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Do the Maple Leafs need to get a little more dirty?

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Is their clean play keeping their own power play units idle?

New Jersey Devils v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs have a great power play, possible the best in the league. They just never get to use it.

This week started on November 19 with the first Columbus game, which had no power plays in it. In the two games that had penalties, none were called in the first period, and the count was three for one team and two for the other in both games. The Leafs had five power play opportunities in four games.

The coincidence of eight periods of penalty-free play out of 12 played might have brought attention to how few power play opportunities the Leafs get, but it’s not new.

The Leafs play it clean and so do their opponents

In 2017-2018, the leafs played the least power play minutes of any team with 359:49. Now, that could be good. The faster you score on the power play, the fewer minutes you spend on it. But the Leafs played the fourth highest amount of five-on-five time in the league with Carolina, Columbus and Edmonton ahead of them. Note that two of the three teams the Leafs played this week are on that list. The other thing they all have in common is that they are generally fast, young teams with skill up front deep into the roster (some more than others).

The team with the least five-on-five time was the Colorado Avalanche, and they spent the most time on the power play. They were second only to the Penguins in goals scored on the power play too. The Leafs, amazingly, were eighth.

Toronto scored one more power play goal than did the Capitals last year, and you may recall that the Leafs and the ultimate Stanley Cup Champions had an identical win/loss record and 105 points each in the regular season. The difference between them is that the Leafs played 96 minutes more at five-on-five and scored 17 more goals than the Capitals did in that game state. The Leafs were second only to Tampa in five-on-five goals.

The Leafs had the third fewest power play opportunities last year, with 224, and the Capitals had 244. The Leafs, in other words, got to the same points as the Capitals did by scoring much more at five-on-five and having to have a much better power play (or luckier one) to score nearly the same number of goals. They worked harder to end up in the same place.

You have to take to get

The Leafs are the blue dot, the Capitals the red.

What this chart shows it that there is a genuine correlation between power play opportunities for and against. In general, if you get more power plays than league average, which last year was 250, you also take more. At the very least, you take more than the Leafs did with very few exceptions.

This season is going just like last. The Leafs have the most five-on-five minutes per game played in the NHL with 49:40, and they have the second lowest power play time on ice per game played with 4:27. The Leafs have the fewest power play opportunities with only 63. You don’t even have to rate it out per game played. There are teams who have played three fewer games who have many more so far.

Leafs are the blue dot.

The Leafs don’t have the best power play in the league by percentage, they’re only ninth, but by shot rate, they’ve been sitting one and two with Winnipeg Jets for most of the season so far. Given the personnel on the job, and that shot rate, they are the best in the NHL at the thing they have done less than any other team this year.

How do you get more power play time

Back to last year, and the full season of game data: How did Washington make up for their not-quite Leafs-like power play and get to almost the same number of power play goals?

Tom Wilson.

When the Cup-drunk Washington Capitals signed the ordinary grinder-style third-liner that is Tom Wilson to a top-six goal-scorer contract last summer, Micah Blake McCurdy posted a chart of his results from that season and made the comment that Tom Wilson helps the Capitals transition away from five-on-five play. That dry observation stuck with me.

Last year, Wilson took 58 penalties and drew 52. It’s not a favourable differential, but given the Capitals’ overall special teams ability relative to their five-on-five play, 52 power plays or four-on-four opportunities worked in their favour even if they spent some time killing while Wilson was in the box.

Wilson had some help getting the Capitals out of five-on-five. Brooks Orpik took 30 and drew 15, Evgeny Kuznetsov took 24 and drew 17 and Lars Eller took 19 and drew 21. Every one of those guys has a reputation to go with their penalty taking. Lars Eller is the classic pest player who is just slightly dirty. Kuznetsov is the sort of highly-skilled forward who is hard to stop but who will just do things sometimes that make you think he hasn’t got his temper reined in very well. Orpik is bad at defending, but tough, and Wilson is … well, we know what he is.

And the Leafs? The nice, clean Leafs with four or five guys who could win the Lady Byng in any given year?

Roman Polak led the team in penalties taken last year with 22 and he drew only 8. People complained bitterly about his negative effect on the team, but 22 penalties isn’t even Kuznetsov territory. Next up was Nazem Kadri (of course) with 18 taken and 29 drawn. Third was Zach Hyman with 17 taken and 19 drawn. Mitch Marner was tied with Hyman for 19 drawn, as was William Nylander. Auston Matthews only had 18. Those three took very few penalties themselves of course.

