10 Questions: Part 1 — Will Randy Carlyle Change?

10 Questions: Part 1 — Will Randy Carlyle Change?

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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.

103 comments
barjv01
barjv01

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!

Bon Scott was a Leaf fan
Bon Scott was a Leaf fan

Good writeup, Nikhil!!  Personally, I don't see Carlyle changing that much (hard to teach and old dog new tricks).  He may say he will change his system and he may want to, for the sake of keeping his job......but overall, I think he will revert back to old ways and we will continue to be out shot and out possessed, thereby leading to his firing by season's end.  We could end up with another high draft pick (no, not CMD).....and a new coach for the following season.

Black_Hawk
Black_Hawk

I think he will turn it Around with the incoming help 

BoneChompski
BoneChompski

It's worth writing an article about to produce content but the Randy problem will solve itself.


He'll change and succeed - great.  He won't change and fails - fired.  Problem solved.

cryptotho
cryptotho

the two things randy now hates most are toasters and hexagon graphs

Anthony Petrielli
Anthony Petrielli moderator

Nice piece Nikhil. 


One thing that I think gets ignored in all these pieces is the Leafs simply are extremely weak down the middle. Doesn't matter what your system is when your top 3 C's are Bozak-Kadri-McClement for the majority of the year. Trevor Smith was a top 9 C for awhile, JVR played a bit of C, Holland was acquired and thrown onto the top line. They shouldn't have been dominated possession wise as bad as they were, but even with good systems, coaching, whatever you want to call it, they're still going to get outplayed by and large with this group of C's. 


**Note: I'm well aware the Leafs brought some of this on themselves by buying out Grabovski. 

Burtonboy
Burtonboy

Fuck it . I'm tired of all this negativity surrounding the Leafs . After 50 + yrs following the buds it looks like its time to get a new team . Move over phook I'm gonna be a ducks fan too bud.

newkb
newkb

The underlying thing that very few have mentioned recently is that almost every single front office move made to date shows how little confidence the organization has in Nonis as well....in fact I would wager that he had almost no say in any of it.  He may be more on the hot seat than Carlyle....marginalized out of the processes, or so it appears.

Knights2Leafs
Knights2Leafs

Nice job Nikhil, those charts are simply amazing.

and scary.

DWCMLHS
DWCMLHS

More evidence of Carlyle's gross incompetence. MAYBE Shanahan can get him to change his "system", but probably not. And the personnel on defence aren't necessarily improved. I expect Rielly to be a legitimate top-4 Dman this season, but Robidas is still broken, Polak is just an average 3rd-pairing Dman, and if Phaneuf is forced to line up on the left side, his play will be negatively effected. 

Yaknowwhat
Yaknowwhat

If Bernier stays healthy...we avoid key injuries up front... we see a positive improvement in the bottom six...and our two new assistant coaches can tighten up some areas... I think it entirely possible that we can make the playoffs in the 7-8 slot.....now.....on the flip side...if none of those things happen...it could get ugly...

MaxwellHowe
MaxwellHowe

Either his systems are flawed or Randy can't motivate players to buy in and compete.  Either way, it is very hard to imagine that he and the players can substantially change the Leaf from a team that set record for shots against.  Lets be honest with ourselves; it would take a miraculous transformation for the Leafs to compete for a playoff spot.

Burtonboy
Burtonboy

I just don't get it . 


1.We hired Shanny 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 them 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.


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.

newkb
newkb

@Bon Scott was a Leaf fan  Definitely not the worst possible outcome....might be able to snag a future #1 centre from the draft.  It's a win-win this season I think....

Yaknowwhat
Yaknowwhat

Player personnel was part of it for sure..

Cameron19
Cameron19

@Burtonboy Depends what you think is negativity. I think having the kind of season that puts us bottom five after selling at the deadline and discarding Carlyle would be incredibly positive long term. 

Yaknowwhat
Yaknowwhat

If only it was that easy BB...we're all hopelessly addicted to this team...

newkb
newkb

@Burtonboy  I'm watching the Jays get pounded by a real team too.....fml.

Yaknowwhat
Yaknowwhat

Dont know about that....shanny and dubas are smart but both have zero prior experience running an NHL franchise....they might want to keep Nonis around for awhile...

vinoa
vinoa

@newkb To be fair, Nonis was responsible for last summer's bizarre moves. It only makes sense that he's on the hot seat. The only good thing is that we're not in a bad position. We could can Nonis/Carlyle and let whichever GM comes in clean house and we'd be able to get a lot from what we have. I'd rather see them do well this year, only because I can't stand all the fairweather fans who want to shit on this core for problems outside of their control.

