MLHS’ Alec Brownscombe chatted with assistant coach of the Leafs Greg Cronin over the phone this afternoon. Topics covered include the penalty kill, the team’s possession play and possession statistics, the Bruins series, and more. Enjoy.
Alec Brownscombe: Tell us about your role change last season.
Greg Cronin: I was hired by Ron Wilson and Scott and I came in together. Scott was doing the powerplay, and I was doing the penalty kill. When Randy had come in, and I don’t know how many games were left, but after Ron was let go he just kept things status quo. By that time the penalty killing had gotten better, in terms of the execution of what we were trying to do, and the percentage of the PK was improving over the last 40 games or whatever it was. I can’t simplify and say it was just one thing, maybe it was a collaboration of things, but there was some momentum built into the penalty kill. I think Scott and I share a lot of the same philosophies on the kill. We worked the World Championships together and some of the ideas and some of the tactics that we employed in the WC were fairly consistent with what we did with the Maple Leafs. There was a certain level of transparency of what we were doing as a staff. When Randy came in, I think he identified some of the same things as well. He kind of encouraged me with the penalty kill and to pursue the same tactics we were doing before.
Over the summer, we actually had some very intense discussions about not just the special teams but with the team in general. Randy had come in with a fresh view of what he was inheriting from this group. He was just trying to do an inventory of what the personnel represented as people number one and players number two. Obviously we didn’t end that season very well. It was kind of a whimper by the end of the year. I think Burkie described it as a train wreck. Those type of descriptions were fairly appropriate. Randy and the staff sat together last year multiple times to try and map out a plan to maximize the group of players. So, as coaches, what could we do to breathe some life and believability into what we were going to do with our plan, our culture, our agenda and all the other things that go along with coaching. During those discussions, we made some decisions that would best utilize the talents of the staff both individually and collectively. We just mapped out a plan that would allow us to mesh well and hopefully that would translate into a clear, transparent plan for our players.
When things aren’t working well, you sit down and hash it out. Scott and I, like I said, we had a history of working together. We aren’t coaches building walls between ourselves and the other coaches.. I mean you would be silly to do that, right? So even with Ron, we would constantly talk as a staff how to improve our powerplay, penalty kill, five on five, cycling, all those aspects of coaching.
Alec Brownscombe: And what were some of the tactical changes undertaken on the PK? How much of the success is attributable to a key personnel addition like McClement and stability in net?
Greg Cronin: Tactically, we felt as a staff that we had to attack was the half wall. Usually the guy on the powerplay who has the puck on the half wall is the most talented guy on the ice. We felt we had to put pressure on him, that we couldn’t be passive. That was a staff decision, between Rob Zettler, Ron Wilson and me and Scott, we felt that was one area we needed to push down on and be more aggressive. The other area that we decided we had to try to close the gap on is blocking shots. That meant getting out aggressively into shot lanes. At the beginning of the year we weren’t as aggressive in those two areas. Those two things were kind of the pivot points that started the penalty killing on a path to improvement. Randy believed in those two pivot points as well.
This is gonna bridge into a conversation about personnel.. Certain people, certain personalities don’t want to pressure the puck. They don’t want to get out and close the gap. What happens is when you actually close the gap and attack the shot lane, you’re putting yourself at risk. You can’t get made to look silly. There’s going to be a level of measure that is employed when you are going out to front the shot. What we’re trying to do, and this was a common thread throughout our discussion in the summer, is we are trying to get our guys to just be less cautious and less measured, and to get at people quicker. Going back to the people we are talking about on the powerplay, with the shooters at the top and the half wall guy on the side… I don’t know what triggered that behaviour from our players.. it might have been a few more saves from the goalies to be honest with you. It might have been better goaltending, it could’ve just been the shooter missing the net a few times, I don’t know. Like anything, once you get a little success you start to build confidence. So we started to get more success out of that more aggressive approach.
When Randy came in, he basically reinforced that. We as a staff were crystal clear what we were going to do with our penalty killing and how we were going to approach the season with our kill. Jay McClement was in the other Conference, Randy knew what he was but Scott and I hadn’t seen him that often. I saw him when I was coaching in the minors and he was on Worcester, but I didn’t remember much about him. We did know that there were some new personalities in our penalty killing that would help. We saw Mark Fraser, a shot blocking machine in the AHL, and we knew that he was going to be with us and that he could provide that talent for us – because it is a talent, blocking shots is a talent. There’s a lot of hard work and courage involved but there’s also a talent to getting in the lanes.
