The Maple Leafs are not the worst penalty-killing team ever — but they’re damn close to it.
And the statistical company in which they keep is hardly encouraging.
The Leafs slipped below the 70% mark the other night in Philadelphia and this isn’t school.
A 70% success rate is not acceptable when you’re playing a man short. It puts the Leafs in the shocking category of only two teams — both Los Angeles Kings, by the way — since the National Hockey League began keeping penalty killing statistics in the 1967-68 season.
And no matter how you do the math, this has to rank as a personal embarrassment for coach Ron Wilson — whose Washington Capitals once set an NHL record for fewest power-play goals against and whose San Jose team led the league in his final season with the Sharks — who takes great pride in his ability to teach. At the current clip, the Leafs are on their way to being the third worst penalty-killing team in NHL history.
“It’s maddening,” said Tim Hunter, the Leafs assistant coach, who exuded intensity in his playing career but has been unable to translate any of that to this ill-equipped team.
“It doesn’t shock me (that our statistics are that bad). Believe me, we know what the numbers are. About 15 times, we’ve given up two power-play goals in a game.”
They gave up three against Philadelphia Wednesday night.
“It’s not one guy,” Hunter said. “It’s not the goalie. It’s not the defencemen. It’s not the forwards. It’s everybody.”
Understand this: Of the five worst penalty-killing teams in history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, none had more than 74 points in a season. The depressing average of the five man-shot challenged teams: 61 points per season. If the Leafs don’t find a way to improve their penalty killing in the second half of the NHL season, they will certainly be handing a lottery pick like Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin or Cam Fowler to Boston.
“We can’t take penalties,” said the normally say-nothing defenceman Tomas Kaberle, “if we can’t kill them.”
This is not the hockey team Brian Burke promised. This is not a team of truculence. This is a team that was punished out loud by its coach at yesterday’s practice and belittled because it doesn’t compete often enough or hard enough or both.
Hunter attributes the Leafs’ terrible penalty killing to “lack of effort. We’re using the same system we used in Washington when we set a record for the least power-play goals against and the same system we used to kill penalties when we were No. 1 in the league.
“It takes time and it takes willingness. It’s sacrifice. It’s blocked shots. It’s getting underneath sticks. It’s being aware where passes are going. It’s boxing out guys around the net and competing.”
Other than that, all is well.
The implication from the coaches is they are teaching this, and the players aren’t responding, competing or doing what they are taught. Some players roll their eyes when asked about what’s wrong with the penalty killing.
All of which has the makings of a possible team divide — you have to play more to play better, you have to play better to play more — but that’s always the danger of doing what Wilson did yesterday with his team. He went out of his way to publicly send a message.
Sometimes that works. Most of the time it doesn’t.
Normally, you can make the case that penalty killing is something coaching can solve — only the Leafs have been unable to solve their problems a man short with either Wilson or Paul Maurice coaching, with almost anyone in goal, and with all kinds of combinations up front and various ways of going about it.
“I don’t know what style of penalty kill we could play with guys who aren’t willing to compete and fit a style around that,” Hunter said. “If you don’t have guys willing to compete it doesn’t matter.”
SIX WORST PENALTY-KILLING TEAMS IN HISTORY
1. 79-80 Los Angeles Kings 67.7%
2. 82-83 Los Angeles Kings 68.2%
3. 09-10 Toronto Maple Leafs 69.7%*
4. 78-79 Washington Capitals 70.3%
5. 84-85 Vancouver Canucks 70.5%
6. 78-79 Colorado Rockies 71.1%
*Leafs PK statistics are after 44 games.
Source: Elias Sports Bureau