Klingberg takes over as QB on Leafs' top power play unit
The Maple Leafs held a special teams practice on Saturday at the Ford Performance Centre. Toronto opens its pre-season schedule on Sunday afternoon in Ottawa.
There's a new point man on Toronto's top power-play unit. John Klingberg skated in that spot on Saturday, which pushed long-time quarterback Morgan Rielly to the second group.
"We know very well what it looks like with Morgan there," coach Sheldon Keefe explained. "We have a huge sample of that. It is something that we can go to at any time. We feel very comfortable with it. We don't know what it looks like with Klingberg. There are some different dynamics there. He is a right shot, which is probably the biggest change. Klinger has had a lot of success in that position as well over his career. We just want to use this as an opportunity to help Klinger to get comfortable. There is no better way to do that than to be with our best people."
Since entering the National Hockey League during the 2014-15 season, Klingberg has produced 158 power-play points, which is 11th among all defencemen.
"It's obviously been a huge part of my game my entire career," said Klingberg, who signed a one-year deal worth $4.15 million on July 1. "It's very exciting for me to come in and be able to be a part of that."
Toronto's power play converted on 26 per cent of its chances last season thanks to a stacked top unit, which features Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. The Leafs finished second overall behind only the Edmonton Oilers. With Rielly manning the point, the Leafs led the league at 27.3 per cent during the 2021-22 season. Despite that track record of success, Rielly understands the change.
"I've watched John play the power play for years now," the longest-serving Leaf said. "He's one of the best in the league. His patience and puck skills are unmatched. To add him to a group that already has those forwards is a unique opportunity and it's a great chance for our team to improve off of what we did last year and for him to make a huge impact."
Rielly has been taken off the top unit a couple times in recent years. During the 2020-21 season, Rasmus Sandin briefly got a look with the top unit, including in the playoffs. And shortly after replacing Mike Babcock during the 2019-20 season, Keefe aimed to jumpstart a struggling Tyson Barrie by promoting him to the first group. Both times Rielly took the demotion in stride and Saturday was no different.
"Morgan's probably one of the best people in the world just human-quality wise," Marner said. "I don't think anything gets him down. He wants this team to win as bad as anyone else. This happened before and nothing changed about his attitude at all. We're very lucky and fortunate to have a guy like that."
Rielly is hoping that Klingberg's addition will help the Leafs pass the Oilers and become the most dominant power play in the league. It won't be easy as Edmonton set a record by clicking at 32.4 per cent last season.
"With the players we have up front you aspire to have the best power play in the league every year," Rielly said. "We did two years ago and then I think we were up there last year and then ultimately Edmonton had the best one so that's the goal."
Rielly's power play unit on Saturday featured Max Domi, Calle Jarnkrok, Timothy Liljegren and Tyler Bertuzzi.
"Bertuzzi and Domi have a lot to offer the power play as well," Keefe stressed. "I thought that group looked really good here today in the practice. We have a lot of really good options there for both groups."
"Our unit isn't going to take our responsibility lightly," Rielly vowed. "We understand we're going to have to score and create momentum and so that's not something we're going to lose sight of."
Klingberg posted a career-low 10 power-play points last season as he struggled through a down year split between the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild. But his talent is evident.
"He's an experienced guy," said Matthews. "Extremely skilled offensively and a lot poise back there. He's pretty comfortable being in the position he is up top."
"His deception with it makes it very hard to defend him," Marner observed.
After main practice wraps …— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 21, 2023
New assistant coach Guy Boucher, who will oversee PP, feeding Auston Matthews
New d-man John Klingberg setting up Mitch Marner pic.twitter.com/hEAL4jcGPo
Klingberg credits his father and grandfather for convincing him to switch from forward to defence when he was a teenager.
"I was a forward until I was 14, 15 back home in Sweden," Klingberg recalled. "As I changed I think I can see the ice pretty good, what's ahead of me, and that's a huge part of my game ... I realized pretty fast I could still be offensive but playing from the back end."
Klingberg is hoping spending time around Matthews will help make him even more dangerous. He's planning to incorporate Matthews' pull-and-shoot technique into his game.
"It for sure helps seeing him up close," the 6-foot-2 Swede said. "That's something I've been working with on the blue line as well."
The Leafs got just one power-play goal from a defenceman last season.
Spencer Carbery, Toronto's power-play architect the last two seasons, is now the head coach of the Washington Capitals, so new assistant coach Guy Boucher will be overseeing things this year.
"What they've been doing in the past has been very successful and he said he wants to keep that, but maybe add a little bit more element of creating chaos in front of the net," Klingberg revealed.
Boucher created his own chaos by having the players pass around two pucks at once during a drill on Saturday.
"I haven't done that before," Klingberg said with a smile. "But that gets your brain going a little bit."
Boucher has the top PP unit working with two pucks during this drill pic.twitter.com/XThm09VP4d— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 23, 2023
Before the practice, Boucher sprayed orange lines inside the faceoff circle.
"It was markings to see where we want to end up after a shot and stuff like that," Liljegren said.
Later, pylons were added around the slot.
"Every coach has their own way of going about it and installing their principles and concepts," Keefe said. "This is what Guy has liked: to have some lines and direction ... You get the cones out there just to visualize some of the seams and what is available."
What sort of systematic changes are coming?
"I don't want to give away all of our secrets," said Marner. "We haven't played a game yet, but I think really putting our mindset on not getting away from the net, just trying to be downhill, try to be around the net as much as possible and create havoc."
