The Maple Leafs Transition Game

Photo: NHLI via Getty Images

This quote triggered the thought process behind this post.

[quote_box_center]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.[/quote_box_center]

Emphasis and bold are my own, but the quote is from one of the MLHS series of interviews with Leafs management personnel conducted with Associate Coach Greg Cronin.

Those words: ‘we were a transitional team.’


It’s a simple word that hangs heavy over the spectre of the consistently-outshot Maple Leafs in 2013-14 – and leading back into the lockout shortened ’12-13.

The word, to me, is a conceptual jumping-off point in analyzing the trouble in their own zone, whereby they’re hemmed in for extended periods, but may provide a foundation of reasoning for the big gaps between forwards and defensemen and the lack of concern with ‘outside’ shots.

This is only a theory since I am not sophisticated enough (yet) to definitively pin down practicality. I’ve been trying to formulate an interpretation behind the lacklustre defensive showing of the Randy Carlyle era, trying to couple the end results with the systematic process. I will simply present this as only a theory.

Transition references the Leafs defensive philosophy, the third element in my definition of a three-pronged function of a defensive system.

  • Isolate the puck carrier, engage with numbers (support)
  • Regain possession of the puck
  • Transition to offense

Transition is the end result of the process, but also the philosophical basis of Carlyle’s system. Let’s elaborate further.

The best way to limit shots is to maintain puck possession. The first two criteria above are used in conjunction to facilitate the third — transition — and that’s what the Leafs coaching staff wants to focus on as a squad.

This means, when the puck enters your zone, the best way to limit shots, scoring chances and goals is to get it out of there as soon as possible. The first example here is about getting the puck up the same side. (These examples are meant to showcase best case scenarios).

The concept here is similar, with the clearing coming up the right wing.

Note: I liked the idea presented by Darryl Belfry – @BelfryHockey (a great Twitter follow) – regarding using the dots and drew lines differentiate the outside/middle and a rectangular shape to isolate the scoring area directly in front of the net.

Transition to offense means the opposition is caught in the backcheck as stated in the Cronin quote. This is the quick strike ‘rush team’ approach and why Barry Trotz, Drew Doughty amid others cite the Leafs as being a ‘rush’ team, or predictable.

The philosophy earns merit in consideration of the blueline roster. There’s mobility in the likes of Jake Gardiner, Dion Phaneuf – to a degree – (I don’t think he should be lugging the puck as much as he does, but that’s a separate issue) and  potential mobility from feel-good story of Paul Ranger’s NHL comeback. The approach offers fluidity and some perceived degree of logical success.

Cody Franson and Carl Gunnarsson contribute less as rushers and more with outlet and stretch passes. (Montreal seems to use a similar philosophy – although I don’t have enough views to properly determine their style, it’s eerily similar to the Leafs).

Morgan Rielly added another element of mobility benefitting from a system built to take advantage of skating, vision and distribution skills. Sure, he won a spot via a terrific camp, but the coaches also likely saw a fairly seamless fit and theory of a fluid, transitional defense. He’s booked a solid rookie campaign with displays of brilliance and tentativeness/errors, riding the ebbs and flow of the developmental curve.

Toronto didn’t enter the season with a stifling defense – Mark Fraser likely being the most rugged, and little-used John-Michael Liles (another mobile rearguard) was banished to the Toronto Marlies. The Leafs were built offense-heavy with a boost in goaltending with the acquisition of Jonathan Bernier to tandem with James Reimer.

MLHS’s Anthony Petrielli touched on that idea in one of his notebooks, outlining a developing blueline requiring a need for solid goaltending while buoyed by a potent offense.

[quote_box_center]“It’s not a perfect formula nor, most likely, a championship one, but in a league that’s about goal scoring the Leafs do it well, plus they have good enough goalies able to either a) keep them in games or b) provide the big save when they need it while they are hemmed in their own zone.”[/quote_box_center]

Execution, conversely, has been an outright disaster. It’s easy to lay blame solely on the coach, but there’s a responsibility among players to execute properly. Clearly overwhelmed, execution in this instance deserves a cigarette and blindfold.

Blueliners looked confused and outmuscled. They’re late to pucks, lose races and beat in 50-50 battles. When Carlyle mentions ‘compete,’ I feel this point is what he might be specifically addressing (he never really does) – in addition to offensive zone forechecking pressure, but that’s another strategy altogether. The lack of a potent, aggressive forecheck means more time setting up neutral zone forechecks and  extended defensive zone time.

