Players gone and new coaches brought in. To say the Leafs special teams needed extra work to get it right this season would be an understatement, but so far so good for the new-look Leafs power play.
It’s a lot more complicated than Steve Dangle summed up in his most recent YouTube video on the topic. Sure, the Leafs “just switched” Matthews and Marner in the diamond PP set up, but there is more going on in the new set up for the Leafs overpowered special team unit.
To start from the top, the Leafs have revamped their top power play unit for the season. Last year, Morgan Rielly patrolled the blueline as the high man, Auston Matthews was anchored on the left-wing as the one-time option, Nazem Kadri was the bumper man in the middle, John Tavares was the screen/tip man in close, and Mitch Marner operated the rightwing but also roamed as the free playmaker.
This year the set up is similar with a few tweaks that are proving bigger than the sum of their parts. Matthews and Marner have swapped wings, Tavares is now the bumper man in the high slot, and Andreas Johnsson is in the crease taking Tavares’ previous position and filling Kadri’s roster gap.
The first three games have seen Matthews notch two goals, Marner one, and Nylander one on the second unit. Both of Matthews’ goals have come on ridiculous releases that saw Anderson and Korpisalo look helpless when feigning the ability to stop them. Against the Senators, a recovered offensive zone draw freed Marner to no-look spin pass to Matthews on the rightwing. His offhandedness cut down on time between pass and shot, handcuffing the goalie further.
Matthews’ second PP goal of the season came against Columbus, moments after scuffing two chances from the leftwing. Once flipped back to his inverted side, Matthews took the feed from Rielly and placed a wicked wrist shot off the back bar of the net. Again, the inside angle from his left shot gave him the leverage and release point to score both goals.
Marner and Tavares also have new roles in the team. Marner is still the roaming wide man, but he has a responsibility to shoot more often now on the leftwing. His goal was created by working with newly positioned Tavares in the high slot on a one-two pass and shoot play. Giving the puck to Tavares, a fine shooter himself, forced Korpisalo to commit to the pass. When it was returned to Marner the net was open for the one-timer goal.
The Leafs new power play has developed into a three-headed monster instead of a one-dimensional shooting set up. Don’t get it twisted, the primary option is still to have Matthews unleash his shot, but getting Tavares into a more dangerous shooting area and inverting Marner as well forces opposition penalty kill lines to spread coverage to try and limit all three shots.
Johnsson is more or less a body to screen shots and mix it up in the crease. He is extremely replaceable in this role with Ilya Mikheyev a likely option considering his size and hands in close. Rielly, on the other hand, is the quarterback and mastermind on the top unit. Barrie offers another option for this position but there is no need to take Rielly off the top unit due to his chemistry with his linemates and ability to chip in offensively as good as any of his teammates.
Skill tends to trump the shot in modern-day NHL hockey, but the Leafs commitment to setting up a mid-zone trio of lethal shooters in Matthews, Tavares, and Marner will yield unheard of power play tallies this season.