Joffrey Lupul: Also confounded by Leafs’ defensive system

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Jonathan Bernier
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 13: Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings tries to knock in the puck against Jonathan Bernier #45 of the Toronto Maple Leafs at Staples Center on March 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)

“We didn’t seem to be able to break the cycle, and they were using the points. We play with a lot of people down low in our zone so the points are going to be open. And yet they seemed to be getting the point shots through and a lot of tips and rebounds. Obviously something.. something was wrong there.”
– Joffrey Lupul after the 5-3 loss to St. Louis.

After the loss last night, Randy Carlyle and Joffrey Lupul both came to the conclusion that this Leafs team is tense — on account of all the recent losing — and it has hurt their starts in games by exacerbating an inability to calmly execute breakouts. After all, the team has been able to battle back in games after falling behind by a couple of goals, repeatedly, during this losing streak. Lupul said “our skill seems to take over” once the Leafs shed their “fear” and play come-from-behind hockey.

That could be one factor. But it’s also almost certainly true that opposing teams are easing off the throttle once up by a few goals. A system that fails when the game is close and the opponent is applying pressure is obviously not a working system. Not that we didn’t know this already, whether you’re looking at the outrageously — historically — bad shot or shot attempt data, or poring through some game tape.

As Gus Katsaros wrote way back in November:

[quote_box_center]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.
[/quote_box_center]

In last night’s case, the degree of forechecking pressure was intensely high while the game was still up for grabs. The Blues are the gold standard when it comes to a heavy cycle team; as Carlyle put it, they get pucks in deep, retrieve very effectively,  play “high to low,” and crash the net. Their D is talented, mobile, and very effective at pinching down the walls. In both games versus St. Louis this season, the Leafs have been blown out of the rink before the game was half over. St. Louis is really good, but this is the NHL, and the gap between a great NHL team and an average NHL team shouldn’t be so immediately visible within 20 minutes of the game, at least not to the tune of getting out shot 40-13 and outscored 5-1 in the combined first periods of the two tilts. At a minimum, as fans we want to see the Leafs compete and earn respect, which is certainly not what happened in the first 40 minutes of last night’s game.

(Interesting thing about Carlyle: I’ve always found, in the pressers, he is capable of identifying the problems, or what the other team does well that his team doesn’t, but never of actually attributing them correctly and fixing them… a better diagnostician than a prescriber of remedy; there seems to this old-school stubbornness and a stringent belief in his way — or system — and it being all the players’ fault when it fails. It’s why he’s blaming the team being tense as the reason for these struggles rather than something systemic. When things are going poorly, a team should be able to lean on its fundamentals and strength of system, but the Leafs’ is failing them).

Many teams in the League will collapse in certain situations when defending; be it late in the game with a lead or as a scrambled reaction if something breaks down and there’s an abandonment of structure. The Leafs, however, are unique in the sense that this is what their defensive zone system is predicated on as their ‘structured’ system. As we saw on 24/7, the coaches call it the “swarm” and this is how they play from puck drop.

It doesn’t give the team a fighting chance against a team like St. Louis.

Among many, two particularly long spells in defensive zone took place in the first period at five on five, one leading to the 1-1 goal. (The first saw Leafs spent from 18:44 until 17:23, nearly a minute and a half straight, in their own zone).

There are so many examples of this every game, all season, but let’s revisit one from last night. With six minutes to go came another long spell in Leaf zone leading up to 1-1 goal (McClement, Lupul, Raymond, Gardiner, Franson on the ice). Key in on Mason Raymond. Now, he isn’t the strongest guy in puck battles on the wall nor always the best decision maker, but Raymond was so concerned about doing his part to cover the slot “in case” while the puck is behind the goalline. As a consequence, Raymond has to take  extra strides that leave him second to the puck or in a poor position to receive a pass from Gardiner. This is obviously his prescribed positioning. Finally, after one desperate chip into the neutral zone by Gardiner, the puck is back in the Leaf zone within 3 seconds, the puck goes low off the shot, back high, D to D, and Alex Steen tips the point shot.

(Note: There were also instances in this game where the Leafs were in a position to win battles on the walls or receive the pass and simply didn’t, a separate but related issue and one also in need of assessment).

Now, it’s probably true that the Leafs would have eked into the playoffs this season if Bernier was around to help them collect some points in those crucial four-point games, rather than a shaken, possibly-injured and off-his-game James Reimer. Hell, maybe they even would have received a favorable matchup against the Habs or something and gone on to win a round, but what are we ultimately talking about here? A team has to be able to withstand and diffuse strong forechecking and cycling pressure if it wants to go anywhere in the post season. If this team somehow manages to take 11 or 12 points out of their final 16, they would play Boston, and I am positive they would fare much worse than they did last May (besides the Leafs being worse this season, the Bruins are scoring far more).

