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Maple Leafs penalty killing sinks to new low

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson watches from the bench during their NHL preseason exhibition hockey game against Philadelphia Flyers in London, Ontario, September 17, 2009.

FRED THORNHILL

There are plenty of ugly, ugly statistics when it comes to the Maple Leafs this season, but none stick out quite as badly as that 68.3 per cent kill rate on the penalty kill.

Not only is it dead last in the NHL, it's on pace to be one of the worst marks in NHL history - especially when you consider the era it's occurring in. It's one thing to allow so many goals while shorthanded in, say, the high-flying '80s, when eight goals a game was the norm, but now?

Hockey statistician Gabriel Desjardins put together a list of the worst penalty killing teams in league history on the weekend, and the Leafs to this point are headed to finish third behind two terrible Kings teams that played in a far higher scoring era. Compared to the league average, Toronto's PK totals are the worst ever - and there's plenty of blame to go around. (Vesa Toskala is at the front of the line, in my mind).

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The Leafs have allowed 51 power play goals against this season, 10 more than the next worst team and 32 more than the Boston Bruins, who lead the NHL in the category. The average PK team this season, meanwhile, has a kill rate of around 82 per cent, which means Toronto would have allowed roughly 22 fewer goals against over 45 games if the Leafs were even mediocre when down a man.

(The average NHL team has also allowed 25 per cent of its goals while shorthanded, with the top teams around 20 per cent. Toronto's allowed one-third of its goals while shorthanded, which is also dead last in the league.)

The thing that's puzzling about how brutal the Leafs have been at killing penalties for some 120+ games is the fact that coach Ron Wilson landed in Toronto with a pretty sterling reputation in that department. The season he was canned by the Sharks, for example, Wilson (and assistants Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler, who both came with him to the Leafs) had led San Jose to the top of the PK charts with a 86 per cent kill rate.

Wilson's been around a long, long time (this is his 16th consecutive season as an NHL head coach), and the big PK drop from San Jose to Toronto made me wonder how his teams have fared all along the way.

Is his reputation as a top-notch PK coach well-earned?

Here's a look at how Wilson's teams, from Anaheim to Washington to San Jose and Toronto, have fared on the PK, both by NHL rank and by percentage:

It's a bit all over the map, as you can see. Wilson's coached some teams with excellent penalty killing and others that are, well, Leaf-like, really. Nothing has been quite as rotten as what we've seen this year.

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On average, though, his teams have come in right about average, ranked about 16th while shorthanded. The amount of variance there leads me to think that either (a) Wilson himself doesn't have a lot of influence over how good his PK is, or (b) coaches in general don't have as much to do with the PK as we've been led to believe.

This season, it's gotten to the point where many of the questions both Wilson and his troops are facing have to do with the PK. I talked to defenceman Ian White at length about it after the game in Buffalo on Friday, a 3-2 loss that involved all three goals against coming while down a man.

"It's got to be mental at this stage," White said. "I think we get out there, we get a little anxious and tentative. You're playing against usually the top five players on the other team and if you're a half a step behind, they're going to make you pay.

"We seem to close games pretty well, but it's just not good enough at this time of the season. We've got to play better from the start … as soon as we start killing penalties, it just kills all of the momentum that we make.

"It can't get any worse, that's the positive."

At this point, that might be the only one.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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