Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Departed - How Losing Grabovski and MacArthur Will Force the Leafs to Think Differently

The departure of Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur this offseason wasn't exactly unexpected. We knew that Grabovski’s style of play wasn't meshing well with Randy Carlyle’s punch people in the face first, figure out how to generate shots second approach. Meanwhile, MacArthur had found himself a healthy scratch during key games near the end of the season and into the playoffs. Even though we sort of saw these moves on the horizon, it has done little to soften the blow that losing these two has leveled on the teams top 9 forward group.

Carlyle has prided himself on being a “defensive coach”- wielding a complex system that keeps shots to the outside therefore minimizing high quality scoring chances. We can debate the merits of this system another day, knowing that research tends to indicate that shot quality evens out over time and shot volume is the best indicator of future success.

Before Carlyle, Ron Wilson also attempted to bring defensive responsibility to the Leafs, specifically on the penalty kill where he was known as a “guru” of sorts. Of course the Leafs had one of the most atrocious penalty killing units in the league (Finished last in PK% in both 2008-09 and 2009-10).

Despite a focus on defence the Leafs have actually managed to have one of the better offensive groups over the past 2 years. Last season the team averaged 3.02 goals per game, landing them 6th in the league. In 2011-12 they were a respectable 10th with 2.77 per game.

In watching those 2 Leafs teams one of their key attributes has been forward depth up and down the lineup. Kessel and Lupul have certainly been fantastic over that time, but contributions from the likes of Kulemin, Kadri, Grabovski, MacArthur, and Bozak have played a role in the team’s offensive success.

In 2011-12 Grabovski finished 3rd on the club in scoring with 51 points, with MacArthur finishing 6th, with 43 points. There is no doubt that in last year’s truncated season both players were counted on less offensively, ending the year 8th and 11th in scoring respectively. Without these two and the flexibility they afforded the coaching staff I am unsure if the team will be able to generate offence consistently throughout the forward group.

New Leafs forwards David Clarkson and Dave Bolland will help mitigate some of the lost production, but not all of it. Clarkson and Bolland have each broken the 40 point plateau once in their NHL careers. While they are useful players in their own right, they are far from offensive dynamos.

Now it’s not all bad -  perhaps the Leafs can embrace their new situation and deploy two lines designed purely for scoring. Line combinations won’t be final for a few weeks but I would expect the top 9 to look something like this:

Kessel – Bozak – Lupul
JVR – Kadri – Clarkson
McClement – Bolland - Kulemin  

In this case we would see McClement switching to the wing, allowing Bolland to play his natural position of center. The new 3rd line would feature three players known for their defensive capabilities. Kulemin's 30 goal season is more and more becoming a distant memory and McClement has consistently been an 8 to 12 goal scorer. While some have lauded Dave Bolland's offensive potential, a conversation PPP had with Chicago bloggers has me thinking his offensive contributions will be limited.
Ideally Carlyle would feed his 3rd line absurdly brutal minutes. Lining up against tough competition and starting the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone. Essentially, these 3 guys wouldn’t skate in the offensive zone unless there was a commercial break and they were stretching their legs. (Free fantasy hockey advice: Don’t draft any of them!)

The top 2 lines would need to be used in as many goal scoring positions as possible. Offensive zone start percentages for these lines should be above 50%. Last season, both Kessel and Lupul had O-zone starting percentages under 50% (Behind the Net), which is a bit of a head scratcher for me. Neither of them are Selke candidates and should be used accordingly. They are elite offensive players and their primary focus is to produce goals (hockey being the goal scoring competition that it is).

A great example is how Alain Vigneault utilized Daniel and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver last season. Both players started well over 60% of their shifts in the offensive zone. The tougher, defensive zone starts were reserved for players like Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Christopher Higgins.

Carlyle and his coaching staff may need to take a page from Vancouver’s playbook and provide more scoring opportunities to their top 6 forwards. In years past the Leafs’ forward depth allowed for more balanced zone starts and overall deployment. However, the departure of Grabovksi and MacArthur has changed dynamic of this group – hopefully the coaching strategy reflects this.  


