leading the team in shorthanded ice-time, and also ranking among the league leaders. He has been joined up front by the hyper-active Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk, who rarely killed penalties in Philadelphia, but was approached for a role by Gordon. Three former Marlies defenders in Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer have joined the complement on the back-end and played fairly prominent roles. They've been aided by holdovers from last season: Gunnarsson, Steckel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak, and Nik Kulemin.
While they rely most on McClement and Phaneuf, the Leafs have been effective at rotating fresh legs onto the penalty kill, the aforementioned 11 players averaging at least a minute shorthanded every night. "Obviously your goal is to kill for 20, 35 seconds, get a new group out there, see if you can get four groups out there and keep rolling the lines that you have been," said Steckel. "We've done a good job of that to this point and [the coaching staff has] done a good job of putting guys out and trying to get guys in."
As the Leafs go-to faceoff man – he leads the league in shorthanded faceoff wins, 59% in such situations – Bozak is employed with McClement on the primary forward pairing and is quickly replaced by Kulemin when he wins the draw. A varied combination of Komarov, Bozak, Steckel and van Riemsdyk typically follows with McClement rejoining the fold as often as possible. Phaneuf and Holzer have usually paced the group on defence, followed by Gunnarsson, Fraser and Kostka.
"I think as a group we let go of what happened last year," Steckel concluded of the 28th-ranked unit. "If you're going to approach it with the same mentality as we did last year you're not going to be too successful, just in that alone. Our confidence has picked up and obviously when you kill a significant amount of time and a lot [of power-plays] in a row you gain more confidence and it becomes second nature and I think that's what it's become for us."