Toronto Maple Leafs Systems – Defensive Zone

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INTRODUCTION

I’ve always had an keen interest in systems, the X’s and O’s technical side, with a desire to document team systems across the entire NHL.

Systems are mostly a coach’s implementation, and once there is a coaching change there is the system change, even if it is only tweaks. I’ve found that doing a little systems analysis helps in the overall scouting process as well, a concept I won’t go into detail on here, but I’ve written about its benefits on my own blog.

In an effort to document the Leafs systems, I’m going to dedicate a three-post series breaking down implementation in the defensive, neutral and offensive zones, followed by special-teams.

This first post is dedicated specifically to the defensive zone, with a focus on trouble clearing the puck out, leading to other positional failures, scoring chances, penalties, shots on goal, and eventually goals scored.

DEFENSIVE ZONE SYSTEMS

I’m going to leave zone entries for another post, because I believe that is more relevant to the neutral zone. This post focuses on when the puck is in the defensive zone; how the Leafs set up to create turnovers, regain possession, and handle the pressure of a sustained forecheck.

Before getting right into the main points, I wanted to address the concept of the  system’s fundamentals as forcing the opponent to the perimeter (outside) and allowing shots from a greater distance.

I find that to be a slight misconception. It is natural to be in a defensive position between the puck and the net at all times, and pushing players to the outside has a more philosophical bent and is defense 101 rather than a component for which to build a system around.

Teams would be satisfied to keep players on the perimeter moving the puck without penetration into scoring areas. So the main part of a defensive system has less to do with clogging up the middle and keeping opponents to the outside, and more about regaining possession, quick ups and transition.

The word transition, bandied around by Leafs coaching and management staffs, is one of the weaker areas addressed by Randy Carlyle’s systems as we shall see.

Opponents controlling the puck leads to what Randy Carlyle dubs as “receiving,” where the defending team withstands the barrage of shots, with the hope that scoring chances are few and far between whether set up properly or not in the defensive zone.

System implementation isn’t meant to make “receiving” a typical defensive philosophy. The goal is to isolate the puck carrier, engage with (hopefully) numbers (one engaged, one support/layer), regain possession and transition to offense all while facing varying degrees of forechecking pressure.

Defending off the rush isn’t controlled by a systematic process and is reliant on individual player skills – gap control, skating ability and agility, and not coaching implementation. Defenders are at the mercy of the onrushing player with the puck and must react accordingly. Coaches desire players between the puck and the net and emphasize taking out players along the boards, since it eases creating a turnover while aligning with the philosophy of isolating the puck and engaging.

An invaluable resource for detailed comprehension is Coach Nielsen’s blog touching on a variety of systems concepts. The site contains diagrams and video that explains his specific concepts and ideology, but the ideas are adaptable.

1 - D-Zone Systems

For instance, this diagram (right) with converging lines from the corners into the slot area is a good guide when focusing on how the team moves in relation to where the puck is in the zone, without any specific detail on any implemented system.

The puck in the top right corner should have the forward line up on the same parallel line as it appears. As the puck slices through the perpendicular lines, the forward slides down through the slot along the converging lines, jumping along each parallel line, and staying in line with the puck.

An interesting concept was presented in the Coach’s video – that of the inverted house, which looks like an inverted scoring chance home plate, where the focus is closer to the net and the crease area with less focus at the top of the zone. If the goalie can see it he can stop it, is the logic here.

That sounds analogous to Randy Carlyle logic in a statement by Bobby Ryan on the differences in styles as featured in Elliotte Freidmanís 30 Thoughts blog.

[pull_quote_center]23. Ryan said there was one on-ice adjustment with his transition from Anaheim to Ottawa. Senators head coach Paul MacLean wants his forwards to engage opponents who go to the half-wall with the puck in the defensive zone. Ryan remembers then-Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle demanding they stay in the middle of the ice. “If the goalie can’t stop it from out there, we’ll get another one,” Ryan said Carlyle would say.[/pull_quote_center]

As the puck moves out of the corner, the strong side forward and defenseman lineup along the parallel line, with the forward following the path of the defenseman at the point. Players on the weak side converge to the middle of the ice and essentially cut it in half. This is called an overload and looks like the image below. Note the amount of space given up on the one side while cutting down the ice in half.

2 - D-Zone Overload

Formations can vary depending on a high/low box shape, or loading up in one half of the ice. The zone is broken down as outlined below from the invaluable Blue Seat Blog.

