TORONTO – It's been a black hole in Toronto since the second NHL lockout ended, save for one fleeting bright spot last season.
Second-best in 2013, the Maple Leafs penalty kill has tumbled right back to the bottom of the NHL this season, second-worst in a league of 30 teams. Since the beginning of November, the unit boasts a very unflattering 73 per cent success rate, yielding 13 goals alone in the past 15 games.
No team, in fact, has allowed more power play goals this season (43).
"The biggest negative is we're giving up too many goals," said head coach Randy Carlyle of the beleaguered penalty kill. "That's an area we definitely have got to improve on to give ourselves a better chance [to win]. You can't and we do not believe that you can give up a power play goal to the opposition every game and have success."
Success a year ago, in which they killed off an impressive 87.9 per cent in the lockout-shortened 48-game campaign, was a true rarity. In the seven seasons between the last two lockouts – from 05-06 to 11-12 – the Leafs never had a penalty kill finish higher than even 24th overall – sitting 24th, 27th, 29th, 30th, 30th, 28th, and 28th.
And yet despite employing most of the same personnel as last season – with Jay McClement, Nik Kulemin, Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf absorbing the bulk of minutes (new Leaf Tim Gleason proving an added resource) – the results, oddly, have not followed.
In their most recent failing, the Leaf penalty kill allowed a pair of power play goals in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Jets – the eighth time they've allowed two or more in a game in the past 40 outings.
"If we string together a couple games with a good PK, confidence rises," Gunnarsson said. "If you have a couple bad games where they score 50 per cent on us, that confidence goes down."
According to Extraskater.com, an advanced statistics website, the Leafs are allowing the most shots in the league on the penalty kill per 60 minutes (four-on-five situations), nearly 50 per cent more, in fact, than they did last season. The goaltending, while not quite at the superb level of a year ago – when they held the second-best save percentage in four-on-five situations – has remained just about average (12th best) despite the increased workload.
One obvious drop-off from last season is the faceoff circle, specifically with Tyler Bozak, the team's primary faceoff employee.
Bozak, who is used almost exclusively for the draw before darting off in favour of Kulemin, has won a scant 36 per cent of his shorthanded faceoffs this season (34-96), down from a stellar 53 per cent mark in 2013. McClement, a 50 per cent marksman last season, is down only slightly at 47 per cent.
Losing more faceoffs, quite simply, means more time spent in-zone defending which results in fatigue, more shots against and thus, more goals for the opposition.
"It seems like if we have six minutes [shorthanded] a night, we're doing a good job for five and a half [of those minutes]," said McClement, "and then we don't get a puck down [the ice] and we have tired legs and it's hard for us to kill the way we're supposed to kill with tired legs."
Though the group believes it has upped the requisite aggressiveness of last season in recent days, they've often found themselves burned by a simple mistake, such as a failed read or clear. Against the Jets for instance, it was an inability to pick up a hot-charging Blake Wheeler on the first goal, a failure to intercept Tobias Enstrom's point-pass to an unchecked Bryan Little in the slot on the second.
"It feels like we're doing some good things," McClement said. "We're pressuring better and pressuring smarter in the right situations, it's just those little tiny breakdowns that are costing us goals."
Countering the woes of the Toronto penalty kill has been an exceptional power play, one that ranks amongst the top five in the NHL this season.
"We're aware of where our penalty kill is at and we're aware that we have to be better on it," said Phaneuf. "We have let it slide and that's our job to get it back."