Will Randy Carlyle Change?

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 27: Head Coach Randy Carlyle and Brendan Shanahan, President of the Toronto Maple Leafs speak prior to the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center on June 27, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Most fans had Randy Carlyle fired before the 2013-14 season ended.  He wasn’t.

Instead, Toronto’s front office opted to extend the former Norris trophy winner.  Quotables citing Carlyle’s experience and Stanley Cup-winning pedigree have been bandied about as support.  Even his detractors are unlikely to admit his retention immediately spells the end of this year’s playoff hopes.  But a failure to significantly overhaul his defensive system of the past two seasons is likely to do exactly that.

By now, you’re all familiar with the infamous “swarm” tactic that the Leafs have employed (unsuccessfully) since the beginning of the 2012 season.  Many recognize it as a flurry of frantic and futile flailing displayed by this Toronto squad in their own end.  The concept – and its shortcomings – were best summarized here on MLHS by Gus Katsaros.

[pull_quote_center]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 overload

One 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.[/pull_quote_center]

One would think that a strict adherence to a clearly faulty system would be a thing of the past.  In the fishbowl of analysis and criticism that is Toronto, many have suggested that Carlyle’s system doesn’t work and needs to change.  This notion has been broached by the media, fans and even his own players.

From the outside, it appears just about everyone is on board with a systemic overhaul except the few people with the power to actually do it.  Earlier this summer, Alec sat down with Steve Spott for an in-depth interview.  While the hiring of Peter Horachek to help run the defense pairings seems like a step in the right direction, questions concerning the swarm revealed that the best we can hope for is “adjustments:”

[pull_quote_center]We had a couple of minor adjustments we implemented into that swarm… some different rules of when we would go into it. I’m hoping those are some of the rules we can work in with the Leafs this year, where we can make some small adjustments to it.[/pull_quote_center]

In fact, it seems that Carlyle himself is convinced that it was simply a matter of “will and commitment” that saw his club set an all-time NHL record for most shots against.

[pull_quote_center]You have to play and you have to compete on the defensive side of the puck with will and commitment, and we did not want to do that on a day-to-day basis. That’s where our struggles were.[/pull_quote_center]

One has to wonder if Carlyle truly believes this.  A quick glance at Toronto’s Hextally charts under Carlyle’s reign versus the Ron Wilson era paints a very clear picture of the repercussions of Carlyle’s defensive scheme.  Perhaps he still believes in the myths of the lockout season: that letting opponents fire at will from the point keeps the shots to a distance, shots his goalies should be able to stop.

As per Elliot Friedman, Carlyle has maintained this stance for years:

[pull_quote_center]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]

For those of you not familiar with the Hextally charts (courtesy of war-on-ice), they display shooting rates relative to the league average by location. A value of 1 is exactly the league average.  The colour of the hex indicates the statistical significance of the value.

Hextally

Ironically, the Leafs were noticeably better at limiting shots against under the “free wheeling” Ron Wilson system.  Most values were not significantly different from the league average.  Noticeable exceptions include the slot area and a startling amount of shots against from directly in front of the net.

Compare that to Carlyle, purportedly a strong “defensive coach” who saw a relatively small turnover in personnel in his first full season in charge.  It’s true the Leafs under Carlyle last season “limited” shots to the outside to the tune of nearly 125% of the league average.  But, as Gus pointed out, the holes and passing lanes in the middle of the ice exposed by this system were relentlessly exploited by the opposition.  The end result?  Statistically significant elevated shot rates against in virtually all areas of the ice. This includes an even higher rate of shots from in front of the net than the “run and gun” Wilson Leafs.

What does this all mean?  There has been a lot of optimism surrounding the continued growth of Gardiner and Rielly.  There are potentially some better fits in Robidas and Polak on the blueline this year to help alleviate the defensive responsibilities of Phaneuf.  Youth and depth replacements are plentiful with names such as Granberg, Percy and Holzer being thrown around with good cause. There is essentially a rebuilt supporting cast at forward.