AB: Your staff spoke a lot about zone time and puck possession this season. By some quantifiable measures the Leafs weren’t good possession team last season. Their shot differentials were among the worst in the NHL. The so called advanced stats, if you give credence to them, indicate they were regularly outpossessed. Is their something to the Leafs systems that allow them to be among the leagues worst in shot differentials, which are typically stats that are reserved for the weaker teams in the league, yet be able to counter attack and generate a high levels of offense from comparatively fewer chances and in less zone time?
GC: That’s a great question. Believe it or not, shots is something that I think can be a misleading stat. I think people gravitate toward shots because it is all over the building. People react, “Oh, they’re getting outshot 10-2.” I’ve seen this at all levels of hockey. I really find it fascinating that that stat is so galvanizing to an audience. “Somebody is getting out played badly because they’re getting outshot.10-2.” It’s true that the players will look at it; psychologically, it does reflect that you might be getting beat. I’m into boxing, I like boxing and mixed martial arts, and there’s always punching totals as a quantifiable measure of who is winning a fight. There’s a significant degree of truth to that in terms of activity and aggressiveness, but ultimately it comes down to the quality of the punch. We use the expression “death by a thousand papercuts.” After a while you do wear people down, and there is a territorial and psychological advantage that kind of is connected to shot totals. I get that whole thing. But I want to shift this around on you. Just look at us offensively. We prided ourselves on quality possessions with the puck. I was just at a coaches convention we had in New York City for the draft and there was a presentation by a coach in the NHL, a head coach, who showed his belief that he wanted his players to play by putting as many pucks to the net as possible. There is no right answer to this, but he wanted his team to put pucks at the net to encourage rebound opportunities, to threaten the defense, to get the defense out of their comfort zone. I understand all that. I’m not saying what he does is wrong and what we do is right, but one of the things we believe in as a staff is quality possession. You need quality possessions.
This is kind of a good analogy. You could go into a zone and take three shots from five feet off the goal line and five feet from the boards that hit the goalie. There is no shot taken within the dots – the proverbial home plate – not one shot was taken from there. It wasn’t a real fluid possession. The team that shot the puck three times in 30 seconds, lost possession of the puck on the third shot, and now we are attacking their end – we were a transitional team. The other team cannot change and is now trying to chase us down. Those guys that were on the ice, the 2 defencemen and the 3 forwards, are now backchecking against us. We are in a position where, if we have energy and we want to keep possession we can keep it, or if we want to dump the puck and change, we can change and bring fresh legs into that transition. Hopefully that translates into a longer quality of possession for us.
Let’s look at the team that shot the puck three times. They shot the puck three times but not one shot was a real threat. Our goalie wasn’t worried, I wasn’t worried from the bench, and maybe you weren’t worried in the top corner of the balcony. We go down the ice, and in the last 15 seconds of that shift we do a curl up.. we use the back of the net, we throw the puck right to the middle of the slot and we pummel a puck onto the net from 10 feet. Whistle blows. We get a quality scoring chance in one shot, more than they did in three shots. Which would you rather have?
Let me make it real simple and cut to the facts. We want to encourage our guys to have quality puck time in the offensive zone. If there’s a chance to take the puck to the net with a quality shot, then take the shot. But if we are going to throw it to the net and risk losing possession, we discourage that. Some people might find that strange. We would rather be able to change up our entire lineup of forwards in a 40 second shift, one after the other one after the other, and maintain possession in the other team’s zone and play against tired legs. You may say, “what the hell are you guys talking about?” If we are getting fresh legs on the attack all the time, and we are going to sacrifice taking three shots that might turn the puck over, we are going to do that every time rather than take three shots from poor areas that risk losing a quality possession. We aren’t telling our guys we have to have ten shots a period or 2 shots on a 40 second shift. We are telling them to make sure we value the puck and that we do not give it away unless we are a position to generate multiple scoring chances. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you take a shot inside the dots, the rebound is probably going to come out inside the dots. There’s a good chance it’s going to come out into a very productive area. We try to get our guys to understand that. If you get in between the dots, take a shot. Anywhere near the dots, anywhere near home plate, we are 100% behind that. The difference is, we don’t really encourage that as much from poor angle shots along the walls. We just don’t. If you look at that strategy over an 80-game schedule, even a 48-game schedule, that adds up. Those shot differential that you are seeing, that you are quantifying over a full season, they’re significant. We’re not telling our guys to shot the puck from the boards from a poor angle. The only time we would change the strategy is if we’re down a goal – we’re not idiots – if we’re down a goal, we will try to encourage some shots, because of course we are going to change the tactic. But in an ideal world, we value possession over multiple poor angle shots.