Knights2Leafs
Knights2Leafs

The good news is RWillie will still be available around Christmas.

He can get out his ropes and teach those boys how to PK.

newkb
newkb

@Yaknowwhat  This is a great year for nothing to go right....draft-wise.

Alec Brownscombe
Alec Brownscombe moderator

@Burtonboy

Possible reasons:


1) Carlyle impressed Shanny with his openness to change and thinks he will if surrounded by some new people with new ideas. Carlyle could always identify the problems but could never fix them.

2) Shanny didn't want to tie himself to any of the coaches who were available this summer and decided to stick with who he inherited for now.

3) Shanny is playing the long game and has his guy in mind. Keeping Carlyle around on a short leash is no big deal for the time being if it means an easier transition and getting his guy long term.

4) After his thorough evaluation of the season that was and the interview process with all players, coaches and management, he thought some players quit on the coach and he wanted to send a message that it's not acceptable to give up knowing you'll outlast the coach. It's still been under 2 seasons since the team totally collapsed under RWillie, after all.


Could be a combination of a few of those as well.

newkb
newkb

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

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.

MaxwellHowe
MaxwellHowe

@newkb @Bon Scott was a Leaf fan Have to confront the possibility Shanny is a genius and this is his way of getting a high draft pick.  I mean, you can't find a coach who would try to lose.....

MaxwellHowe
MaxwellHowe

@Yaknowwhat and thats the other point. Maybe Shanny is simply unimpressed with the players on the team and figures Carlyle got as much as he could out of them

newkb
newkb

@Yaknowwhat  They don't have much experience, but sometimes that can be an advantage.  Bright guys with fresh perspectives and ideas.  I just don't see a lot of these moves as being at the impetus of Nonis.  And they still have Cliffy F around....he knows how to squander assets with the best of them....lol.

newkb
newkb

@vinoa @newkb  I found last summer's moves somewhat bizarre as well. Trading youth and depth for upgrades at a position that wasn't a glaring need, and gutting the depth to do it.  I truly feel that Nonis has about the same amount of say as an Assistant GM in another organization might.  He is the figurehead with the title, but it appears more symbolic than actual right now.

Top Jimmy
Top Jimmy

Shanahan bought himself some time. He has his coach and GM in waiting learning on the job and sill has his two fall guys in Nonis and Carlyle if something goes wrong. He already has his new guys in place but it appears nothing has really changed. That's what you get with Shanny it's all an illusion.

MaxwellHowe
MaxwellHowe

@Alec Brownscombe @Burtonboy #3. Shanny wants to take a year to evaluate everyone; he isn't under the illusion that there is a coach on the planet who could turn this group of players into a contender.

Burtonboy
Burtonboy

@Alec Brownscombe @Burtonboy So essentially Shanny is throwing the season away and hoping for another high draft pick. If that's the case any respect I had for Shanahan goes out the window .

Top Jimmy
Top Jimmy

I think with the new personel we aquired in the offseason we could see an improvement this year even with the same coach.

Top Jimmy
Top Jimmy

Nonis is a good resource for Shanny and Dubouis even if he doesn't have alot of say in player personel anymore. The main reason he is still here is because he had enough patience to stay the course and not unload all the young talent for a quick fix. His patience earned him a mulligan. Even if he did make a couple dumb signings and trades last summer.

vinoa
vinoa

@newkb @vinoa That's how I see Nonis as well. He's just the GM in title and that makes me a lot less nervous.

Yaknowwhat
Yaknowwhat

Let me top up your koolaid...: )

Alec Brownscombe
Alec Brownscombe moderator

@Burtonboy @Alec Brownscombe Not necessarily. It's a test year. He's not confident the core is in place to truly contend and I doubt he's ruled out a rebuild around the younger assets in the organization. They've brought in a theoretically better supporting cast on shorter term deals.

Results will dictate what he does next

newkb
newkb

@Yaknowwhat  I believe you have the right two numbers....in the wrong order...

Burtonboy
Burtonboy

@Alec Brownscombe @Burtonboy Shitty way to do business imo. If there is doubt then start over immediately .That's historically what happens when a change like this has been made. Seems to me there has been a very concerted effort to make this team competitive . The only wrinkle is this lingering fear that Carlyle won't change 

Yaknowwhat
Yaknowwhat

I think thats exactly the way Shanny is looking at things....