In-zone mayhem is detailed here, describing the Leafs ‘swarm,’ so I won’t go into much more detail here other than teams play the Leafs like an accordion.

I feel the problems start with the Leafs defensemen and how they can be exploited by opposition forecheckers in various situations. Pressuring leads to turnovers,  shots on goal and regaining the puck due to coverage errors, multiplying the barrage. The end result is overwhelming periods of ‘receiving.’

Essentially, the transition defense isn’t working. Let’s examine why.

The main area of concern happens after a zone entry, with control or after a dump in. I feel there is likely a lot more dump ins into the zone due to the impact it has on the Leafs blueliners and their ineffective manner in which they move the puck, but we won’t definitively know until there is an accurate tracking of zone entries. Teams dump the puck in the zone, outhustle Leafs to the area of the puck – not necessarily to the puck itself – usually behind the goal line where a battle will begin, forcing a pin, pressure, and limiting the Leafs’ ability to get the puck moving back the other way quickly – transitioning.

The consequential effect drops forwards down really low as they enter the zone and set up, creating space between them and point men as pictured below in the low zone collapse.

Toronto Maple Leafs Defensive Systems
Photo: Gus Katsaros (@katshockey)

After the pivot, there are three or four strides separating David Clarkson and the point man here.

7 - Lowzoneoverload

The take away this image is on the puck battle by defensemen underneath the goal line. That happens a lot and kills any transitional game.

This initiates the accordion effect for low-positioned forwards engaging the point men when the puck is thrown back up to the top of the zone.

6 - LeafsHabsMiddleSpace

The Leafs lack of concern for outside shots, as long as they control the inside, home plate, or prime scoring chance area, whatever suits your naming convention taste. This makes sense if the Leafs can recover the puck from the outside shotnand then move back up ice quickly.

Most of the time, it seems that they try a controlled breakout, slowing the play down (the opposite of quick transition), which defeats the purpose of having the gap between forwards and defensemen. At least from a swarm, upon regaining the puck (assuming they regain it) outlets are close by to get pucks out cleanly with more uniform breakouts.

The large gap between forwards and defensemen thwarts clean breakouts but plays its part in the transitional defense. The gap allows the Leafs defensemen to:

  • Find outlets high in the zone for a quick transition out or in the shallow neutral zone for quick strikes through center ice, assuming they recover the puck
  • Pushes out opposition defensemen into the neutral zone – causing separation from forechecking pressure and potentially keeping pucks in the zone
  • Options for defensemen if they ring the puck off the glass and out, with theoretical neutral zone support. (I think the Habs do this, leading me to believe they’ve adopted a similar philosophy).

The results clearly don’t match the philosophy. Teams pin defensemen down low, take away the high end of the zone and the Leafs defense, in the form of mobile defensemen, lose too many board battles and get lost in opposition cycles, leading to scrambles and coverage breakdowns. Goalies are bombed constantly and the endless pattern is a detriment and failing the goals of the philosophy.

Theoretically, the ideal ‘outside transition’ would look something like this, incorporating all criteria of a defensive system, beginning with a zone entry. The video shows the isolation, regaining the puck, and moving it quickly out of the zone in a best case scenario.

Outside Transition

Unfortunately, the Leafs get stuck in the board battles and the transition never happens.

If the play is driving up the middle (the video below), it’s likely that opposition drifts into the scoring chance area for a good shooting opportunity if not properly engaged. Most of the time this should end up as a defensive zone faceoff. But if there’s a soft forecheck, or a slack follow up to the net, the transition philosophy would be moving the puck back up ice with opposition forwards caught a bit low in the Leafs zone.

The Leafs, however, will usually start with a controlled breakout, spreading the forwards and defensemen and again, almost working against the philosophy of quick transition.

Middle Transition

It’s perfectly clear that the there are gaps between coaching staff and on-ice personnel. Both deserve to be called out for the failures of their defensive play, varying by degree.

The transition isn’t working, likely leading into another transition.

Only this time, it’s not on the ice.