But, truthfully, we have to mitigate any optimism with the reality that not much will change if Carlyle doesn’t.  With the collective weight and frustration of Leafs Nation bearing down on them, the impetus is on the coaching staff to drastically alter their system.  Minor adjustments and vague implications that the players simply need to “compete” more may not rectify the magnitudes of the struggles within Carlyle’s defensive scheme in Toronto.  Preseason is right around the corner and this will be one of, if not the, biggest question marks entering 2014-15.

  • Alec Brownscombe

    Off topic conversation goes to the mashup: http://mapleleafshotstove.com/2014/09/15/monday-mashup-loov-returning-sweden-leafs-invite-cal-heeter-camp/

  • silverleaf

    Look at those point shots. WOW is all I can say.

  • mikeyboy

    well if he doesn’t, he’s gone. Too short of a leash

  • wiski

    Nice piece Nik it’s been a while.

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

    Wow, the goaltenders need a raise. Crazy pattern and easily identifiable, yet Carlyle continued to preach the viability of his system. Personally, I don’t see him changing much. In his exit presser he said he’d do it all again and the interviews with the new assistants mention a tweaking of the system. This goes deeper than “compete harder” and “just breathe”.

  • Impossimitch

    MapleLeafsHS before I read this I’m just gonna go a head and assume it’s one word long and that word is no.

  • Burtonboy

    Fuckin Carlyle . I really wish they had fired him.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Great feature.  Carlyle will get his chance, but the leash is short.

  • Alex_Scotian

    MapleLeafsHS Hope_Smoke chances are just as good that he doubles down.

  • newkb

    Yeah…..I’m not expecting anything resembling an improvement in shots/GAA.  Hoping that the Leafs can outscore their opponent’s 40+ shots against per night.

  • newkb

    I can’t wait for Randy to bench the first new guy who engages the opposition’s D-men at the blueline or along the boards…..”You will sit and watch until you get my system down pat”.

  • Alec Brownscombe

    newkb Potentially we can spend more time in the other end though if we build a proper bottom 6 that can eat some zone time on the cycle. We badly missed that element last season. Breaking records for shots against and eclipsing the expansion Thrashers team tends to indicate this is a multifaceted problem. There two major parts to this shots issue — inability to break the cycle and get out of our zone, and an inability to generate a consistent cycle and generate more offensive zone time in the other end. Also add in giving up our own blueline too easily.

  • WillBrom2

    Alex_Scotian MapleLeafsHS Hope_Smoke then he’s gone by Christmas

  • mcloki

    this is just gonna open up a can of worms. And BB Carlyle will be gone first 10 games. Unless the Leafs are playing hugely better hockey. Lose against Montreal and the tar and feather crowd will be out in full force. One lousy effort by the team and It is over.

  • Burtonboy

    https://twitter.com/mirtle
    The Panthers were a 50% possession team under Horachek, which is encouraging given the roster he had to work with this year.

    Surely we didn’t hire this guy only to have Carlyle not listen to him.

  • mcloki

    I’m only half joking when i say Carlyle gets canned if the Leafs lose the opening faceoff. Whens the first game at the ACC? I bet the crowd gets real ugly, real fast.

  • mcloki

    ingy56 No cycle and guys that can take the puck away form guys. Komorov changes that a bit.

  • sharkbabysitter

    i have no hope that carlyle will change. his defensive system was the biggest problem last year. when your wingers are always collapsed in front of the net, they’re aren’t in position to cover their D or break the puck out at the hashmarks. thus, we looked like we were short-handed in our zone the whole season. Record-setting shots against. it wasn’t solely the lack of effort, Randy. No one buys that shit.

    i think Shanahan knows who the next coach of the Leafs is going to be, and he’s known it for months. Maybe since before he arrived. Mike Babcock. Starting next season. He didn’t want to hire another coach for a year, only to let him go. he had to show loyalty, but he quickly put Spotter in place to defuse some of Randy’s ridiculous notions (lineup, usage, systems) and very likely to take over as interim coach when Randy hangs himself. Which i suspect will be before Christmas. Babcock will get the biggest contract in the history of the NHL, and he will earn every penny of it. bright times ahead, i say.

