The Toronto Maple Leafs are coming off their best regular season since the 2003-04 season, due in large part to a special teams renaissance. For the first time since the 2002-03 season—10 years prior—the Leafs finished in the top half of the league in both power play and penalty kill efficiency last season.
As many discussed this past offseason, the Leafs play during five-on-five situations left much to be desired last season. They were consistently outshot, and if it hadn't been for their league leading shooting percentage, the Leafs play at even strength would have very likely cost them a playoff spot.
But unlike in previous seasons, where inept special teams play cost the Leafs countless games, the team's effectiveness in that area propelled them into the postseason.
In 2013-14, the story remains somewhat the same. The Leafs continue to be dominated in the realm of puck possession, but special teams and goaltending are once again bailing them out. While the penalty kill has fallen off in recent weeks, the team's power play remains a strength.
According to the standard efficiency ranking—simply power-play goals divided by total attempts on the power play—the Leafs own the fifth best power-play percentage in the league at 22.3 percent.
Power-play efficiency, however, is a misleading stat. If, for example, a team is penalized for a two-minute minor, and five seconds into the power play, their opponent is handed a two-minute minor penalty, both teams will end up with a five-second power-play opportunity.
Safely assuming neither team scores during their respective five second power plays, both teams will be considered going 0-for-1. Likewise, if a team is awarded a five-minute power play and doesn't score, they too will be considered going 0-for-1.
Equally misleading is the fact that five-on-four power-play opportunities are treated the same as five-on-three power-play opportunities.
|Toronto Maple Leafs GF/60 Breakdown|
|Situation||Minutes Played||Rank||Goals For||Rank||GF60||Rank|
Goals For per 60 (GF60) is a great way around the shortcomings of the standard power-play efficiency stat. Goals For per 60 is also an efficiency metric, but instead of being based on power-play opportunities, it's based on time spent with the man advantage.
The stat is also divvied up by situation, allowing us to sniff out if a team's efficiency is thanks to an inordinate amount of time spent on five-on-three power plays, for example. The numbers above suggest the Leafs power play should be able to sustain success.
The ability to get pucks on net on the man advantage is an important cog in a well run power play. So far this season, the Leafs have fired 194 shots on net while their opponent has been short-handed—13th most in the league.
The issue with shots on net as a raw stat during power-play situations is that it's heavily dependent on how many power-play opportunities a team gets. Naturally, the more time a team spends on the power play, the more likely they are to generate more power-play shots than a team that draws fewer penalties.
The more useful stat is Shots For per 60 (SF60). SF60 takes the number of shots a team puts on net per minute, in a given situation, and multiplies it over 60 minutes.
The Leafs have played just under 209 minutes of power play time in 2013-14, giving them the seventh ranked SF60 at 55.8—up from 48.5 from a season ago.
As a frame of reference, league leaders are generally in the mid-50s to low-60s, so if the Leafs are able to maintain this pace, they should find themselves amongst the league leaders in this area come season's end.
Speaking of shots on goal, something that sticks out about the Leafs power play this season, compared to past seasons, is the lack of shots and goals from the blue line.
|5-on-4 Power Play Shots by Leafs Defensemen|
|Season||Shots per Game||Goals per Game||Shooting %||GF/60|
Leafs fans are well accustomed to seeing their team setting up the power play with the purpose of freeing up the big blast from the point, whether off the stick of Dion Phanuef or Bryan McCabe. In each of the past three seasons, the Leafs have begun to move away from this strategy and have seen it pay dividends.
Plays like the one above have become more commonplace for the Buds. Because of the attention Phaneuf garners, open areas are being created down low for guys like James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel—and the Leafs are using it to their advantage.
Perhaps the lone concern for the Leafs in regards to the power play is their reliance on it. Nearly 27 percent of the team's goals this season have come with the man advantage—the eighth highest in the league—and are 4-12-2 when their power play gets shut out.
With minimal room for error in the ultra competitive Atlantic division, a dip in the effectiveness of the power play could be the difference between the Leafs playing playoff hockey and watching it on TV.