Will Randy Carlyle Change?

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.

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.

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:”

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

148 comments
AdamPoirier
AdamPoirier

I'd say that Carlyle's job is definitely hinging on early season performance and by the end of October we'll have a much better idea of where he's headed. As far as the defensive scheme goes the collapse or swarm system plays best to a team with size and strength, players with speed such as the TML forwards are prone to overpursuing and getting caught too low in their defensive end. It's the overpursuit that's opening up these passing lanes and it's the lack of strong physical play that allows opponents to keep possession for such an extended time. 

TML__fan
TML__fan

Not sure which bothered me more last season.... the fact the Leafs lacked the necessary depth of talent to play a decent defensive system, or Randy Carlye's inability to accept this, and make changes in their systems or the players he iced.  With the changes in the coaching staff, and the addition of more defensively-minded players, things have to get better.  If not Randy's days will be numbered.  Will he be credited at all if the team improves?  Not likely.  But he'll take pretty much all the blame if they don't!

AndrewGalea
AndrewGalea

we're going to know within 3 opposition possessions what kind of season this is going to be.

AndrewGalea
AndrewGalea

Fully agree with the article. But the x-factor is shanny.

I think randy will be let go within 10 games if we yield high shot totals. Its a shame because he shook a number of hoodoos the team had hanging over them and knows how to handle the media.

dlb Mad
dlb Mad

that chart tells me Carlyle's idea that players weren't bearing down enough is believeable.

the team gave up more shots than league average all over the place.  the fact that it was so much more from the point suggests to me that there were a lot of players going through the motions.

they found their zone, in their own time, and they kinda got in the shooting and passing lanes...mostly...if they felt like it.

and funny, that's how it looked.  passive.  lazy.  uninspired.

Muellercleez
Muellercleez

@mlse holy shit. That chart is very telling. Gotta wonder honestly, what if Wilson had even league average goaltending...

Only_Crime
Only_Crime

Here's a question - what if Carlyle knew his system was flawed? but felt his roster was also flawed. 2 years ago maybe he came to the conclusion that this was the system the roster he had - had to play in order to find some success. 


I guess what I'm asking is would you employ a flawed tactic if it meant you got the roster presented to you to overachieve?

Alex_Scotian
Alex_Scotian

@mlse all I can think about when it comes to Steve Spott is that MacKinnon was the 13th forward in the WJHC.

WillBrom2
WillBrom2

@mlse only way he changes is if the assistants run 1/2 of the team

sharkbabysitter
sharkbabysitter

another glaringly simple thing about randy's D system last year is that it wasn't working. Whether it was the makeup of the players or their lack of effort, who cares. a good coach recognizes when something isn't working and he adapts. randy didn't. not for one second.

TheLoovTrain
TheLoovTrain

Are there any top-level teams that successfully employ the 'swarm' defensively? I've heard mention of Chicago before.

Mitch92
Mitch92

Kinda hard to win battles along the boards if you don't go there!

mlse
mlse

@MapleLeafsHS but on Carlyle, you guys were really wrong and the shift has been great to see in all honesty.

mlse
mlse

@MapleLeafsHS GROUPTHINK?!? Oh god no, I know that's a crime your commenters won't stand for.

Cameron19
Cameron19

@Mitch92 In my opinion, you can blame the personnel for their poor fore-checking, but Carlyle's collapse and swarm is to blame for the lack of board-effort in the defensive zone. The new additions should improve the fore-check, but it remains to be seen if tweaks can fix the key structural problems at the other end.

APetrielli
APetrielli

@mlse @MapleLeafsHS Where are the articles proclaiming his greatness from a season ago? What was wrong, waiting to see a full season?

Ian from Etobicoke
Ian from Etobicoke

@FakeJake51 @sharkbabysitter 

It's a flawed system. The Leafs gave up the most shots against since the NHL has been keeping track of such stats. You should stick around and read up on the team a bit more.