Perhaps my abiding belief in the team’s talent level led me to erroneously predict the Leafs to finish 6th in in the East despite fears about Carlyle, but I do still believe there’s a lot more talent here than what’s been on display lately. There’s also unquestionably some personnel weaknesses on this roster, with some particularly disappointing developments on the backend. I also believe there is some soft play going on among this group of forwards that falls beyond Carlyle. After all, more than one single factor goes into setting records for shots against (expansion-team bad) and being bottom-3 in goals against despite great goaltending. The difficulty, come the off season, is assessing the performances of some of the Leafs’ defencemen and of their forwards in the defensive context after having watched them try to execute this system all season long.

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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 [email protected]
  • Anthony Petrielli

    Good stuff. Also, frustrating. This isn’t rocket science.

  • Jmessih

    Anthony Petrielli Hey Anthony, do you think Reilly represents Canada @ World Championships this spring? Assuming things continue at this rate? I think he gets a call for sure. Outside chance of Gards going to USA as well.

  • TheGroobster

    Just want to note that Carlyle has, in the past, taken blame on himself and the coaching staff for the teams poor play.

  • Cloud09

    TheGroobster  Doesn’t mean much if they keep going back and making the same mistakes over and over again.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Jmessih Anthony Petrielli  Need to see who doesn’t make the playoffs first but I don’t think he’ll be in the original 7 they want. Maybe after a few guys say no (which always happens) he’ll get the call though.

  • Cloud09

    Frustrating is a good way to put it. I finally bought into what the Leafs were trying to sell at training camp after a wary summer but this just shows how wrong we all were. Heads should roll, ideally from the top down. Nonis, Carlyle and unfortunately Phaneuf should be purged from this team and start with a fresh piece of paper. Leiweke has a chance this summer to try and right the ship, hopefully before they burn all the boats.

  • Jmessih

    Anthony Petrielli Jmessih Really, they usually prioritize at least one or two young guns. Also, correct Reilly cannot play AHL playoffs. So after the Leafs season is done, so is he (barring the WC)?

  • Habskilla

    All this article did for me is want Carlyle fired even more. But I know it isn’t going to happen because http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Nonis wants to keep his job and once you fire the coach the next person to go is the GM.

    Carlyle will be around next year. Next year we will have the same collapse. And next year is when we fire Carlyle…

  • Cloud09

    Habskilla  Only saving grace here is Nonis inherited Carlyle. Traditionally the GM gets an opportunity to bring in their own coach, and then if that doesn’t work the GM will get fired. If the Leafs miss here Carlyle has to get canned.

  • LeafsManiac

    Cloud09  I’m not the biggest Phaneuf fan, mostly due to his contract. But whether your a hater or not how can anybody think it’s possible to purge of him. We are stuck with him for a long long time, that is an absolutely terrible unmovable contract. In todays day and age it is all about cap hit and that is why personally I never seen Luongos contract that bad. But Phaneuf at 7mil, kessel at 8mil, Clarkson 5.25 man Nonis is digging himself one big hole. 
    We are stuck with the core we have they are not going anywhere, Carlyle may and I think should but I think Nonis should be gone at the end of the season as well.

  • TheGroobster

    So what the heck to the Leafs do now? Can you change a system with 8 games left in the season?

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Jmessih Anthony Petrielli  I love Rielly. I’d take him if I were them but are they going to think higher of more established young guys like TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic? That’s usually their track record.

    Giordano has a spot if he wants it. Same with Weber and Hamhuis. And Brian Campbell. Alzner will too  if Washington doesn’t make it.  Maybe even Trevor Daley. 

    So I bet a few of those guys say no and then Rielly will be in the conversation to be asked next.

  • LeafsManiac

    TheGroobster  no

  • LeafsManiac

    TheGroobster  they can’t do anything just make changes in the offseason

  • Jmessih

    At the Marlies “School Day Game” the school kids sang O Canada and it sounds great. Game me chills!!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaU8A3PY4fw

  • Cloud09

    LeafsManiac Cloud09  Contracts are moveable, and Dion can still be traded at the draft.

