“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.

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.