Luke_R
Luke_R

@Cameron19 @Mitch92 i think forechecking is structural too, as in the positioning of the support players.  But both forecheck, backcheck and defensive battles are much a result of individual ability in addition to the teams strategy.  We lack in personnel and deployment here.

mlse
mlse

@APetrielli @MapleLeafsHS the problem trends with Carlyle aren't unique to his time with TOR. They have been present at every step in TOR

Ian from Etobicoke
Ian from Etobicoke

@FakeJake51 @Ian from Etobicoke 

I also posted here that they were a bad team along the walls, but succeeded in the open ice. 

You are clearly someone that doesn't like to do a lot of reading and has a poor understanding of hockey systems. The Leafs system has the forwards not challenge the points and not challenge the halfwalls 5v5. This is apparent to even basic hockey observers. They apply some pressure, but ultimately back off/slow down at the tops of the circles when challenging the points. This has a knock on effect. D are getting shots through and it is create a goalmouth scramble, or a rebound or second chance for the opposing teams. 

This site has posted enough content for you to understand what happened to the team last year. The Marlies coach explained how used they the same system 5v5 and explained the shortcomings of it. The link posted above explains it.

Cameron19
Cameron19

@Luke_R @Cameron19 @Mitch92 You can ask your players - even if it's not their best ability - to work hard on the dump and chase to get the cycle going. You can't ask your players to win board battles if you're also asking them to collapse first, and then swarm. That's asking them to win races after ceding a head start.

APetrielli
APetrielli

@mlse @MapleLeafsHS (other than in the comments). The writing tone was always "let's wait and see what he does with a full season first."

APetrielli
APetrielli

@mlse @MapleLeafsHS It is statistically proven that comments shape perception of websites, but the reality- nobody was singing RC's praises.

Luke_R
Luke_R

@Cameron19 @Luke_R @Mitch92 exactly.  But even if it were even or edge given to a kessel or kadri n getting there first, they still wouldnt win that battle often... which is a personnel problem.  Even though the team structure sucks ass, we do have individuals who lack the skills and battle in certain areas. 

Luke_R
Luke_R

@sharkbabysitter @Luke_R @Cameron19 @Mitch92 wut lol no way.  Where to go when anticipating, how far, gap, wheter to engage the other teams support defenders, to space the d, two man on puck vs. one.  So many small things that make a difference.  Habs play a much more aggressive swarm using thier speed and aggressiveness to fore check where we do not.  There is equally as much structure. 

mlse
mlse

@APetrielli comments obviously skewed much further but both are attitudes that existed and have shifted a lot

mlse
mlse

@APetrielli ehhh, I'm not sure if I'd characterize it that way. Definitely pro-Carlyle stance just like there was an anti-stats bend

mlse
mlse

@APetrielli and both get the "what us? Never!" treatment which is as revisionist as some of dreger's work

mORRganRielly
mORRganRielly

@mlse @APetrielli Why is it so hard for you and SkinnyFish to learn when to fuck off?  The MLHS writing staff has been slowly incorporating the statistical measures of hockey analytics for the last two seasons.  I, myself, was trying to bridge that gap with a couple of others.  The problem was how to try and advance the topic without alienating the readers.  You, on the other hand, have your head so far up your fucking ass, you are still continuing to alienate readers from MLHS from ever taking a gander on your site simply because your personality is that of a prepubescent teenager who cries whenever he doesn't get his own fucking way.


Learn when to let things die and focus on your own site rather than telling others how to ruin theirs.

APetrielli
APetrielli

@mlse Things I defended him for I have no problem backing. Grabo should've been in that role. Gardiner needed A. ENFs were OK in 48gm season

MapleLeafsHS
MapleLeafsHS

@APetrielli @mlse You guys were right to raise concerns, obviously, but there are times when it seems to be a shotgun approach

APetrielli
APetrielli

@SkinnyPPPhish @mlse For me personally, I wasn't ready to rip him apart after making the playoffs when we all thought they wouldn't.

SkinnyPPPhish
SkinnyPPPhish

@APetrielli @mlse And yet we were writing our Randy Carlyle Coaching Myths Posts before the 2012-13 season was even finished....