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|
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.
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