Video’s produced using HockeyDood app that can be found on

Follow Gus Katsaros on Twitter @KatsHockey and his blog Kats Krunch on

  • dlb eh

    I’ve only made it a tenth of the way down, but i will get back to reading it for sure.  Looking forward to it.
    i think part of the issue we’ve had in our own end came from what Carlyle said the other night after the game.  I think it might be related to Phaneuf hanging onto the puck instead of icing it prior to the goal we gave up near the end of the first.
    “we have to be more patient in our own end”
    i think Dion might have been trying to lead by example.  settle it down and don’t rush.  control the puck and make a solid play.  sounds dumb, i know, but there were times we were freaking out in that first period and i’m sure the message on the bench to the effect of “calm down guys”
    the players are relaxing when they shouldn’t and taking the message the wrong way.
    hustle to loose pucks, get there first.  be hard on the puck when you get there.  be aggressive in protecting the puck (this is the be patient part) by absorbing and avoiding checks and maintaining control and possession.  then move your feet to get clear and open up skating and passing lanes.

  • dlb eh

    I’ve made to here and i’m nodding my head along with you so far
    “I feel the problems start with the Leafs defensemen and how they can be exploited by opposition forecheckers in various situations. Pressuring leads to turnovers, shots on goal and regaining the puck due to coverage errors, multiplying the barrage. The end result is overwhelming periods of ‘receiving.’”

  • mlclearwater

    dlb eh  Thats what she said

  • dlb eh

    I think you are thinking similar with this “it seems that they try a controlled breakout, slowing the play down (the opposite of quick transition), ”
    i think the players are mistaking Carlyle wanting them to not panic and throw pucks away with moving slowly and deliberately.

  • wiski

    Well done Gus always liked your work.

  • Pent_House

    nice write-up

  • DeclanK

    Open thread on the other post

  • DeclanK

    Try and keep discussion to this post only

  • Anthony Petrielli

    It’s kind of implied throughout this piece (the D is developing, outlet options aren’t there, etc. etc.) but I just find it astonishing that one player can dump the puck in on the Leafs, be the only fore-checker in on two defensemen, and cause them fits plus create turnovers. Their inability to make simple plays and move the puck up ice –including making easy passes– is honestly mind blowing considering these are pro hockey players. I don’t know if these guys are deer in the headlights when they have the puck or what but they often fail to make easy passes and plays that are literally right in front of them.

  • dlb eh

    like he said, though, you have to see how that play developed.
    the Leafs actually had the puck a few moments earlier and were poised to break. Rielly bumbled the puck at the right side of the net and the Leafs forwards had to come back to help. Clarkson was actually out at the blue line on this play when the puck becamse up for grabs behind the net.

  • dlb eh

    Bolland adjusted to support the puck battle and he left a player open in front of the net, and that’s when Clarkson came down. the player isn’t there in the picture.
    meanwhile, Raymond was up the boards waiting for the breakout pass and had to come down the wall and i suppose he wanted to make sure the guy with the puck didn’t come out and do a look to the net out of that corner.
    all because a breakout didn’t happen.

  • dlb eh

    Anthony Petrielli
    sometimes we can see there are no pass options due to the forwards being up ice or whatever. sometimes it’s really just being slow to process everything and poor execuation.
    lately i think it’s due to lack of confidence at least partially. it’s like the guys have learned to not trust themselves or some of their mates.

  • dlb eh

    Anthony Petrielli
    i think we scratch our heads as to why Carlyle keeps throwing some guys out there over and over again and choose to not use others, and i think it’s one method he uses to show his veterans he believes in them, saying “i know you’ll get it eventually”.
    make a mistake throw him back out, don’t pull him off. ultimately, it seems to me that the players are being given rope but aren’t rewarding their coach.

  • Xxxxxnew

    I’ve witnessed these tendencies all the way back to the Paul Maurice era.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    dlb eh Anthony Petrielli  Million dollar question- is cheating high the players own doing or the system?

  • The_Polish_Cannon

    Anthony Petrielli dlb eh  it’s been constant all year, hard to imagine it’s not part of the system. Haven’t seen any evidence of them being forced to play one way than deviate to cheating high

  • FRyan

    Anthony Petrielli dlb eh  
    It’s the system. These guys are professionals and have been playing hockey for ages. For whatever reason the system they are deploying isn’t working

  • Anthony Petrielli

    FRyan Anthony Petrielli dlb eh  The_Polish_Cannon  Hey, I think it is too, but I’m not going to pretend I’m in that room and know for sure.

