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Should Auston Matthews play on the penalty kill?

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A little 4 on 5 for #34 couldn’t hurt.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Are you a superstitious hockey watcher? I’m not really talking about wearing your favourite jersey or sitting in your favourite spot, because there’s a deeper level to one’s mentality when watching their team play.

For example, you know those moments when a goaltender is on a shutout streak, and then they have the little box up in the corner? Then you try not to look at it, but it’s just there sticking out at you, and as soon as you check, he gets scored on? Not a good feeling. It’s even worse when the play-by-play person mentions something, and then it happens in the other team’s favour.

Why do I bring this up? Well, Sportsnet’s Paul Romanuk and Greg Millen were having a conversation about penalty killers while the Leafs were shorthanded against the Philadelphia Flyers. Millen made the point that it’s beneficial for some teams to have an offensively-skilled player on the ice in four-on-five situations. That way, an offensive threat can be ready and waiting once an opportunity arises.

As fate would have it, on the Leafs’ powerplay, James van Riemsdyk's shot on Michael Neuvirth turned into a two-on-one chance against with Valtteri Filppula and Wayne Simmonds, and a Leaf lead turned into a 2-2 tie game.

I stewed on that moment for a while, but there was something else brought up in Millen and Romanuk’s penalty kill situation, and that was Auston Matthews.

First Name Auston, Last Name Killer

There are different components of being an effective penalty killer. Your first and greatest objective is keeping the puck out of your net. Coasts and arcs in the defensive zone aren‘t going to cut it as it’s mostly straight line skating and quick stops and starts. At the same time, sticks have to be in lanes, gaps between attacking and defending players have to be tight, and it helps to be able to anticipate plays, all in hopes of getting the puck out of the zone.

Matthews has always been touted as being a complete player and the stats don't lie. He leads all forwards on the team in blocked shots (39), sports a RelTCA/60 (Teammate Relative Corsi Against per 60) of -1.39 and a RelTCF% of 3.21. In a nutshell, he generates more shots than he allows.

With a defensive zone faceoff percentage of 60.5%, Matthews could be the perfect candidate for the ‘promotion’. Many have criticized Mike Babcock’s usage of the 20-year-old all season, especially his ice time and the extra minute or two could give him more room to create.

Now you may be thinking, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to be thinking about offence while killing penalties,’ and you make a fair point. However, goals against could be a cost of teams trying to score when shorthanded, or of making it a secondary objective.

Leafs fans, we’ve been on the wrong side of shorhanded scoring this season (Devils, Kings, Red Wings, Flyers, Senators). Look at the Florida Panthers who lead the league in shorthanded goals for with nine or San Jose, New Jersey, Edmonton, or Detroit who have seven apiece.

Matthews has killed penalties before, for Team USA at the World Hockey Championships in 2016 before being drafted. Marc Crawford - former Zurich Lions head coach - mentioned in an interview with Declan Kerin of Maple Leafs Hot Stove that penalty killing was an area of his game they would work on with him.

We had a lot of secondary practices on Mondays and Thursdays because our schedule was always conducive to that. We don’t have a tough schedule. That was another sales thing that we had for Auston and all the other young players that came to play for us, that you get this extra development with the second practice all the time. That’s where we worked on penalty killing with Auston. We worked a great deal on powerplay and powerplay options and powerplay positioning.

Other Stars Do It Too

If you look at the league, it’s not out of the question for a team’s star or key contributing players to kill penalties.

