Poor Starts: Breaking down the early breakdowns

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Last night on twitter, I (LeafsHotStove) had a brief conversation with KCCanuck and mlse about this Leafs team’s problem with slow starts after it all too familiarly fell behind 2-0 to the Thrashers in under three minutes. I asserted that Wilson’s Leafs were again starting to play when there was nothing to play for before PPP suggested it might be apart of something bigger like a lack of talent since the lockout. The question for me then became; while the Leafs are known for late season surges when the pressure’s off, has seemingly poor game-to-game preparation been unique to the Wilson regime or a recurring post-lockout theme? I run the stats on the Leafs’ performance out of the gate after the jump.

2010-11 Under Wilson
TeamSc1stSc1st %
Montreal2267%
Chicago2263%
Atlanta2162%
Vancouver2160%
NYR2160%
Detroit1959%
Philadelphia2057%
Los Angeles1754%
Phoenix1754%
St. Louis1754%
Dallas1752%
San Jose1752%
Minnesota1651.5%
Nashville1650%
Anaheim1850%
Pittsburgh1648.5%
Ottawa1748.5%
Boston1548%
Florida1548%
Tampa Bay1547%
Columbus1444%
New Jersey1444%
Calgary1442%
Washington1440%
NYI1240%
Carolina1239%
Colorado1339%
Edmonton1239%
Toronto1239%
Buffalo1236%

One possible explanation could lie in age and inexperience. Colorado, Toronto and Edmonton are the three youngest teams in the league and are also three of the  bottom four teams when it comes to scoring first. Washington and  Carolina also reside in the top seven youngest teams in the league, meaning five of the bottom seven in scoring first represent five of the bottom seven in age. It’s not a stretch to suggest that teams with a more veteran core have the experience to better prepare themselves on a game to game basis.

2009-10 Under Wilson
TeamSc1stSc1st %
Chicago5668%
Washington5263%
Calgary5061%
Philadelphia4960%
St. Louis4858.5%
LA Kings4656%
New Jersey4555%
Anaheim4454%
Phoenix4251%
Buffalo4150%
Ottawa4150%
Pittsburgh4150%
Carolina4150%
Boston4049%
Colorado4049%
Vancouver3947.5%
Montreal3947.5%
San Jose3947.5%
Atlanta3947.5%
Florida3947.5%
NYI3947.5%
Detroit3846%
Columbus3846%
Tampa Bay3644%
Dallas3543%
Nashville3543%
Minnesota3441.5%
NYR3441.5%
Edmonton3441.5%
Toronto3036.5%

In 2009-10, however, the same correlation is nowhere near as strong. The bottom team in scoring first was Toronto by quite a margin (five percent) followed by Minnesota, New York, Edmonton and Dallas. Edmonton was sixth youngest club and New York was ninth youngest but Dallas was 21st and Minnesota was 22nd in terms of ascending age.  After or during the season, the Rangers fired their head coach (dropping Renney, opting for John Tortorella), as did Edmonton (Pat Quinn out, Renney in). Dallas and Minnesota were in their first seasons under new head coaches in Marc Crawford and Todd Richards.

Could you say bad starts are inherent to a simply bad team and it’s circumstantial to attribute the problem to coaching? Well, some good teams don’t start well and are still succeeding in spite of it – just this season for instance, Washington and Colorado lead the league in winning after trailing first. There are also examples from last season of teams that missed the playoffs starting games with the lead more often than not (Calgary, Anaheim, St. Louis, Carolina). The Leafs don’t start well (36.5% last season, 39% so far this season at scoring first) and rarely bail themselves out (25th in league this season and last at winning after scoring first). This isn’t a team that has the talent to consistently fight their way back after going down a few goals early, that much is clear. But there are plenty of teams, even out of the playoff picture at the moment, the Leafs should be competing with in the East based on talent alone that are much higher than them in this category.

Now, the Leafs have had the reputation of turning on the jets with the season all but lost since the lockout. However, on a night to night basis the Leafs weren’t coming out as unprepared as they have in the last two seasons under Wilson. The Leafs scored first in 54% of games played in 2005-06 (under Quinn), 50% in 2006-07, and 45% in 2007-08 (under Maurice).

In Wilson’s first season at the helm in 2008-09, the Leafs scored first in 40 of 82 (just under 50%) games with a more veteran lineup. Since the organization has really seen the effects of the rebuild (or retool) in the last two seasons, few would argue this team is armed with ample talent but most would hope if not expect the head coach to be teaching proper preparation in order to best position his young team to succeed. Multiple Leafs have voiced concern over their team’s need to feel out the opposing team – often resulting in tentative starts that allow the opponents to set the pace and often gain early leads – before making the necessary adjustments and identifying with the flow of the game. By that point it’s often too little too late; the preparatory adjustments need to be made before puck drop, not half a period and two goals against into the game.

Myself, I’ve seen Wilson storm off on too many interviews to be convinced he’s the right coach for this team at this time. The powerplay has seen a bit of a surge as of late up to 17th but the penalty kill remains 29th with a paltry 76.5% kill rate. If this was a talent problem and not a coaching one, you’d think it would be the opposite special teams scenario. Clarke MacArthur can say the right things as much as he wants; it doesn’t indicate much of anything. What speaks volumes is the lack of any form of visible improvement where coaching matters most – special teams and preparation – as well as ultimately in the points column. Time to face the music, Ronnie.

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Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at brownscombealec@gmail.com.