3 - Zones

It is common knowledge that Carlyle prefers a system which collapses forwards down low, while attempting to cut the ice in half, forcing an overload, which carries a risk of open space if the puck gets to the other side. This contributes to additional zone time when the opposition applies pressure, especially along the boards, an area that’s been difficult for the Leafs.

4 - low zone overloadOne of the drawbacks of having forwards so low is what I refer to as “the accordion.” If I am an opposition coach, I would get the puck in deep (even as a dump in play), force the natural collapse of forwards and  get the puck back to the point, forcing the defending forwards to turn around and get out there quick.

If there is a clear shot on goal, low-zone forwards converge to the net. If there isn’t a direct shot to the net, the puck can be sent back down low and have the process start again, collapsing the forwards and kind of playing them like an accordion. Not only does this tire out the defending team, it creates holes and passing lanes in the middle of the ice that can be used as additional space for the attacking team forwards to encroach looking for a better position for a shot on goal.

Now, that’s how it’s supposed to work conceptually. Forwards collapse, the puck carrier would be isolated, the turnover occurred, and  a breakout follows based on a quick transition.

Reality bites, however. The Leafs have had a terribly difficult time breaking out of their own zone and try to clear the puck out into the neutral zone and fight to get it back out there. Adding to the difficulty skating it out, they don’t set up for good distribution outlets, causing them to try to regroup or change the flow to the other side of the ice while looking for an opening and leads to more confusion, clearly an undesired effect.

The Leafs struggle to move the puck out leads to an exceptional amount of zone time and sustained pressure indicative of their suspect possession stats, a clearly undesired element. I believe that this actually starts in the neutral zone.

At the beginning of the season, they played forwards a little deeper in the zone and clumped up to the point that they were an easy target for forecheckers. More recently, forwards are stretched out a bit further out into the neutral zone, attempting to move the puck out of the zone easier with long stretch passes. That, in turn, creates gaps that introduce additional risk. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a similar problem with an immobile blueline aside from Kris Letang, exploited by the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, but this isn’t about the Penguins.

This short video shows how the Leafs clumped up at the beginning of the season. The image taken from the video shows some disorganization.

 

5 - LeafsHabsInLine

When Montreal successfully moved the puck back to point, the amount of space given up in the middle is fairly evident.

 

6 - LeafsHabsMiddleSpace

One week later, as the Leafs took on Minnesota, more disorganization in their zone emerged. It is visible that, once they try to get into formation and are overwhelmed, the structure breaks down leading to clearing attempts by chipping it off the glass – if successful. When they finally do retrieve the puck, they have very few outlets and struggle to move it up.

Once again, they line up the forwards so low into the zone they could almost lay a blanket over all players.

7 - Lowzoneoverload

Pay attention to the end sequence, where Mason Raymond has to turn and go back behind his net to pass it off before Carl Gunnarsson does the exact same thing on the other side. Even then, Raymond is forced to pass it across the ice to an awaiting Dion Phaneuf that finally clears it out of the zone.

In this next video, the Leafs are under pressure versus Edmonton, Anaheim, Buffalo, and in the 2-1 shootout win over the Washington Capitals.

8 - LeafsOilersLowzonecollapse

Notice how everybody is lined up deep in the zone as the puck was skated out from behind the net and directed towards the blue line. David Clarkson had to turn around and quickly get to the point, which he did in this instance successfully, forcing the puck to the middle of the ice.

Every instance of sustained pressure starts with, and features, that low zone collapse. Here is Anaheim.

9 - LeafsDuckslowzonecollapse

Here are the Washington Capitals.

10 - Mcclementlowzonecollapse

 

The game against the Predators on November 21 was a good example of how breakdowns can lead to sustained pressure and eventual scoring chances. Cody Franson made a couple of rough errors in this video which is essentially a continuation of a very difficult season. Isolating Franson wasn’t the main goal, it just happened to be a good example of what happens after a mistake.

11 - LeafsNashlowzonecollapse

Of course, who could forget “the shift?” That two-minute long barrage from the Bruins at the beginning of November. If you’re looking for the ultimate in defensive zone breakdowns, perimeter play and sustained pressure, look no further.

Despite the length of time on that one shift, most of the puck movement was from the outside as coaching staff would probably trade-off rather than a lot of movement in the slot and crease area.

This could very well be the worst shift of the Leafs’ entire season.

I will finish this off with this particular video; there is an element inside related to the neutral zone.

Notice how the Leafs clear the puck out of the zone and how easy it is for the Wild to reenter, especially with control of the puck.