AB: You don’t think the Leafs got outpossessed last season, and that shot differentials are not a good indicator of possession?
GC: Right. I unequivocally do not believe that.
AB: To be clear, you don’t believe the Leafs were outpossessed last season?
AB: Interesting. Do you as a staff track odd man rushes? Seemed there were some games in the Bruins series where the Leafs had several more odd man rushes but were getting handily outshot.
Here’s my point. We have an expression called the ground game. It’s like in football. Teams that run the football well usually win games. That time of possession is important in football. There was a time where we saw some run and gun stuff and the aerial assaults, but it seems that it always goes back to the barometer or measure in football of who possesses the ball most of the time. It doesn’t hold its value every time, but it’s a fairly standard protocol that whoever has the ball most usually wins. If you’re getting 4 yards a carry it’s pretty good; you’re putting yourself in a third down and short yardage situations. We try and get our guys to understand that, albeit it’s football, that stat is something that we want to value.
GC: I want to ask you an innocent question. I know because, as a staff, we track this stuff. Who do you think had the puck the most against the Bruins?
AB: The Leafs got better and better and adjusted as the series wore on, but I’d guess the Bruins based on the first 4 or so games?
GC: The Bruins dominated the first game. They had the puck a lot and we didn’t, we gave it away too much, we were too easy to play against. But as the series went on, we started to control the games because we had the puck more. Just to go back into this discussion – going back to shots vs. possession – what happens when you have the puck a lot? What is the other team doing? They have to defend. They are on their heels, they’re changing up because they’re tired. Usually when you’re changing up and you’re tired, you’re defending. It is an interesting part of hockey that I’m sure a lot of teams visited; it’s like the old expression, “what gets emphasized gets done.” These are things that we prioritize. We want the puck. I am not saying we have the right answer. I didn’t stopwatch the Chicago-Bruins series, but I know one thing; Chicago has the puck a lot. But they have talented players, too, and their players, their identities as hockey players, whether its Kane or Toews or Hossa, those guys keep the puck a lot.
AB: Having been on the bench (obviously), how did you see the final 11 minutes in Game 7? What was the team doing so well as the series wore on, and how/why did it get away from that? Did you think the team sat back too early? In both games 4 and 7 the Leafs were able to build leads but couldn’t hold on. It appeared that once the team shifted from a 2-1-2 into a 1-2-2 they couldn’t hold off Boston.
GC: We never really made any changes from the bench saying, “Okay, we’re going to do a 1-2-2 now because we’re protecting the lead.” That was something that we did not want to do. We wanted to keep applying pressure. It’s funny, if you were a fly on the glass of the bench, you would’ve heard the coaches motivating the players to attack them. That was the consistent message. Do you remember, in that game we were up 4-1 and they scored with 11 minutes left to to go, and they scored on a pass that was blindly sent to the front of the net? The guy knew Horton was there, but he kind of just throws it and the puck goes through about three people, including right past Reimer’s stick, and past one of our defencemen’s skates. Then, Kulemin doesn’t stop.. if he stops a half a second earlier it probably hits him in the skate. Anyway, it goes in the net. I’m sure you were doing the same thing I was doing on the bench right before the goal, I’m going, “holy crap it’s 4-1.” You don’t really get it from TV but you can see it from ice level… the Bruins were basically in shock. Their crowd started to leave. They were leaving the building. As a coach, and I’ve coached 1000s of games and I’ve been in games where we’ve come back and won and we’ve lost games by losing leads, I never, even when they made it 4-2, I never felt threatened by them. I’m going to take you back to Game 5, in Boston. That game JvR scored a goal late when he stopped in front and scored to make it a two-goal lead with about three and a half minutes a game. We controlled that whole game, but with about 10 minutes to go they came on, and they came wave after wave of quality possessions. Multiple shots, and we were dealing with the two headed monster as they were shooting the puck and keeping the puck in our zone. The last eight minutes of that game felt like 80 minutes. I’m thinking, “they’re going to score a goal and tie this game up.” I thought it was a matter of time. It had that kind of feel to it. But we held on. I remember, they hit a post, one puck hit Dion’s stick, Jagr had a point blank shot; there was more offensive threats in the last three minutes of that game than there were in the last 11 minutes after Horton scored the goal.
AB: So if the message was to stay aggressive, how do you explain what happened? It seemed the team just sagged, the walls started to close in, and they just seemed stunned.
