Maple Leafs shaking up disappointing power play
For all the aces he could play on the Maple Leafs power play, Mike Babcock is shuffling the deck.
Take away a 3- for- 3 night against the Florida Panthers before Christmas and it’s 2- for40 the past five weeks, 1- for- 15 of late and ranked behind four other Eastern Conference teams overall. There have been recent dry seasons where the Leafs would consider better- than- 22 per cent production reason to give bonuses to their assistant coaches, but not when top drawer talent such as Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner are capable of more.
So, Babcock flipped Matthews with Kasperi Kapanen at practice, to play the slot and wall with Tavares and Nazem Kadri hovering down low. The switch utilizes Kapanen’s speed and might restore a bit of the Matthews– William Nylander 5- on- 5 chemistry with the second group given more real estate.
Whatever the case, it can’t hurt as Babcock watched recent game video with no one home to tip point shots that went wide and exited the zone, while other teams began cutting off the Marner to Matthews puck pipeline.
“It wasn’t going the way we wanted,” summed up the coach. “When you ( stack) one group, you don’t have as much competition. I still like when you have two and compete to see who’s out there. We’ll see how it goes, we can always change back at any time.”
This move comes as the second half of the season begins and the countdown to the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline. The rumour mill is heating up the Leafs might pursue hometowner Wayne Simmonds to provide bottom six muscle — and a power play net presence. He’s no spring chicken at age 30, but has almost 100 power- play goals.
In admitting their shortcomings, the power play participants do credit the opposition with using the modern tools of the pre- scout to dissect their strengths after early season success.
“Everybody watches video,” Matthews said. “Sometimes, something works for one game, you feel good and next game, that play’s not there. Maybe we got a bit too stale, bringing the same thing over and over again. It’s important to switch it up, give them something different to put ( the penalty kill) back on their heels. I have no problem with the switch.”
Matthews will be with Nylander, Andreas Johnsson and Patrick Marleau, with Jake Gardiner as the defenceman. Johnsson and Kapanen are Matthews’ current even strength wingers.
Marner and Rielly lead the team with 14 power- play points, Matthews has 11.
To illustrate the Leaf conundrum with the extra man, they have 13 goals in two wins so far against Thursday night’s foe, the New Jersey Devils, but are 0- for- 7 on the power play against them heading into Newark.
“It’s a good opportunity for both units,” Tavares said. “Whatever adjustments teams make, we’d like to believe in our ability and our foundation to overcome that. ( On the power play) we’re the team with one extra guy, we want to take advantage of that.”
Morgan Rielly, left, defends against Auston Matthews on Wednesday during a Maple Leafs practice in Toronto.