Special teams Leafs Achille's heel

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:08 PM ET

TORONTO - Forwards unwilling to stand in front, defencemen who won’t get into the lanes and goaltenders unable to deliver the big saves.

All are the maladies linked to Toronto’s dismal special teams, an open wound that once again factored in a sixth non-playoff season, notably in this year’s first half.

It’s the area general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson vowed to clean up in Year 3, but it wasn’t until the end of the schedule that some progress was made, at least on the penalty kill front. Heading into Saturday’s final game against the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs are ‘improved’ to 27th overall after two years at the bottom of a 30-team pile.

Almost all tenets of reliable PK performance have been hard to achieve since the Pat Quinn days, starting with a goaltender who could see above and around traffic, find rebounds and be on the same page as the defence and forwards. Key draws were being lost and Toronto wasn’t helping its own cause by carving a path to the penalty box.

Coming out of the lockout when referees were whistling anything suspicious in the ‘new’ NHL, Toronto was sometimes short five or six times a night. It has been under 300 chances a year of late, but for a team on the wrong end of so many one-goal games in that span, it hasn’t been good enough.

Burke has again fingered special teams as an area of concern in 2011-12, but once more refused to lay the blame solely at the feet of Wilson and his staff. He has called the problem a “blend” between Xs and 0s on the board and the names those letters represent.

Clubs once measured special teams by whether the raw penalty killing and power play numbers added up close to 100. In other words, an 80% kill rate and a 20% showing with the man advantage meant you were going places. By that standard, Toronto’s last good year was 2005-06 when 101.4 was their mark, based mostly on having the NHL’s second-best power play.

In every year since, neither unit has been better than 15th in the league.

“It didn’t matter what we did,” one Leaf penalty killer bemoaned last season. “If we had a perfect 1:45, it always seemed something bad happened in the last 15 seconds.”

But you’re preaching to the converted in the dressing room when mentioning the urgency to address the issue.

“You need the timely kills and the big power play goals, too,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “At the end, we had more confidence, more overall fight and compete in us. No matter who it was, a top end team in the league, we had the confidence to beat them.”

A second-half change in goal to James Reimer worked wonders and the Leafs were getting the requisite success in the dots from centres Tim Brent and Tyler Bozak .

“Getting (big defenceman) Keith Aulie helped, too,” Wilson noted, “and Mikhail (Grabovski) and Nikoli (Kulemin).

“We’ve been comfortable with it. There will be the occasional night it doesn’t work and it blows up your numbers, but we had a lot of nights where we didn’t give up any (goals) and that was really important.”

Since Bryan McCabe’s booming shot was removed from the power play a few years ago, the griping at partner Tomas Kaberle’s penchant for passing increased. Kaberle was the common denominator on a power play that saw many peaks and valleys since 1999, but he, too, is gone. Only four times since the trade with Boston did Toronto get man-advantage goals in consecutive games.

So it’s not Kaberle’s fault and for a change it wasn’t a reluctance to go to the front of the net, as many Leafs couldn’t or wouldn’t do. This year’s stumbling block was often bullish shooters lowering their heads and driving pucks right at forecheckers. They couldn’t get pucks through to Leafs camped in the crease and only served to pump up the other team’s shot block stats. But with Joffrey Lupul’s arrival there is more optimism and Wilson likes Carl Gunnarsson’s work as Kaberle’s load is re-distributed.

“Gunner really moved the puck the way we need to,” Wilson said. “That’s got Dion Phaneuf more into a one-timer situation, which he’s good at.”

If they were starting playoffs next week, all that would be cause for encouragement. But another six months off is a long time for bad habits to return.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/sunhornby


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