GC: I’m going to dispute that with you a little bit. You’re right, they were coming through us a lot easier in the final 8 minutes. After they scored the goal to make it 4-2 they had a couple of good shifts where the crowd got energized, but then things settled down. Now I’m going to go back to Matt Frattin’s breakaway. It’s not like it’s game 5, it’s game 7, we’ve been through this thing for 6 games. We’re up 4-2. Fratts gets a breakway, doesn’t score. Do you know what happened the next shift? Kessel chipped it out, we got the puck in their zone, it was basically what we preach to our team late in games – get it deep, get fresh legs.
If you watch the game over again, watch the last three minutes. Did you know that Grabovski had the puck in Boston’s zone, behind the net, and they had no goalie in the net? It was 4-2, and there was just around 2 minutes to go in the game. I was not in any shape or form worried about being under assault like we were in Game 5. It just wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening up until that point. We had the puck in their zone, and Grabovski turned the puck over [editor's note: Grabovski pursued the puck behind the net with the net empty, but did not ever have possession of the puck to turn over]. They came up the ice, Krejci passed it up to Lucic, and Lucic skated by our bench. There was about a minute and 45 seconds to go and he dumped the puck in. I didn’t feel that the Bruins had established any consistent threat. They had some rushes where they came into the zone and dumped it in and had a couple of shots from the boards, but there wasn’t any sustained pressure that when you’re a coach you think, “oh boy we’re in trouble.” Until Lucic scored the goal. Then, that answers your question. With a minute and 20 seconds to go, at that point it’s 4-3 and from the bench you could feel the energy and the crowd come down like darts.
I still didn’t think we were going to lose the game. I don’t know why, I just didn’t we were going to lose the game. But the next shift, they get it right back into our zone. Going back to your question, “did you guys freeze?” I don’t know. I don’t know. I know we had the guys from the penalty kill, which Scott Gordon did an awesome job with this year, and our penalty killing was one of the best in the league and every guy on the ice was a penalty killer. We were the second-best penalty killing team in the league and all those guys were on the ice.
I read somewhere that it was a once in a generation thing. It happened, and I know we’re all suffering still for it. The suffering got worse as the Bruins won round after round and it seemed like they were effortlessly winning games. We had them right where we wanted them. I think were were looking at a group of players who gad never been in that situation before in their careers. Did the pressure get to them? I don’t think they’d be human if didn’t. I don’t give a crap what your background is, that’s an experience that you’ve never gone through before. Did they react poorly? No, I don’t think they reacted poorly, they didn’t react as maturely as if they had seen it before. Simple as that.
AB: What do you take away from a loss like that?
GC: I think that we as a team have to stay humble. I really believe that. We can’t get seduced by way we played the series in light of the fact that the Bruins continued to march forward to the Stanley Cup Finals. I think you’ve got to be humble about what you went through. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s got to be something that is a fundamental part of our mentality going into training camp.
AB: What do you see as the biggest area in need of improvement from last year?
GC: We had to be top 10 in goals for, right? So obviously, it’s funny that we are bouncing stats around like time of possession and shots when we were one of the top ten teams in league in producing goals. I guess I would segregate that and say I wonder where we were in the league in terms of even strength goals because our powerplay wasn’t even [that good]. Our even strength goals produced must’ve been pretty high, which is a pretty good reflection that our quality of shots or quality of possession strategy was fairly successful. But I do think we need to continue to build on that part of it. As a coaching staff we think that is an important part of our identity. I think we slid a bit defensively and I think one of the areas we have to do a better job of defensively is what you talked about; being able to regain the puck quickly and get out of the zone. We had some moments where we had some long periods in our own zone.
AB: Do you use any performance metrics that aren’t publicly available? Have you heard of CORSI?
GC: No. We don’t. We just do a basic thing which is the generation of scoring chances; we know who is generating scoring chances for and who is responsible for a breakdown defensively.
AB: Do you consider Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr pure enforcers, or would you attribute other hockey value to them?
GC: I think they’re different players. I think Orr has proven he’s more than just an enforcer. He was used a little on the third line this season, he is one of the more reliable guys at chipping pucks out, knowing the conditions of the game, chipping pucks out and chipping pucks in, changing smartly, and he’s very responsible on the back check. Randy has a lot of faith in him. Frazer McLaren hasn’t developed into that type of a role yet. He’s got some sneaky athleticism that hasn’t come out yet; he hasn’t learned how to protect the puck as well as he can, but he’s getting better at it. He wants to be more than just an enforcer. I think that his goal should be to develop the same type of role and identity that Orr has now. It’s just a bonus that both are fairly good athletes; they can grow, they can make us a better hockey team, not just as far as fighting goes.