Penalty Kill Offensive Stats

Player Team PK Time PK Goals PK Assists Rush Attempts iSCF iHDCF
Player Team PK Time PK Goals PK Assists Rush Attempts iSCF iHDCF
Jacob Silfverberg Anaheim Ducks 73.7 1 1 1 10 4
Ryan Getzlaf Anaheim Ducks 21.25 0 0 0 0 0
Christian Dvorak Arizona Coyotes 64.4 0 0 1 4 3
Patrice Bergeron Boston Bruins 73.3 2 0 0 6 3
Brad Marchand Boston Bruins 71.3 1 1 2 4 2
Ryan O'Reilly Buffalo Sabres 63.5 0 2 1 2 1
Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres 40.8 0 2 0 0 0
Evander Kane Buffalo Sabres 37.7 3 0 7 7 1
Sean Monahan Calgary Flames 20.6 0 0 0 0 0
Jordan Staal Carolina Hurricanes 81 2 0 1 3 2
Jonathan Toews Chicago Blackhawks 81.2 0 0 0 2 0
Nick Schmaltz Chicago Blackhawks 57.4 0 1 2 5 4
Gabriel Landeskog Colorado Avalanche 74.3 0 1 2 2 2
Josh Anderson Columbus Blue Jackets 46.9 0 0 0 4 3
Tyler Seguin Dallas Stars 69.5 1 0 0 2 1
Jamie Benn Dallas Stars 61.7 0 1 1 5 2
Dylan Larkin Detroit Red Wings 93 2 1 1 12 6
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edmonton Oilers 80.6 1 0 1 3 0
Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers 65.5 0 3 1 7 5
Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers 27.8 2 0 1 3 2
Alexander Barkov Florida Panthers 85.9 5 0 1 8 6
Anze Kopitar LA Kings 99.5 0 1 1 4 4
Dustin Brown LA Kings 86.5 0 0 2 6 3
Mikael Granlund Minnesota Wild 87.8 0 1 1 6 6
Eric Staal Minnesota Wild 72.8 2 1 2 6 3
Max Pacioretty Montreal Canadiens 85.1 1 0 5 9 4
Viktor Arvidsson Nashville Predators 79.3 1 0 1 10 7
Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils 25.1 0 0 0 1 1
Mats Zuccarello New York Rangers 49.1 0 0 1 2 0
Mark Stone Ottawa Senators 56.5 1 1 3 3 2
Sean Couturier Philadelphia Flyers 92.4 0 0 1 8 5
Wayne Simmonds Philadelphia Flyers 57.5 1 0 0 2 0
Claude Giroux Philadelphia Flyers 33 0 0 0 3 1
Logan Couture San Jose Sharks 67.5 2 1 1 6 3
Brayden Schenn St. Louis Blues 30.1 0 0 1 1 1
Brayden Point Tampa Bay Lightning 98.4 2 1 0 5 5
Bo Horvat Vancouver Canucks 50.7 1 0 3 5 4
Riley Smith Vegas Golden Knights 78.25 0 1 2 6 3
William Karlsson Vegas Golden Knights 71.7 2 0 0 3 2
Nicklas Backstrom Washington Capitals 38.4 0 0 0 0 0
T.J. Oshie Washington Capitals 28.5 0 0 0 2 0
Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets 52.3 0 1 0 4 2
Mark Scheifele Winnipeg Jets 41.4 1 0 1 5 1
Stats of forwards who have seen at least 20 minutes of time on the penalty kill in the 2017-18 season

Not everyone has had the same level of production as say Evander Kane or Alexander Barkov, but the majority of them generate scoring chances for their team despite being down a man.

Now you don’t see Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos hopping over the boards each time the Penguins or Lightning take a penalty, but if some of these other guys can do it, why not Matthews?

Steve Dangle was kind enough to answer the same question in his latest LFR (Leafs won, by the way, WOOOO!) and he said:

Honestly I don’t hate that idea. Maybe not right now and Babcock seems to be very intentional with his ice time but I was watching Oilers-Cancucks last night. Connor McDavid was playing on the PK for the Oilers and low and behold he stole the puck and he got a breakaway. I’ve been watching the highlights and John Tavares got a shorthanded goal recently.

Steve brings up a fair point though in that it is Mike Babcock we’re talking about here, and he’s hasn’t been as open to change as we might like. Zach Hyman, Leo Komarov, and Connor Brown have gotten the brunt of the work shorthanded, but you have to wonder what kind of impact having #34 with them would do (or in place of Komarov). Perhaps Matthews killing penalties is something that’s tried out down the road or in a year or two. Or maybe I’m just talking myself into a false sense of optimism.

The Leafs have been a dangerous team offensively at even strength and on the power play. If you need an example, watch the highlights of the Senators game. Why not add Matthews to the shorthanded unit and give that a splash of danger as well?


Acknowledgements: Penalty kill and advanced stats from naturalstattrick.com