Modern hockey thinking says taking fewer penalties is better and that a good differential from drawn over taken is ideal. Kadri last year was ideal. He took less than half the penalties he did the year before, but continued to draw close to the same number. That’s exactly what we want!

Or is it?

The makeup call is real

One thing we tend to do when we think about hockey is imagine a background state for the game that is unchanging, predictable and fair. But what’s predictable and fair about how penalties are called?

Noah Davis and Micheal Lopez published an analysis in 2015 that looked at the concept of the makeup call in the NHL. They found that the calls a referee has already made in a game influences their next call.

Hockey Refs Are Out To Get You (If They Already Got The Other Guy)

In their article they get into how the ref sees this phenomenon, but they also mention that a string of early penalties by one team will make the other team three times more likely to be called next. So the phenomenon of you have to take to get isn’t just something that happens at the team level, it happens at the game level.

The other thing that isn’t the same for every team is how good their special teams and goalies are. Instead of building a mental model of the game that says a good penalty differential is always what you want, we should be thinking about how valuable it is for the team to play some non-five-on-five hockey. If you’re the Los Angeles Kings, you don’t want a power play very badly. If you’re the Leafs, you do.

Transitioning out of five-on-five, where they were less effective, may have helped the Capitals win games last season. We know having some more power play opportunities will give the Leafs more goals. But is the price worth it? If that price is some more time spent killing penalties, perhaps it is worth it.

The Leafs penalty kill percentage is fourth best in the league this year, and they’ve only given up 11 goals shorthanded. They’ve scored two. In terms of shot rates against (CA60), they’re 20th, so not great, but not horrible. Their save percentage on the kill is a little better. It’s very difficult to measure effectiveness of penalty killers because they do it in so few minutes, and the percentage method tells you the results, not what to expect in the future, but the Leafs certainly seem to do close to league average on the kill, and close to exceptionally elite on the power play itself.

Gaming the system

If the Leafs took more penalties, they might get some makeup calls and some angry opponents who take some of their own. The Leafs would get to use their elite skilled shooters to shoot some fish in the barrel more often.

How do you do that, though? Unleash the Kadri!

It may be that having Kadri get more disciplined was a bad idea. But beyond him, they need more guys drawing more penalties. There are two main ways players draw penalties in large numbers, and it’s easy to figure out from who succeeds at it. Here’s this year’s leaders in penalties drawn:

  • Aleksander Barkov
  • Nate MacKinnon
  • Brad Marchand
  • Nikolaj Ehlers
  • Warren Foegele
  • Brendan Gallagher
  • Connor McDavid
  • Johnny Gaudreau
  • Elias Pettersson
  • Evander Kane
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
  • Filip Forsberg

Nazem Kadri, who leads the Leafs again, is 22nd. So you either have to be so good you can’t be stopped, like MacKinnon, or so bad you can’t be tolerated, like Marchand. Some players are some of both. Yes, I mean you, Brendan Gallagher.

If you go look at last year’s chart again, way out at the tip of the trend line with a slightly negative differential is the Colorado Avalanche. They spent a lot of time on the power play, and MacKinnon helped get them there by drawing a lot. But he also took a lot. His wingers, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, also took a lot of penalties last year. The three of them transitioned the team out of five-on-five, where they were very weak beyond their top line, and into special teams play.

In some ways the Leafs do that too: Matthews, Nylander, Marner and Hyman all took or drew well last year, but the overall scale of their efforts is too small. Of the top line players on the Leafs this year, only Kadri takes penalties in any number, and with a cadre of nicely-behaved puck-moving defenders, they have nobody to cause trouble on the blueline either.

It isn’t certain you can game this system. I can’t tell you for sure that if Mitch Marner hooked a little more or John Tavares tripped a few more guys, they will get more power play time out of the deal from retaliation, but I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t make the overall differential worse. The makeup call can be counted on most of the time.

The Leafs are a young, fast, and talented team. They should not be leading the league in never being on the power play. Maybe they should be unleashing their inner agitators a little more. Somewhere between what they do now and Tom Wilson’s brand of hockey might be the sweet spot. To find it, the Leafs need to get just a little more dirty.