Steve Burtch said...

The reason Kessel and Lupul had such low OZ FO totals compared to other elite Fwds is because the Leafs don't actually get the puck into the offensive zone effectively enough.

This is a byproduct of RC's devotion to dump & chase, and not caring if we sacrifice possessions (because he wants "quality" possessions not quantity).

Anonymous said...

@Steve Burtch

That’s a great point – something I hadn’t really thought of before.

There was an interesting article on Copper and Blue talking about how a lot of European skaters have a difficult time coming to North America because of coaching staffs obsession with ‘dump and chase’ hockey.

Players are frustrated to simply give away possession then attempt gain possession again by retrieving the puck in the corner.

It makes a lot of sense – if you already have the puck is it really worth losing possession simply to gain 15 or 20 feet worth of ice?

BCLeafFan said...

I find the comments above very confusing - if Randy Carlyle didn't focus on O-zone starts for his top scorers, how did the Leafs manage to be sixth in the league in scoring?
Dump and chase works well in North American rinks if it is done properly. Ask any NHL defenceman how he likes turning to retrieve a puck with a power forward (or two) hunting him down.
Personally I like to watch teams, like Boston and Chicago, that use both ways to attack, depending on the defensive numbers they face. I see the Leafs being a more balanced offensive team this year and their goal totals staying in the top five or six in the league.

Anonymous said...


Totally agree with your sentiment that teams need to utilize both tactics when appropriate to be successful.

The issue here is that the North American style of game seems to focus on dumping and chasing after the puck even when the attacking skater may have solid possession of the puck. Dumping it in makes sense if you are under duress and there isn’t a teammate providing adequate support (ie. If you are going to lose possession anyway you might as well send it deep into the attacking zone)

If the emphasis was taken a bit off of dump and chase it might afford players like Kadri and Kessel the opportunity to be more creative and drive possession – because they would gain the zone with possession as opposed to having to chase down a dman in the corner.

kid ish said...

Another reason for the odd zone starts here is Carlyle's tendency toward line matching. He will send the top line out in the defensive zone if the opposing line is his identified match.

A dump in by a third or fourth line may be alright in terms of "wearing down" the other team. Losing possession to anyone for any purpose is still tough though - takes as much energy to get it back as it does the other team.

Anonymous said...

@BCLeafFan: The reason the Leafs ranked 6th is because scoring is a result of two inputs multiplied together: Number of Shots x Shooting Percentage. The Leafs having a high shooting percentage last year (near the top of the league) factored in to this. Now where the scary question is posed: how much of an influence do you believe Carlyle can have on his team's shooting percentage? Are you confident enough that they can repeat their extremely high percentage from last year?

DaveDaytona said...

You say that RC's system is to prevent high-quality shots, yet research (by which I assume you mean statistics) indicates that shot quality averages out over time.
If you want to say that Carlyle's system doesn't work because it doesn't control shot quality, that's one thing.
But you seem to be making another argument: that no system to control shot quality can work because in general shot quality averages out over time. That's faulty logic--like arguing that it's pointless to have loaded dice, because normally throws average out.
If Carlyle's system works, it will alter the average. If it doesn't, it won't.

Anonymous said...


No one hates circular logic more than me! So I’ll try to address it.

RC and the coaching staff have talked about how they want to minimize high quality scoring chances – however, I haven’t seen the “system” fully explained. I’m sure it involves a focus on blocked shots and collapsing to the net but I would imagine most teams do that.

I am curious if RCs system truly does work, or if he simply benefited from significant puck luck last year wherein Reimer had a solid save percentage and the offence had one of the absolute best team shooting percentages. This year and a full 82 game sample size will be telling. Maybe we can revisit the system and see if RC truly does limit scoring chances more than most teams.

It might be possible to limit shot quality, but I haven’t yet read anything that says it is viable way to consistently win hockey games. Certainly open to discussing the possibility though.

Anonymous said...

@Steve Burtch - The Leafs weren't a big dump and chase team. They have next to no forecheck. They're aware of that, unlike your weak methodology on how hockey works.