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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO – Nearing the quarter mark of the regular season, the Maple Leafs’ special teams have been more liability than asset, with both the penalty kill and power play ranking well into the NHL’s bottom half.

That’s not the scenario the Maple Leafs expected to be facing, and turning both units back into weapons has become a top priority.

“[Special teams] haven’t been good enough, any way you look at them,” head coach Mike Babcock said after the Leafs’ practice on Wednesday. “They kind of look like our team; we're a work in progress. We think we can be way better in both areas, but that's great to say. We got to do it. 

We got a number of things that we’re trying to get done that we haven’t gotten done as quickly as we thought we would, but that's part of [improving].”

Through 16 games this season, Toronto ranks 20th in the NHL on the power play (17.3 per cent), and 26th on the penalty kill (75.4 per cent), putting them far below Babcock’s preferred threshold of sitting at least top-10 in both areas.

The penalty kill has been especially unsuccessful to start the year, allowing the second-most power-play goals against in the NHL (14). The Maple Leafs have hurt themselves with the sheer volume of penalties they’re taking, ranking eighth in the NHL with 60 minor penalties and 124 penalty minutes overall. At this time last year, Toronto was the least-penalized team in the league, clocking in at 103 penalty minutes and 49 infractions.

Meanwhile, the Leafs’ power play is 1-for-20 over the past five games and has continually struggled on zone entries and maintaining significant offensive zone time. John Tavares’ return to the lineup on Tuesday should help the power play’s prospects eventually, but Toronto was still 0-for-4 with the extra man in his first game back.

“The number one thing that will help our penalty kill is staying out of the box,” Babcock said. “And then our power play, get everyone back and let’s get rolling. We need puck speed, we need retrievals, and we got to be happy to shoot the puck and spend more time in the offensive zone.”

Looking back a year ago, Toronto’s specialty teams were one of the team’s greatest strengths. Through 16 games of the 2018-19 campaign, the Leafs’ power play was fifth-best in the league (27.3 per cent) and their kill was fourth-best (84.8 per cent).

Since then, Toronto has undergone significant changes in staffing and personnel, which has compounded some of its issues.

Assistant coaches Jim Hiller and D.J. Smith both left the organization last May, replaced by Paul McFarland as the power play guru and Dave Hakstol as the kill coach. Then Ron Hainsey, Toronto’s top shorthanded player the last two seasons, left for Ottawa in free agency last July.

Newcomer Cody Ceci is leading the way in shorthanded minutes per game (3:41), while Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner are all adapting to larger roles on the kill. Muzzin is averaging 2:47 per game now, up from 1:28 last season; Marner is at 2:44, up from 1:21; and Rielly logs 2:41, up from 1:05.

It's expected that Zach Hyman (ACL tear) will return to Toronto’s lineup in the coming week or so, giving the Leafs back one of their top penalty killers and alleviating some of the pressure on guys like Rielly and Marner, who also appear on Toronto's top power-play unit.

But to this point, the combination of new roles and a new system has presented a steep learning curve for the Leafs, which has been amplified by a landslide of self-inflicted wounds.​

“There are a few little things we can clean up, but it starts with taking less penalties,” said Muzzin. “We usually can kill three; the fourth one will bite you. So just move your feet more, because all our penalties were stick penalties. Once we get in that groove [on the kill] of no hesitation, no guessing about a read or a go, then we should smooth things out a little bit.”

“I think we're still kind of getting confused when [the opponent] gets to a certain point and when we should switch off,” Marner added. “But we’ve talked about those things. I thought our kill has been good, but we’ve been taking a lot of penalties throughout games. It’s something we’re trying to get better at. "

Given the amount of talent the Leafs have to pepper their power play with, including Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander, there’s a distinct air of underachievement with only nine man-advantage goals to the team’s credit so far.

McFarland coached the Florida Panthers’ second-ranked power play last season, and was expected to help the Leafs be just as dominant. So far, the players are still struggling to execute McFarland’s strategy.

“He’s been great,” Tavares said of the new coach. “He just continues to stay positive and he’s very detailed and gives us a good understanding of what we're looking to do, how we’re trying to execute and then staying with those details. He tells us to not try and do too much, stay patient, and let our creativity come off of that.”

If the Leafs can follow that plan, the kind of confidence they found last season on special teams should follow.

“We had such a good start in those areas last year, and when you have some early success, it just breeds momentum,” Tavares explained. “That can snowball, even when maybe things don't go well, because there’s always a trust that if you keep working you're going to find it back. We have to find a stretch where things all just click and come together, be a little bit sharper, have a little better execution and when we get our opportunities, want to put them in.”