An Opinion and Analysis: [email protected]
LEAFS: STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Everything I’ve seen so far about what Sheldon Keefe is doing and plans to be doing with the Leafs sounds very good to me to improve the team’s performance and maximize the skills they have in the top players.
Many of his technical plans are supported by analytics (e.g. time of puck possession by zone, expected goals for and against, entry and exit analyses) but does he have the horses to execute his offensive and defensive plans?
Here are a few key questions and suggested answers.
- Lead like a players’ coach – yes
- Build confidence in the players to trust in each other and the coaches, so the players feel freer and more creative on the ice – yes
- Ensure a superior work ethic on every shift – so far so good
- Understand that mistakes will be made but learn from them and don’t fear making them – yes
- Mental toughness when they score, no fragility or sag – so far so good
- Have fun, be loose and focused at the same time – so far so good
- Take away the opposition’s will to win by skating them into the ice – so far so good
- Dominate puck possession with speed and skill – so far so good in the offensive zone
- Win more loose pucks with speed than they do – sometimes yes, sometimes no
- Win stick puck battles and takeaways with speed – so far so good
- Hound the puck to get it back – so far so good
- Get more Grade A and AA shots (expected goals) than they do by great puck movement, bringing defencemen into the offensive cycle and creating open spaces for passes and shots – so far so good but have yet to play the best teams under Keefe
- On offensive zone entries look for the open late player in the opened spaces – so far so good but watch the best teams adjust to this by covering the back pass
- Swing a forward high at their blueline when in the offensive zone between the two wide defencemen to open up space for a wider cycle to confuse opposition coverages and play 2 on 1 their defending forward – yes
- Think 5 player plays everywhere – yes
- Shoot on net from everywhere looking for rebounds crashing the net – yes
- Defencemen reasonably pinch at and play down low from their blueline to maintain offensive pressure and make plays with a forward covering – yes, but watch the best teams convert shots on net puck retrievals and failed cycles into odd man rushes
- Pass strong side to the wide forward weak side for the one timer – top teams will begin to close these passing lanes
- Free up the defence to come as the 4th forward and together create open spaces to set up Grade A scoring chances – yes, but top teams will play more physical here
- More patience with play making to gain entry into their zone with puck possession, regroup back if you have to to reset the entry or dump-in play – doesn’t have to always be north- south with quick counter attacks, more east – west strong side to weak side – yes, but watch the best teams begin to play a more aggressive 2 – 3 coverage with tighter gaps on the Leafs regroups back to make the Leafs neutral zone passing more turnover prone
- Tenaciously protect the red line and our blueline making it harder for them to enter our zone with puck possession – force dump and chase as there is usually less than 50% chance of them regaining puck possession – sometimes
- Backcheck with speed getting in front of their rush and the puck- sometimes
- Make it hard for the opposition to cycle the puck in the Dzone by tight coverage using speed and agility protecting the Grade “A” scoring area and pushing their puck cycle to the outside – needs work
- Take away time and space for them to pass and shoot accurately – needs work
- Tighten up in the defensive zone bringing the wingers lower to protect the house and move side to side as the puck does to protect net front – yes, but more forwards have to block shots from the open points
- Find the breakout pass in the Dzone, D to D or at the ½ boards or net front and don’t always use the stretch breakout play that results many times in a dump and chase with little forechecking speed – yes
- Reduce the number of turnovers in the Dzone – needs work – In the past 3 games against Edmonton (lost), Islanders (won) and Winnipeg(won) there were 14, 21 and 20 turnovers in the Dzone, about twice as many as there should be reasonably
Keefe has made good changes to both the power play and penalty kill that have statistically proven themselves to be big improvements with PP goals minus PK goals against being a good plus number.
On the other hand there are defensive risks to all or part of the team with different skill sets playing this high risk offensive puck possession style game, some of which was outlined above.
- How many of the Leafs players actually can be said to have superior speed and other skills and offensive – defensive balanced risk judgment compared with teams like Boston, Washington, Islanders and St Louis to execute the above style and systems consistently. Maybe Matthews. Tavares, Marner, Hyman, Engvall, Holl and Reilly have the skill or potential but what about the other forwards and defencemen? Should all players play the same offensive higher risk 5 player puck possession style? If they try, against the few top teams too many turnovers and too many opposition scoring opportunities would likely happen everywhere in my opinion, and we have already seen that. They are happening now in the Dzone 5 on 5 after 100% puck possession at a rate of about 14+ per game on average, causing goals against, and that’s not only against the top teams
- Far more breakaways and odd man rushes appear to be happening with defencemen playing as the 4th forward almost all the time on the rush and low in the offensive zone which can be managed with great goaltending against average talent scorers on teams several games over 500 and under 500 but not against the top teams best scorers.