  • Habskilla

    Cloud09 Habskilla  I hope to fuck you are right

  • LeafsManiac

    Cloud09 LeafsManiac  You’re only kidding yourself. At 7 years (7 F’n years!!!!!!!!!) 7mil a season,  nobody in their right mind would even take a sniff at what bullshit Nonis is trying to pitch them. 
    What I would find funny is what kind of return people think we would get for him. Phaneuf is garbage, get rid of him, bad captain stupid hockey play. Umm typical guy saying they hate him: we’d probably get a first round pick and a good prospect and roster player. 
    False: If we get rid of phaneuf we are eating up salary. A possible similar return would be Luongos return although Luongos pedigree of success is much higher than Dions

  • sniperstar

    TheGroobster  They can win 8 straight games to make the play offs. Or pay Bettman to give us the 1st overall.

  • Waiting4LSC

    RC’s systm has been front and center of the play this year. When the team has played well, it has followed a physical, cycling game with reasonable offensive minutes. Opposition shots have still been high. Normally, we watch a team chasing the puck in its own end, and displaying a very poor clearance record. Most often the frantic activity has a 3 second breather before it starts all over again. I hve also found the top lines defensive coverage to be quite poor.  If players buy into the system, it normally works. Seems evident to me there is no confidence in the system and hence the players are at 6s and 7s.

  • Jmessih

    Tweet of the night, last night if you ask me https://twitter.com/mirtle · https://twitter.com/mirtle/status/448620973915639808
    Blues call a timeout. To work on their game. Or something.

  • Cloud09

    LeafsManiac Cloud09 I’m kinda lost at the point you’re trying to get across however my parting comment on the matter is this. If Brian Campbell and his $7+ million dollar contract can be traded, then Phaneuf can be traded as well.

  • dlb eh

    no offense, but i think the answer is plainly something that both Lupul and Carlyle understand, even if we want to analyze is to death
    confidence.  maturity.  skill.  trusting yourself and the guy next to you.  remembering past failures.  ignoring past failures.
    “Lupul said “our skill seems to take over” once the http://mapleleafshotstove.com/ shed their “fear” and play come-from-behind hockey.”
    we were afraid of STL before the game started.  all it takes is 1 out of 5 on the ice to be scared top engage.

  • dlb eh

    something not mentioned in Gus’ quote above about keeping stuff to the outside is support for each other.
    classic example last night, there was a two on one against us on the PP.  Franson was back, Phanuef in persuit.
    Franson inexplicably goes to the puck carrier to create the only good opportunity for the other team.
    to me, the players are half-assing it by getting to pucks slowly, and they’re not reading each other well at all.  other teams in the league suck at it too at times, but i’ve seen good players become dumb when they get stuck on lines with particular guys, or paired up with certain guys.
    we’ve seen two systems fail and the players who have been here through both are the one constant i would take a close look at.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Maybe the Leafs should adopt a strategy where they always play like their one goal down, not one goal up.

  • dlb eh

    it’s more than fair to say the players were tense and the problem early on.  all you have to do is look at the times we threw pucks away when we weren’t under any pressure.
    the footsteps we heard were the other team changing their lines…they were skating hard away from us but we still freaked out a number of times.
    get to the puck first, absorb a hit or roll with it, then move your feet and move the puck.  the guys on your team will have time to come closer to support you if the puck comes loose, and they’ll have to time to get moving towards open ice if you do come out with a puck and ready to move it.

  • dlb eh

    MaxwellHowe
    they should think “hey, if we get down a goal we’re going to be able to play better, so let’s not worry about getting behind a goal.  let the experts flash that stat all they want.”
    still,. that doesn’t mean taking stupid risks.

  • Rosscoe

    Great article and it summarizes exactly the way I feel about the Leafs this year. I would add one thing – the Leaf forwards are not built (physically or mentally) to play the “heavy” grinding board game that become primary at this time of the year. This explains a lot – why they lose so many board battles; why they have so much trouble exiting their end and why at this time of year they become an 18 wheeler off a cliff (more often than not).

  • dlb eh

    i wish i could show two clips from last night:
    – one was a backcheck on one of our guys as he skated blue line to blue line with a STL player skating and slashing him the whole way (not looking for a penalty, just to highlight the back pressure)
    – next show Raymond a foot behind a STL guy who’s carrying the puck one-on-two … MayRay’s hoping someone can poke it to him so he can speed back the other way.
    with good back pressure you force bad dumpins and you get more turnovers at the bluelines because the D can stand up (as long as the forward and defense don’t both end up making the same check…this is where the support each other, read each other and show me you’re intelligent comes from)

  • ConnorCrisp

    I just hope Lewikie was in the box last night watching. And grinding his teeth. Defoe who?

  • ConnorCrisp

    LEAFS NOT MAKING THE PLAYOFFS. ITS A BLOODY BIG DEAL.