  • FRyan

    Anthony Petrielli FRyan dlb eh The_Polish_Cannon  
    Question is how do other teams continue to use the same style and system and have success. But the leafs seem to have no system in place and continue to be exposed night after night

  • Anthony Petrielli

    FRyan Anthony Petrielli dlb eh The_Polish_Cannon  I also question if the players add their own input. I’m telling you- If I played in this system and got dominated nightly, I’d speak up. Just no way I could handle this on a day-to-day basis. I’d lose it.

  • FRyan

    Anthony Petrielli FRyan dlb eh The_Polish_Cannon  
    but then you would lose playing time and be called out publicly.

  • FRyan

    Anthony Petrielli dlb eh The_Polish_Cannon  
    we can’t use the same old the coach doesn’t have the players he wants. This team was built for Carlyle with his input and who he wanted.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    FRyan Anthony Petrielli dlb eh The_Polish_Cannon  Then that’s on the coaches. Are we trying to get better here or is it about ego, who has the biggest D, and who is “right?”

  • FRyan

    Anthony Petrielli FRyan dlb eh The_Polish_Cannon  
    Me personally i see carlyse in the same mold as burke to much of an ego and look i have a stanley cup and a norris trophy. Players will respect you more when you say you know what this isn’t working im open to ideas that’s a players coach. Didn’t we bring in two coaches who could well be an nhl coach on any team

  • FRyan

    Anthony Petrielli dlb eh The_Polish_Cannon  
    And players taking heat isn’t right. It’s not on the players they are doing what is asked of them. I don’t see certain talk shows calling out the coaches on the system. Our power play is atrocious 6 short handed goals against that’s nuts.  Or the penalty kill

  • lukethenuke

    First time I will be cheering for the Habs tonight… hurts but fuck the Wings

  • djamon

    Anthony Petrielli  I’ve said this before…I think it’s come down to Carlyle not believing this team can win individual board battles, so he’s devised a system where we’re forced to outnumber the forechecker in order to regain the puck. But even that doesn’t work sometime…as you pointed out.

    Great writeup as always.

  • Axle_Goalie

    I get the feeling that, for the most part, the team isn’t involved in creating a system that works for them. Remember when Riley banked a pass off of the back boards and Gardiner scored last week, you could see the excitement on their faces, they had practiced that play themselves. (within reason) I think that if the players were involved in the overall system they’d take more pride in its execution. I get the feeling that that does NOT happen.

  • TML__fan

    This is an excellent assessment, and I’m surprised the Leafs still haven’t addressed their problems with defensive-zone coverage and their transition game.  Basically the only time the Leafs have had much success with their systems is when their opposition is not a fast hard-forechecking team, or has their own problems defensively. 

    I wonder how much blame to attribute to the coaches and how much to the players.  Whatever the coaching staff is trying to do, it is not working.  Part of the blame obviously rest with the players, and that in turn stems back to management and the GM.  Still one has to wonder why Carlyle and his staff continue to preach a system that is obviously not working every night.  I just don’t see much evidence of the Leafs adjusting their play (or system) based on what their opposition is doing.  

    I remember clearly during one of the 24/7 HBO shows hearing Babcock say to his players to keep pressuring the Leafs and that the Leafs couldn;t handle them down low.  
    As you nicely put it…. “Blueliners looked confused and outmuscled. They’re late to pucks, lose races and beat in 50-50 battles.”  The defence, if they do manage to win a puck chase/battle, predictably slide it up along the boards to the winger.  In most cases the opposition is already pressuring that winger and intercepts the pass or forces a turnover. 
    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

  • BingoDabber

    Here’s the positive in all this. The contributions between Alex, Anthony and Gus in terms of the analysis and interviews provided means this blog is doing more to dissect the leaf issues than the MSM and perhaps even the Leafs themselves are doing. So good for MLHS but what the shit are we going to do to fix all this
    Over and out, 

  • ingy56

    Consistently out-muscled, losing board battles, chasing the puck constantly…in order to become a transition team they have to recover the puck first, something they are consistently awful at. A good coach would adapt and devise a new strategy or adapt the one he is trying to implement. The Leafs have problems both behind the bench and in personnel on the ice.

  • Loric76

    Great read.  Thanks Gus!

  • Belfour20/JB-45

    “It’s kind of implied throughout this piece (the D is developing, outlet options aren’t there, etc. etc.) but I just find it astonishing that one player can dump the puck in on the Leafs, be the only fore-checker in on two defensemen, and cause them fits plus create turnovers. Their inability to make simple plays and move the puck up ice –including making easy passes– is honestly mind blowing considering these are pro hockey players. I don’t know if these guys are deer in the headlights when they have the puck or what but they often fail to make easy passes and plays that are literally right in front of them. ” -AP

    Dude thank you for this!

