An Opinion and Analysis: [email protected]
THE LEAFS WILL NEVER WIN UNTIL THE TEAM CAN PLAY MORE THAN ONE STYLE AT A HIGH LEVEL
If any team’s philosophy is so over weighted to either offensive or defensive strength, the best teams and coaching in the NHL will adjust their style and systems to defeat the overweight and exploit its weaknesses. Columbus did this to the Leafs this year. So did Boston in previous years.
In the Leafs case against Columbus, not a top team, it was overweight offensive skill and underweight grit, physical size, physical and mental toughness to score dirty goals and get into the AA scoring areas consistently, and most importantly, underweight defensive skills like winning puck battles, physically dominating net fronts, stick strength skills and blocking shots to name a few.
And another factor. In every sport the offence eventually goes cold for a time and without defensive strength, it is very difficult to win 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1.
The Leafs have core players who are overweight in offensive and defensive speed, passing skill, offensive zone puck handling, seeing the ice, and regular season scoring when there is way more time and space and more wide open play everywhere. The playoffs are more like a street fight.
Dubas is right that dominant speed is a key defensive and offensive skill but speed is only one very important skill among many. It sometimes takes raw core strength, the right angle of attack, body contact, stick finesse, stick reach, protect the puck body positioning to win a puck battle or create a scoring chance. It takes guts to get a piece of a puck carrier coming through the neutral zone, screening net front or blocking shots, and not just waving the stick at the puck carrier or fishing for the puck without contact or containing the puck carrier too much giving him time and space to make a good pass or shoot.
The Leafs need more players who have broader offensive and defensive skill sets and way more “edge” in the way they play.
So in the playoffs when the ice gets smaller, the best teams:
- Don’t give the Leafs clean group breakouts from their zone very often
- When there is no reasonable chance to win the puck on the forecheck, teams jam the neutral zone with 4 -5 players playing physical, holding the blueline, forcing dump-ins with often little Leaf forward entry speed and underachieving forechecking success to win the puck back even when the Leafs enter the dump-in with speed
- Teams play tight protect the house and block shots when the Leafs do cycle in the offensive zone
- Teams keep the Leafs outside of the A and AA scorings areas because they know the Leafs like the pretty passing play to produce good looks in the A and AA shooting areas rather than shoot from B areas, screen and score dirty goals on rebounds after crashing the net, or on deflections. The Leafs pretty play strategy works well in the regular season when opposition intensity is usually way less
- And when shots are taken by the Leafs and nets missed producing 50-50 puck battles, opposition teams win more puck battles and retrieve more pucks than the Leafs core offensive forwards because most of the Leafs slick goal scoring forwards are not good at winning puck battles either in the corners or net front when speed is not as important a factor
- The Leafs don’t block as many opposition shots as the best teams so the opposition shoot a lot and crash the Leafs net producing more scoring opportunities, redirects, deflections and lucky bounces.
- The Leafs defence coughs up more pucks after 100% possession in their defensive corners and elsewhere in the defensive zone so whenever the opposition can create a 50-50 puck battle deep in Leafs zone they throw 2 and sometimes 3 F’s to win the battle on the forecheck and the puck
On the other hand, teams overweight with great defensive players on most lines rather than offensive who can effectively perform the defensive and forechecking items mentioned above in an excellent way fall short because most cannot score enough goals, and usually have weak PP’s or goaltending.
Dubas must understand all this but he continues to say the Leafs “have the talent”, “have the players who are capable” that it takes time to develop better defensive hockey play, or to get the players to work harder more consistently. When they failed to work harder and consistently as a group under Babcock, it was Babcock’s issue, now under Keefe, a players’ coach, who are they going to blame now? How about some players simply looking in the mirror.
What Dubas may fail to understand given his relative youth and inexperience is that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard and that it is extremely difficult to change personality or character in a person who is not internally motivated to work harder in all aspects of what he does because that’s who he is.
Some players don’t like to muck it up physically, play “inside” hockey are concerned about getting hurt and shortening their well paid career or do not have the toughness or strength skill sets to do so. Leafs need players who are consistently and naturally as competitive as Michael Jordan who demanded the same from his teammates, no matter how famous he became. Players with character like this possess a will to win and desire which dominates all aspects of their play and off ice discipline.
Dubas concerned me when he was asked about Barrie’s season and he responded by saying he criticizes himself for not helping Barrie adjust when he first came in. Barrie is a below average defensive defenceman who rarely wins 50-50 pucks in the corners, or goes in first, or is physical enough under stick net front, and who doesn’t block enough shots. Opposition teams know this and shoot the puck in on his side. To trade Kadri for Barrie and Kerfoot rather than working with Kadri to tone his play down to play within the rules was ridiculous as the Leafs need more “edge” in many players but this trade is indicative of the skill sets Dubas values and thinks will win the Cup. No way. Can Dubas admit a mistake?
And by the way, it is a lot easier for a coach and teammates to tone a player down than to try to rev him up.
It’s also possible that highly paid players with secure contracts simply won’t play the way they need to to win, despite what they say when year after year the hard nose consistent desire play is absent.
So, what’s the solution?
Ask any best practices change leader in the business world and the successful ones will tell you about the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 rule when he first diagnoses his team’s strengths and weaknesses. Generally 1/3 of players are with you and are committed to change, 1/3 are against you and under the surface say leave me alone, and 1/3 are on the fence or are unsure. The golden rule is to get rid of the 1/3 who are against you early because if you do not they will delay implementing excellence in your program and behind the scenes will quietly counter what you are trying to achieve with the entire team. If there are Leaf players who have not bought in to the “Keefe program” or do not have the mental or physical skill sets to do so, trade them, no matter who they are. Let the remainder see how serious you are.
So, simple to say: restructure with more proven offensive and defensive balance … proven fundamental skills in each … speed is still one fundamental.
Better than average offensive and defensive skills on 4 forward lines and overweight defensive skills over offence on the 6 D are needed to become a Stanley Cup champion. Plus great goaltending.
One forward line can be overweight in offensive skill which will also help the PP but all still must have slightly better than average defensive skills. Do Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares have slightly better than average defensive skills and offensive grit in a playoff setting and does their performance prove they have fully bought into the program? Core defensive and intensity indicator playoff analytics would help answer this question, along with your eyes. Not all have. It’s simply not good enough to say you are disappointed with another failed season and we will do better next year.
On defence, one new defenceman must be a top 5 D in the league. He will be the D corps leader. The Leafs need such an acquisition. Reilly is very good but not in that category defensively. Defenceman among lots of other skills must have one touch control puck handling ability along with the ability to make the 3 foot pass consistently under pressure particularly in the defensive zone. And if the opposition are going to play protect the house in the offensive zone the Leafs need some D to have rocket accurate quick release point shots not average point shots. Juicy rebounds must be produced against the protect the house system.
A championship team must have the offensive and defensive skill and grit and toughness to play any style you want, so the opposition can’t just fall back on just playing a superior defensive style with great goaltending to defeat them.
And no matter what the forward and defence skills are, a championship team must have a goalie with a save % of at least 92% in the playoffs and not let in weak goals. Consistency is key.
Becoming a champion is very very tough and Dubas is right it takes time. But what is being built must be highly competitive character players with balanced but better than average offensive and defensive skill sets and performance results. Overweight in offensive skills over defensive skills will be never be enough. Need balance.