That’s a neutral zone issue and we’ll talk about that next post.

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  • ReimNier

    Well, there goes my afternoon.  Gonna read in a bit.  Thanks in advance, Gus!

  • mr_hanie

    You also need talent to make the coaches theories work. Leafs defensemen (except Phaneuf ) have been below average. This puts more of a workload on Phaneuf which makes him prone to errors too.

  • lieffan

    First off, amazing post. Thanks to Gus.
    Secondly, Carlyle’s system is faulty and undercutting the talent level of this team. It definitely pushes shots outside when it’s working. But it’s just leading to too much zone time against.

  • lieffan

    mr_hanie The opponents are adjusting.
    They know that the points are open, and they know that pinching down the walls leaves the defenceman with little option with his forwards scrambling from the collapse.

  • Mcost61

    This is enlightening, it gives me clear reasons why Leafs play like this on ice. Thank you

  • Burtonboy

    Great post Gus . You have me chomping at the bit for the the remainder of this series. Just wondering if this is the same system they were using in the playoffs last yr against the Bruins and if it is why did it work so well then but not now?

  • mcloki

    Excellent post.

  • wiski

    Very well done nice to see Gus back on here.

  • mcloki

    How long has it been since someone has actually read a story, seen it described, as the fundamentals of hockey systems. I have to go back to Howie Meeker. Well done. Very well done.

  • mcloki

    TheCanucksnaphook mcloki Maybe but I was very young when Peter Puck and Howie were on TV. 😉 This is excellent. and I think it’s funny that Gus is using video to explain. He’s like our own John Madden with the telestrator.

  • Jay31

    This is some really illuminating stuff. Well-written and honestly the best hockey article I’ve read in a while. You see the so-called experts trumpeting “17-0″ all day long without actually providing any analysis to go with that figure. 
    I really liked the accordion analogy, that’s actually perfect and exactly what the Leafs resemble a lot of the time in their own zone. 
    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Alec Brownscombe

    Every system has a give and take, but the Leafs seem to be taking on more and more water as the opposition in their prescout look to exploit these same issues Gus is illuminating above.
    I don’t doubt that it helped support the Leaf goalies better last season. Reimer and Scrivens didn’t suddenly put it all together in an instant without more support than (at least Reimer and Gus) were getting the season prior under Wilson when five man breakdowns were the norm and the Leafs were terrible at clearing out second and third opportunities.
    In theory this system is remedial and helps support the goalies and defence… but it’s clearly leading to issues for the team on the breakout and sustained defensive zone time. At this point it seems to be working against itself. 
    Dunno what to think, maybe it’s not impossible that this team can execute as it’s designed.

  • Burtonboy

    So what are we saying here . Is the system actually flawed or is it more a matter of execution and lack of players on the back end that can move and pass the puck ?

  • Dudgee

    I heart you, Gus.

  • LeafsForLife

    Thank you for this Gus. Fantastic job and an awesome amount of information. Great work and very much appreciated!

  • mcloki

    Burtonboy I think it’s a system that can be successfully stymied with applied pressure form the forwards. and a hard pinch by the D. Cut off the half boards and the puck is stopped.

  • Mind Bomb

    Thanks Gus, very interesting stuff, we just need RC to come on here and comment on it :)

  • mr_hanie

    I wonder if Nonis pulls the trigger on the Liles for Gleason ( Carolina) rumours to help Leafs defensemen.

  • Jay31

    mr_hanie Do we really want someone who’s been riding the pine on a garbage team?

  • http://i.imgur.com/MyKj5C3.gif ingy56

    Very good post Gus.. I have to go back and re-read it…my ADD only lets me read less than 140 characters now….lots of good information here.

  • Burtonboy

    I hate plays up the half wall and would much rather see dmen who can actually skate the puck out or pass it some where other then up the boards or off the glass only to have the opposing team regain possession in the neutral zone and come right back at you. We may not be executing very well but maybe we simply don’t have the talent to actually execute this system  properly

  • http://i.imgur.com/MyKj5C3.gif ingy56

    mr_hanie Getting Gleason and putting him in the lineup will likely necessitate a roster move.

  • Burtonboy

    mr_hanie He’s hurt right anyway but I don’t see the sense of acquiring a dman who is no better then what we have right now and more expensive to boot. I hope like fuck Nonis steers clear of Gleason

  • mr_hanie

    Burtonboy mr_hanie I have not seen Gleason play recently..maybe he has gone down-hill ??? But he has won a Stanley Cup and has played on the US team last Olympics.