- In playing this high puck possession explosive offensive style, it is difficult for players to consistently judge when to safely anticipate transition to offence from defence when we are about to get or just have attained puck control in our end. This judgment becomes a critical piece in catching the other team in a vulnerable defensive position because converting to offence too early may leave some of their players uncovered in our Dzone upon turnovers, particularly against the top teams
- When one of our defencemen joins the rush in the Nzone too early and an Nzone turnover occurs it’s a problem against the top teams, not so much against teams just over or under 500
- When a pinch at the opposition’s blueline fails and no forward is there to assume the defenceman’s position, top teams will convert that to a goal way more than teams just over or under 500. And even if a forward is there to cover he usually is not as skilled defensively as a regular defenceman to consistently defend the rush
- When the offensive play develops in the Ozone and we commit all 3 forwards low, and also a defenceman sometimes against top teams odd man rushes will occur more often
- When consistently hitting the high man late on an entry in the Ozone against top teams with equivalent of drop passes will work many times effectively against teams just over or under 500, against top teams this play will be read more often and will lead to odd man rushes against
- As the 82 game regular season schedule moves on to playoffs can any team maintain a high level speed and puck possession game 3 or 4 times a week month after month without burning out. I doubt it particularly in the playoffs when the game changes to a lot more contact hockey and almost all good top teams decide to play way more physically to slow the Leafs down
- Offensive players in any sport are normally hot and cold or average some of the time. In the cold times if too many on the top 2 lines are cool, games will be won or lost on superior defensive play and goaltending
- Offensive style high speed and puck possession players are sometimes less durable than bigger and slightly slower defensive type players and harder to replace if a team loses one or more of them to injury
Will more goals be scored for us taking the above higher defensive risks than will be scored against us? So far so good under Keefe. Against teams under 500 and a few games over 500 the answer is “yes” but against the top few teams probably “no” in my view. These are all risks probably worth taking with our top 2 lines but when breakdowns occur will our defensive play be strong enough to eliminate most good scoring chances against us with some players on our current roster. I doubt it even though I like Keefe’s overall offensive systems.
So maybe half the team may be able to play Dubas’/Keefe’s high possession speed and skill style and score more than they give up, but the other half perhaps should play lower risk Barry Trotz style hockey as they can’t score as much but turn the puck over the same or more if they try to play above their overall skills. Therein lies the dilemma and probably the source of many “discussions” between Dubas and Babcock in the past. And if you develop 2 styles of play within one team, it will take some time to teach everyone and get them to accept their role. The right players will adapt and embrace the change. Some will not.
PUCK RETRIEVAL AND DEFENSIVE NEEDS
BESIDES PUCK POSSESSION, SPEED AND SKILL, THERE ARE OTHER PARTS OF THE GAME WHEN THE LEAFS DON’T HAVE THE PUCK THAT REQUIRE HAVING A REASONABLE EDGE, PHYSICALITY, GRIT, MENTAL TOUGHNESS, DEFENSIVE HOCKEY IQ AS WELL TO BE “CUP” SUCCESSFUL … EXAMPLES OF WHAT’S NEEDED
- To win more puck battles with physical core strength, and reach including forecheck and net front battles – want it more than they do and draw more penalties
- To get more takeaways with physical core strength, size and reach
- To stop on errant passes in skates or loose pucks and battle for the puck even though this slows you down
- To defend the red line and our blueline making opposition speed entries with or without the puck physically difficult
- To execute some heavy bodychecking by those who are able to cause some passes to be rushed by some opposition players and instinctively slow them down, and cause them to spin away in anticipation of the finished check
- To squeeze out body check along the boards to stop or slow down their progress
- To squeeze out body check along the boards to stop their give and goes
- To make it hard for them to cycle the puck in the Dzone by tight long reach stick on puck physical coverage when the play slows down when reasonable not always being satisfied with leaving them with time and space outside “the house” with puck possession – very good players on top teams will make plays, find shooting lanes and shoot/screen/rebound if given time
- To read the opposition’s play as it develops entering our zone or in our zone to regain puck possession – it’s not just speed
- To dominate net front with physical strength and grit allowing no opposition sticks on the ice by getting under sticks not over sticks leaving the opposition sticks on the ice
- To have the size and durability to block 15 – 20 shots per game fearlessly as a team
- To not turn away when challenging their puck carrier because of a size differential– no fly-bys
- To not back down from intended intimidation
- To have the size and strength to be durable and get injured less than other smaller players
There are too many Leaf forwards who lack sufficient core strength, size, reach and grit to execute many of the above consistently. Teams that win Cups have many players with both types of skill sets, besides effective offensive and defensive systems and great goaltending. Just because you have these more physical skills doesn’t mean you don’t have the other puck possession, speed and non-contact puck handling skills.
The Leafs have in Andersen a great goalie when he’s on. If he gets injured look out!
Trades are needed as outlined in Part 1 of this article so the high level defensive style may be played by all who do not have high level offensive skill and can score in little areas. Nice to have two way players who have both skill sets and mindsets but that’s usually too tall an order, so maximize the skill sets in the offensive style leaning players on 2 lines who can score and have 2 shut down defensive lines that can stop anyone quite consistently.
If the “right” players who can do this can be acquired by trade or call up, the Leafs are so strong offensively and in goal that they could win the Cup this year barring injuries to critical players.
Don’t expect Keefe to produce a miracle with the assets he has. Babcock couldn’t with his command/control style leadership and more defensive style and neither will Keefe with his more modern player relationship based leadership style and more offensive style. Champions have to also play great defensively.
It still, ultimately, when all is said and done, comes down to getting players who can play both styles when needed and can score, or be superior specialists in one style or the other, putting team success first.