  • Yaknowwhat

    Interesting article…but the entire piece assumes that the Leafs defensive problems were strictly the fault of Carlyle and his failed swarm strategy….I’m not sure we can come to that conclusion yet…first off lets remember that Carlyle inherited Cronin and Gordon who were likely a big part of this as well….and we also need to ask ourselves if Carlyle had the right players throughout the lineup to successfully execute his game plan…a shallow group of bottom six forward options comes to mind…as does a defense with two young inexperienced defenders in Gardiner and Reilly…and two other defenders battling injuries in Franson and Gunnarson…I won’t even mention the key injuries we suffered at center and between the pipes at critical times last season….and one other thing that is very important to note is that Steve Spott supports the swarm system and seemed to have great success using a similar strategy with the Marlies…perhaps this provides some hope that this strategy can be successful with the right personnel and some minor adjustments……I don’t want to let Carlyle off the hook because he most certainly deserves some of the blame and honestly I thought he would get fired….but there is a tendency to blame Carlyle for everything that went wrong with this team last season and I don’t think thats entirely fair or accurate…

  • mcloki

    So is this just Cherry harping about covering the points. And if we’re going to start using these new stat charts Question 1 should be

    HOW DO I READ THESE CHARTS?

  • newkb

    Alec Brownscombe newkb  This is all true, however I am not seeing any real board play cyclers in the off-season signings.  Booth, Winnik maybe….if they can remain healthy.  I see a lot of rush type guys.  I would settle for improved tenacity from the bottom 6 – where they are on the opponents and take away time and space.  That alone would be an improvement.  Having said that, the system as executed last year took away from the tenacity – it was a structure that committed the players to an area as opposed to another player.  Basically the NHL’s equivalent of a zone defense.

  • Alec Brownscombe

    newkb Alec Brownscombe Komarov, Booth, Winnik, Bodie when he factors in, Ashton, Clarkson, Santorelli… make the right combinations out of that group and you’ll have a couple lines that can cycle.

  • Burtonboy

    Alec Brownscombe newkb You can add Holland to that mix . Plays a good cycle game

  • Cameron19

    Yaknowwhat We know that Anaheim suffered all the same problems under him though. How much evidence do you need?

  • Cameron19

    Carlyle himself has said repeatedly that he intends to stick to his guns even more this year.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Cameron19 maybe its all a brilliant plan to tank for McDavid

  • Cameron19

    sharkbabysitter According to Elliot Friedman, Babcock is basically searching for a coaching/GM hybrid job – or at least a great degree of autonomy over roster decisions.

  • BigTO

    Cameron19 sharkbabysitter Hired!  Bring Draper.

  • Yaknowwhat

    As I said Carlyle deserves some of the blame….I’m not disputing that….but it was more than just him and a questionable system…player personnel…injuries…and lack of depth… all played a role….I often wonder what the Carlyle detractors are going to say if the team has success this season….One thing for sure none of the credit will go to Carlyle…

  • BigTO

    Yaknowwhat “good job Dubas”

  • Nikhil Daljeet

    wiski
    Thanks Wiski.  Been busy.  Liked your ice challenge vid!

  • Cameron19

    Really nice and concise article, by the way.

  • newkb

    Alec Brownscombe newkb  I stand corrected….forgot about Komarov.  I don’t see Ashton making the club in the top-12.  Santorelli is more of an “engine” forechecking type energy guy than a cycle guy, and Clarkson should get new skates if he wants to remain standing for more than a couple of seconds at a time – might help him cycle.  Holland can cycle, but didn’t do all that much of it last year.  Bodie is the 15th forward.  Having said all that, it will come down to what the players are and are not allowed to do system-wise.  Nik hit that nail on the head.