Boucher had the second unit do push-ups at one point because they weren't moving the puck fast enough.
Guy Boucher is up to something as Leafs get set to start Day 3 of on-ice sessions at training camp pic.twitter.com/1KxkkAgG60— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 23, 2023
Keefe highlighted the fact Boucher has always been "passionate" about the power play when he served as a head coach in the NHL and also ran the power play for Team Canada at the World Juniors.
"You are always trying to get better," Keefe said. "Power plays were generally at an all-time high in terms of efficiency last season. A lot of penalty-killing coaches will be tightening up this off-season and making adjustments. You want to continue to grow that way. With a new coach coming in, it is a chance to add some different looks."
Keefe sees room to improve when it comes to being more consistently dangerous.
"We don't expect to take any sort of step back in our success rate," he said. "We also want to do better in the times when we fail on the power play, if that makes any sense, in terms of still putting pressure on the opposition, generating momentum, getting the opposition on their heels and having more pace. Those are all things you are looking to accomplish every time out. It is not always going to go in the net, but you want to have a great purpose every time out."
The Leafs are also experimenting with their penalty kill during training camp. Matthews, most notably, will see shorthanded shifts.
"I feel like the last couple years they came to me and, like, we talked about it and we just had enough guys there that that spot really didn't need to get filled," Matthews said. "It's something where I'd like to be in that position and play that role. You know, I think defensively I've come a long way [at] 5-on-5 and I think there's a lot of attributes I can add to the penalty kill."
Alex Kerfoot, Noel Acciari and Ryan O'Reilly departed in free agency. Acciari and O'Reilly formed the second forward PK unit in the playoffs. Kerfoot was on the second unit during the regular season.
"There is opportunity there," Keefe said. "I guess maybe 'opportunity' isn't the right word. For a guy like Auston, you make opportunities generally. I would say more that there is a need."
Matthews never killed penalties prior to arriving in the NHL and has only logged 24 minutes and 19 seconds shorthanded time over seven seasons. The Leafs toyed with the idea of using him in that role in the 2020-21 season, but quickly pulled back. Matthews only played three minutes and 29 seconds shorthanded last season.
"You're down a man, but at the same time, like, it's hockey," the Arizona native noted. "It's a lot anticipation, a lot of reads, and stuff like that. I feel like I got a good stick and can break-up plays. I'd love to be utilized on it. The last couple years there's always been talks and I've been in meetings and stuff like that, but it will be nice to get a fresh start."
Matthews took reps on Saturday while getting tips from Marner, a penalty-kill mainstay, and assistant coach Dean Chynoweth.
"Not bad," he said of his performance. "The more reps I get the better understanding, the better feel I'll get, and Deano's been great just kind of not piling on too much information all at once and just kind of letting me feel it out."
Auston Matthews getting some PK reps in beside Mitch Marner pic.twitter.com/6FT5JNWAab— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 23, 2023
A penalty-kill pairing of Matthews and Marner could become nightmare fuel for opposing power plays.
"When you go out there against guys like [Brad] Marchand and [Patrice] Bergeron on the penalty kill it definitely makes you think a little bit more maybe just because not only are they very good offensively but defensively they can knock pucks out of the air and force you to make plays in tough positions and transition the other way," Matthews said. "Obviously, we're not trying to score every time we're out there, but there's definitely a lot of opportunity there and something I definitely want to embrace. Another challenge for myself but something I’m very open to and I hope it works out."
There's no doubt Matthews has the tools to make it work. He led all NHL forwards in blocked shots last season. He's strong on faceoffs (52.4 per cent last year). The issue, though, is Keefe isn't sure penalty killing is the best way to maximize Matthews. It would mean fewer 5-on-5 shifts for one of the best centres in the game.
"Sometimes you want to be able to keep Auston for the first shift coming out of the PK," Keefe said. "That 5-on-5 shift is an important one and you can get a lot of favourable match-ups coming out of that when the other team has just finished with a lot of their top players on the power play."
For now, the focus is on making Matthews comfortable so he can be called upon if needed.
"We also want others to step up," Keefe said. "Depending on what the game is calling for, we can utilize different people in different situations."
Mark Giordano has switched to white tape on his stick in training camp.
"I was saying to the guys, 'Maybe I'll get some more passes if they mistake me for another player,'" the defenceman joked. "It's just changing things up."
It's been a while since Giordano used white tape.
"I started my career with white for like five or six years," the Toronto native said. "For whatever reason I changed to black and now I'm back to white. We'll see how long that lasts."
You can understand why Giordano is looking to change things up and perhaps channel some of his younger days. Last season ended on a sour note for the former Norris Trophy winner. His ice time dropped to single digits in the last three games of the series against the Florida Panthers.
With Craig Anderson retired, Giordano is now the oldest player in the league. He'll celebrate his 40th birthday on Oct. 3.
"I always said I wanted to play until I was 40 so I'm going to get there in a couple weeks," Giordano said. "That was a goal of mine. I think being the oldest guy in the league, you can look at it however you want to, but I better look at it in a positive way. I feel good. You know what, I feel it's an accomplishment, but more importantly I just feel like I can still contribute and play well for our team so that's what I look at."
Power play units at Saturday's practice:
Flanks: Marner, Matthews
Net front: Tavares
Flanks: Domi, Liljegren
Net front: Bertuzzi
Flanks: Robertson, Timmins
Net front: Holmberg
Flanks: Abruzzese, Villeneuve
Net front: Steeves