  • DJBrianBurke

    Great article. Very in depth. Thanks Gus!

  • http://i.imgur.com/MyKj5C3.gif ingy56

    mr_hanie Burtonboy Komi played on the Olympic team too :)

  • BERNYAY

    Burtonboy Blame to go around, BB.
    Does anyone think Franson or Rielly or Gardiner or Ranger are really executing well consistently? There’s lots to like about their individual games, but come on.. it’s not all Randy’s fault. This system makes sense as Alec said below.

  • wiski

    https://twitter.com/markhmastershttps://twitter.com/markhmasters/status/406170159074668544
    Kadri on how momentum shifted in 3rd period: “Two penalties & see ya later, there it went”

  • wiski

    ingy56 You’ve been twittered

  • mr_hanie

    Carlyle won the Norris, so I still say he knows more on how to play defense in the NHL than the posters here who have played D in the NHL, but never won the Norris.

  • .JVR.

    mr_hanie 
    We have posters here who have played defence in the NHL?

  • http://i.imgur.com/MyKj5C3.gif ingy56

    wiski ingy56 Big time.

  • mr_hanie

    .JVR. mr_hanie Yes, but I cannot re-call his handle…seemed to know all the nuances.

  • mcloki

    wiski That’s about all he can say. Any words against the refs and the team and players get fined. It’s the elephant in the room, so we have the MSM fall back and blame the players. Bullshit.

  • http://i.imgur.com/MyKj5C3.gif ingy56

    Another anthem getting butchered at the Cowboys game.

  • mcloki

    Burtonboy mr_hanie Fully second that notion BB. Ride this out. referees change every game maybe the games over the weekend will have different outcomes.

  • wiski

    ingy56 there’s my Raiders 😉

  • http://i.imgur.com/MyKj5C3.gif ingy56

    wiski ingy56 Just scored on the opening kickoff!

  • wiski

    mcloki wiski Hope Bolland can back up the flush once it’s started.

  • .JVR.

    mr_hanie
    interesting

  • Anthony Petrielli

    mr_hanie 1- Best players aren’t always the best teachers. 2- The game has changed quite a bit since he last played.

  • Great Dane

    Gus and Alec.
    First great article Gus. I have one fundamental question regarding the Leafs and the system the Carlyle is trying to implement:
    Are Carlyle trying to implement a defensive system that we don’t have the players to play? 
    To me it is “Mission Impossible” – Leafs do not have Pronger, Niedermeyer and Beauchemin and strong centers to implement such a system. So why is RC still trying to make it work?

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Great Dane We’ve been talking about this on Twitter- seems he’s implementing a system to collapse because the Leafs don’t have the pieces to go straight man vs. man. Instead he’s collapsing and “swarming” puck carriers as the picture show because the Leafs aren’t exactly flush with big, physical, battle-winning, centers and D.

  • Alec Brownscombe

    Anthony Petrielli Great Dane This

  • ReimNier

    ingy56 That Turkey can shit in my mouth all day.

  • Burtonboy

    Anthony Petrielli Great Dane Franson ,Fraser and Ranger are all big dmen . Whats the problem here or are they just not talented enough. I find it difficult to accept these guys can’t win their fair share of puck battles

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Burtonboy Anthony Petrielli Great Dane You think Ranger wins a lot of puck battles? Fraser looks extremely limited skating-wise because of that knee injury (already wasn’t a good skater, but now…). Franson’s been up and down all year (that’s what happens when you miss camp!!). Hate to pick out all the warts of these guys because I like what Franson brings to the PP and Fraser brings to the PK, but lots of issues on this defense for 5v5 and the team has lost their best defensive center.

  • Great Dane

    Alec Brownscombe Anthony Petrielli Well – that could be true. However, RC trying to compensate quality with quantity leading to, if the “system” is beaten as shown by Gus, a situation were there is no way to recover from. 
    Best example 2 minutes of Bruins. 
    If Leafs play a middle to low skilled team we are OK, but a team like the Bruins and Penguins (when they put their act together) that have the skills we are bound to loose.

    How can the system be changed to suit the players that we have?

  • Great Dane

    Anthony Petrielli Burtonboy With centers and the d-men we have this is not going to work.

  • Burtonboy

    Anthony Petrielli Burtonboy Great Dane I don’t think any of them win very many battles. I’m wondering why. I see the obvious problems with Fraser but the others should be better