  • Jmessih

    ConnorCrisp No reason to hate on Defoe, he is doing exactly what an impact free agent signing should be doing. Making an impact, and doing so in wins.

  • ConnorCrisp

    Jmessih ConnorCrisp  no hate on Defoe.. i actually love TFC, but Leafs >>>>>>>> TFC is all

  • MaxwellHowe

    ConnorCrisp Still a chance.  Bernier just has to play his ass off this weekend, because the Leafs ain’t learning to play D in two days.

  • ConnorCrisp

    MaxwellHowe ConnorCrisp  I can’t decide which is worse: Making the playoffs and being ruined by the bruins, effectively erasing whatever positives from last year,  or not making the playoffs and being laughed at hard by people at work

  • daniel marois

    When I look at Team Canada winning gold with that defensive system…all I need to look at is the coaching staff:

    Head Coach: Mike Babcock (Detroit Red Wings)
    Associate Coaches: Ken Hitchcock (St. Louis Blues), Claude Julien (Boston Bruins), Lindy Ruff (Dallas Stars) 

    Look at the system each coach has for their NHL team and you can tell Carlyle’s system is not working here.  He was the best coach available when Burke hired him mid-season.  

    There will surely be better coaches available in the off-season to replace RC.  And please don’t suggest Steve Spott.  He has a good thing going with the Marlies.  Leave him to develop the kids…..

  • Jmessih

    ConnorCrisp MaxwellHowe They will laugh at your regardless :(

  • MaxwellHowe

    ConnorCrisp MaxwellHowe oh it ends poorly either way

  • Jmessih

    ConnorCrisp Jmessih Ya, its sad it took TFC 2 games.

  • ConnorCrisp

    MaxwellHowe ConnorCrisp  at least if they DONT make the playoffs there can be NO excuse for not firing RC

  • Jmessih

    Ya RC system is not working, but I don’t think we have the right players. Do you see Kadri, or Phil, or even Clarkson barring down defensively on each of their shifts?

  • ConnorCrisp

    daniel marois  Kevin Dineen? Torts? lol

  • dlb eh

    here’s how i break down that video
    1.  in the video, at around 44 seconds, McClemment gets puck watching and his man escapes to the front of the net. he’s the guy who ends up recovering the puck to start a cycle down low.
    2.  Franson gets focused on the puck soon after, not trusting that Lupul has the man tied up in front. so he’s ready to jump on a loose puck and prevent a centering pass. one of those things is fine, but how about realizing there’s another passing lane he should cover (#29)? good players read that and react faster.
    we do end up with control and simply give the puck back to them. i blame fear and maybe tired legs and a good memory of what’s been happening all game long

  • daniel marois

    ConnorCrisp MaxwellHowe  

    I would take the latter.  That laughter will last 5 mins.  The changes needed will be reinforced if they miss the playoffs.  Not the other way around.

  • ConnorCrisp

    daniel marois ConnorCrisp MaxwellHowe  yeah i agree… as hard as it is.. i hope they go 0-8

  • dlb eh

    3. then when the puck is dumped in again around a minute in i think Raymond’s just focused on getting a loose puck (as he comes down deep) and doesn’t trust that McClemment can handle that on his own. he cheats and the puck goes the other way and it’s another lost race to a loose puck.
    4.  on the final cycle before it goes to the point for the goal…Raymond came down lower as soon as both D were behind the net because there was a guy left open there. Gardiner should have cut to the front to cover him, leaving Bozak to take the other guy.  Gardiner gets caught puck watching again.
    Raymond would have found it easy to release back to the slot and that’s all he would have needed to get to the defender, even with tired legs.
    notice all the “puck watching” or “focused on the puck”?
    players. not system.

  • daniel marois

    Jmessih  

    I think what’s needed first is the right coach.  Then you decide if the existing players can fit that system.  Bring in a new coach that can get these players to play the right system.  Trading too many players is not the right strategy.

  • daniel marois

    ConnorCrisp daniel marois MaxwellHowe  

    Agreed.  Only way to guarantee RC is a goner.

  • daniel marois

    ConnorCrisp daniel marois  

    I don’t have the answer.  But a through coaching search is needed.  Just like when they had to replace Eakins with Spott for the Marlies.  They interviewed many candidates and chose the right one.  Same process needs to be made for the Buds.

  • dlb eh

    although lately it seems the coaches might have given up on the players being able to think and they tell them “just find someone to cover and stay with them for fuck sakes”
    but that doesn’t excuse the players from reacting slowly to loose pucks, and it doesn’t excuse them from losing puck battles, or not getting open fast for outlets, or for not making sharp outlets