    Not to take RC off the hook, but these guys handle the puck like its a grenade. I have never seen a team this bad with just basic skills, it’s a fucking joke. I am absolutely sure, if these guys didnt have such a hard enough time with puck management, that the system wouldnt even look half as bad as they make it seem. It’s like the Reimer situation, he could make his life so much easier in net just by doing little things in net, such as better rebound direction and or control, I mean if you cant control it, direct it out of harms way. It’s easy to say a system isnt working, but you can’t teach a system to basic minded fools.

  • Bobsyouruncle

    Wish I’d known this sooner. Does this mean I’ve been wasting my time with those 6/49 tickets?   : )

  • TuckerForPunishment

    Bobsyouruncle TML__fan  Not necessarily.   You’re an old fart.  Don’t old people always win?  😉

  • TuckerForPunishment

    Bobsyouruncle TML__fan  You probably coulda poked Deklan re: livefyre on this one.

  • ingy56

    Not good..more of the same coming right up…
    Dreger on TSN Radio “if the Leafs coaching staff is going to go down they’re going to go down swinging”

  • Bobsyouruncle

    TuckerForPunishment    jk   I don’t really buy lottery tickets much, 10-20 a year. Couldn’t tell you what the Friday lottery is called.  But if old farts are winning, it’s in the bag. Gotta start picking up the pace. ; )

  • Loric76

    ingy56  hopefully at each other?

  • Jordan29

    Loric76 ingy56  hopefully he means by ropes

  • ProfessorRance

    ingy56  Just like TSN getting shunned after that Sportsnet deal right Dregs?

  • Alec Brownscombe

  • Bobsyouruncle

    Jordan29Ceremony before next game. We’re going to retire Randy’s Leafs jersey….with him in it.  lol

  • dlb eh

    come on, man.  you read all my arguments.  i was explaining this yesterday to someone on here.  loomx?  he even inked to Gus’ old article about the acordian?
    if you’re not pumping my tires i got no one to pump my tires

  • M

    The Collapse
    This has been mentioned before, a collapsing defense usually happens out of desperation or breakdown when opposing players outnumber us in high scoring areas.  Even if it’s by system design, you don’t collapse prematurely for no reason because it does have drawbacks.  Look at the pictures, there is only one Oiler player in the slot, yet they have already collapsed.
    Sure you clog up the middle but what people have forgotten is that the puck is a very small piece of rubber.  If NHL caliber players have the time and space, they’ll thread the puck through even if you have the entire Canadian army on the ice in front of our goalie.
    Here are some points against a collapsing system, especially if not executed properly.
    1) Who’s got our back?  The main drawback with a collapsing defense system is that opposing players are being left wide open even when 5 vs 5.  Sure we have players covering the middle of the ice, but doing what?  The points and boards are often open, no one is applying pressure on the puck carrier to to take it back from them.  This is exactly opposite of puck possession.
    2) No one home for breakout.  Players such as the wingers are not in a position to cover the points or receive the puck when our own D rings it to them.
    3) Someone else in bed.  Our own players confuse each other.  A forward might be looking at the point so doesn’t realize his D getting back into position.  A D coming back from behind the net only to see a forward there.  Wtf?
    4) Play your positions, you are better at your own role.  In a collapsing system, there is much less structure, that’s why we see forwards covering opposing players in front of the net with neither of our own D in sight.  We also see our D having to move up to cover the points because our forwards covering low could not get back in time.  For example, in basketball, you don’t want your shorter players playing in front of the net, you’d rather use their speed to cover the points.
    5) Screen our own goalie.  If we collapse too tight, how often have we seen them not bother to send any of their own players into the slot?  It’s like shooting fish in a barrel against us.
    6) Once you play your hand with a collapse, you have to defend on the enemy’s terms.  Opposing players get a running start driving the net, our players can’t effectively stop or stay with them because they’re standing still in front of our goalie.
    The basics of regaining the puck is to to apply pressure on the puck carrier.  Your teammates act in a support role by positionally cutting off passing lanes.  Try to funnel, isolate, and force them to make mistakes and bad passes.  Their D at the point are more liable to make mistakes when they are sandwiched between our forward pressing them against the blue line.