  • Cameron19

    Yaknowwhat But what are the excuses for having the same problems arise in Anaheim? Was that personnel, too? Because they went from missing the playoffs to competing for the President’s Trophy without any personnel changes. I certainly wouldn’t expect that kind of turn around for us – we do have a a weaker roster; but that just means we can afford a shit system even less…

  • Yaknowwhat

    Whats your take on Spotts use of the same system yet with success?

  • Burtonboy

    Cameron19 sharkbabysitter Given Babcocks propensity to always play vets over younger players I’m not sure I would want him having that type of control.

  • newkb

    Burtonboy  I wonder if he listened to Cronin/Gordon/Farrish?  We will soon find out…..

  • Nikhil Daljeet

    mcloki

    If the number is above 1, it means the Leafs gave up more a higher rate of shots against from that particular spot on the ice.  The colorr coding helps, as the redder it is, the higher rate of shots against from that area.  Under Wilson, we had a lot of numbers near 1 (slightly below, slightly above).  These are all the faint blue or faint red colours.  Means it was close enough to the league average that it isn’t statistically different.  But under Carlyle, we get lit up from most areas, with the highest ones being at the point (a la Cherry) and in front of the net, but with improvement needed across the board.

  • Nikhil Daljeet

    Cameron19
    Thanks Cam

  • Burtonboy

    newkb Burtonboy Maybe he listened to them too much . I dunno its all very confusing as to why this guy was kept on unless he’s actually willing to change

  • Nikhil Daljeet

    Cameron19
    Yeah..I really hope he doesn’t.

  • Yaknowwhat

    Given Babcocks propensity for winning I would let him do what he wants…

  • Cameron19

    Yaknowwhat Well, Spott doesn’t use the same system for starters. I know he has said he does, but if you listen to his whole comment, he basically says “yea, it’s the same system….with some of my own changes”. Different PP and PK systems, and they don’t collapse as low. They also had elite AHL defenders on their roster.  Basically, the Marlies are an ideal team to run that system. Big strong forwards who can cycle, and speedy, highly gifted defenders. So sure, you can say Carlyle needs a different roster, but that’s ridiculous – we can’t just create a new 23 man roster for a coach.

  • newkb

    Burtonboy newkb  Could very well be that he did listen too much.  As you say, it is confusing as to why he was kept on as he was the one who had the final say in any event.

  • sharkbabysitter

    Cameron19 sharkbabysitter give him that if he wants it. later, noni.

  • Burtonboy

    I just don’t get it . 

    1.We hired Sahnny who immediately did a full scale evaluation 
    2. That resulted in 3 assistant coaches being fired 
    3. We then proceeded to rebuild our botton six and made a couple of changes on D all with players who have    good Corsi numbers 
    4. We fired two old school stuck in the mud assistant GM’s and replaced they with an analytic whiz kid 
    5. We hired Steve Spott and Horachek who is know as a successful possession coach 

    Yet after all of this we are stuck with Carlyle who most of us including me are highly skeptical as to whether he will change . Frankly none of this makes the slightest bit of sense to me.

  • newkb

    Cameron19  That could mean one of two things.  Maybe he let his assistants have too much say in the past and he will make all the calls (note that Farrish has been his right hand man at every stop up until now), or the unthinkable….

  • Yaknowwhat

    Spott says its the same system so I’ll take his word for it….and if Spott didnt think it could work with this group wouldn’t he spaek up? I agree with you that Spott had better players to execute that type of system…but that has always been part my point…the Leafs simply didnt have the players to execute that system….and I think thats what they tried to address in the offseason….bringing in more depth and sandpaper so Carlyle has a better chance of executing his game plan…we’ll see if it works….but I believe this is what Shanny and Nonis tried to do with the off season additions…

  • newkb

    Burtonboy  It’s how the Leafs roll.  1 step backwards, 3 steps backwards.

  • Cameron19

    Yaknowwhat They didn’t address it at all. Carlyle’s system is a dump and chase system. We brought in a new manager and a series of players who don’t believe in that. 

    Again, listen to what Spott says following that comment. He is simply defending Carlyle and no more.