When Peter Horacek was hired in the summer, it was a reasonably safe bet that at some point the man who served as interim head coach of the Florida Panthers last season would be doing so again for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.
While many Leafs fans dream of the Mike Babcocks and Todd McLellans of the world, Horachek is the guy in charge right now and he is a possibility to be the guy long term. In Shanahan’s presser he said, “Peter will be one of the options that we will consider.” It might be a good thing if he is.
Most Leafs fans are probably familiar with the chart below showing how Florida’s possession game shot right up under Horachek and only tapered off at the end due to injury:
Three games into the Horachek era, the Leafs have yet to surrender 30SOG in a game, and while they are only 1-2 and will need to figure out a better way to score in this system (some goaltending and PP help would be nice, too), that’s the foundation the team needs to build on to truly be successful. What has been impressive so far, though, are the slight changes he has made and the tweaks to their play overall.
Earlier in the year, Horachek spoke about how the league doesn’t have shutdown lines anymore and teams need to be able to roll three lines. Instantly he has made tweaks to get the team there. The top line scored a ton, but gave back more than they provided, so Horachek broke them and placed the defensive minded Daniel Winnik on the top line. With Lupul out, he rewarded Richard Panik — who is not the prettiest player to watch — for his work on the forecheck (he’s third on the team in penalties drawn/60), while also trying to better balance out the lines. He placed Santorelli, one of the team’s best possession players, back at center to control the middle of the ice, and took Trevor Smith out of the top six, sending him to the fourth line. As much as systems will be talked about, the Leafs are going to be a great case study for deployment and how it can affect a team’s performance.
But there are also a few minor tweaks already readily apparent. The easiest to spot: How they break out of their zone after defensive zone faceoff wins.
Excuse the raw footage, but I captured some videos of Carlyle’s last game against Winnipeg vs. Horachek’s game against LA to note some of the differences.
Here is a classic faceoff breakout under Carlyle after a faceoff win:
Here we see the Leafs win the draw to Franson and immediately rim it all the way around the boards. Dion Phaneuf is not even considering the possibility of a pass. When Leo Komarov picks the puck up off the boards, neither of his forward linemates present an open outlet. Kessel released the zone, and Bozak was far apart from Komarov while being covered, so Komarov throws it up the middle to get it out, and Winnipeg recovers the puck. A faceoff win quickly turns into possession loss.
Here is another example:
Trevor Smith wins the draw and immediately JVR bails the zone. Phaneuf is covered by Wheeler and is content to just stand there and let Franson, who made a nice move to create some space, figure it out. Santorelli also bails the zone, and that leaves Trevor Smith frantically trying to figure out where to go. The pass is off, and Winnipeg recovers. A faceoff win, again, quickly turns into possession lost.
Now let’s watch against LA.
Here is the first example:
When the Leafs win the draw, Polak immediately has purpose, but the real key here is Kessel. He opens up and cuts so low he almost touches the goal line, the exact opposite of the zone bailing we see above. Bozak also cuts low for a center option, so Polak has his options here. Because Kessel, the best player on the team, is winding up for the puck, LA overloads the side and that leaves Morgan Rielly wide open for a reverse; using D outlets was a rare occurrence under Carlyle on D zone wins. Rielly, an electric skater, now has time and space, skates it up ice, and once he draws in the forecheck, Kessel is wide open for a neutral zone rush, and the Leafs best player now has the best puck with speed, time, and space. The Leafs had a scoring opportunity off this play.
Here is example two:
This draw is eerily similar to the one against Winnipeg where Franson rimmed the puck to Leo; the difference being, instead of Robidas shooting the puck around, he tapped it to Gardiner, who was able to curl, look and hit JVR. JvR then moved it to Kadri. Three passes, and a clean exit with possession.
Here is the last example (for now):
This is another example of not rimming the puck around the boards (and although I didn’t show an example of this above with Carlyle, Phaneuf was basically famous for this). Franson gets the puck and curls around the net, and he has two options. Franson can pass to a back peddling David Clarkson, who is low and open for an outlet, or Mike Santorelli cutting hard through the middle of the ice. Because the Leafs cut around the net so fast and everyone knew where to go, that left the Kings scrambling to get across the ice and Dwight King was basically left to decide between staying in the middle of the ice and cutting off Santorelli, or going to the wall and taking away David Clarkson. As soon as he pushed toward Clarkson, the puck was on Santorelli’s stick and turning up ice, where the Leafs got it in deep with speed.
This is the simple hockey Horachek has been implementing, as well as making the team collapse more to cut off opportunities in the slot. The points are a little too open, but you can’t expect Rome to be built in a day; chances are he is starting from the basics and going to work his way out to point coverage.
Horachek has discussed his 5-5-5 system, meaning five guys are always in each zone where the puck is, and these videos are a quick snippet into how he is pushing for shorter passes, more outlet options, and less long bombs whether it is a stretch pass or a shot around the boards.
Many people are ultimately going to judge Horachek on whether he can make the playoffs this year, but the test has to be how he maintains the team’s cleaner play and handles everything else that is required to be the head coach of the Maple Leafs. Using players like Morgan Rielly more and developing them stands to his benefit. Evening out lines with strong possession players to offset the skill that doesn’t like to play D (as well as demanding them to come deeper into the zone) will help him, too. In terms of media, so far he has been enlightening and firm in his interviews; in my opinion, he’s the most interesting Leafs head coach to listen to since Paul Maurice. That can change in a hurry, though.
While everyone focuses on who is available this summer, I am going to spend a lot of time focusing on Peter Horachek and the job he is doing. A non-flashy hire that does excellent work and stays out of trouble would be a welcome addition in the fishbowl always looking to bring in a shark. So far, Horachek has had a promising start, to some degree, but it has only been three games.
- In his 30 Thoughts column last week, Elliotte Friedman noted:
The two new coaches made one slight adjustment at their first practice, asking their players to defend the slot better in the defensive zone. Like Claude Julien prefers to, give up the outside and jam the middle? “Yes,” Jonathan Bernier replied.
It’s interesting, because last week another NHL coach pointed to that location as Toronto’s main area of weakness:
“They need players who have a mentality to defend. When you get a middle drive against them — with or without the puck — you can break down their defence. Several of their forwards cheat for goals, so you can exploit that.”
Low and behold, what was the first goal the Leafs gave up in the Horachek era? Evgeny Kuznetsov driving wide and hitting Marcus Johansson as he drives hard to the slot for a one timer.
The next two games the Leafs were much better, with CBJ scoring one PP goal, and the other one a breakaway, while LA scored the first shift on a scramble in front. You can see the Leafs are visibly selling out to protect the home plate.
- Another interesting Horachek note is that he is having weekly meetings with Toronto’s leadership group including Dion Phaneuf, the three to four designated alternate captains, and Jonathan Bernier. Players who have worn the A primarily are Lupul, Robidas, Bozak, as well as Franson. In the Toronto media hotbed, that could turn out to be a very smart and effective way to consolidate messages and essentially provide week-to-week PR training on the issues at hand. There have been a lot of crazy storylines this year, and the sideshows need to be reeled in.
- Unless there is something we don’t know, one person who is absent from those meetings based on not sporting a letter? Phil Kessel. Not suggesting he’s going to get traded because of this, but simply, your best and highest paid player is a leader and someone other players look up to by virtue of his standing with the team. Even if he doesn’t say a word, he has to be there.
- On that note as well, I thought Reimer might get a new lease on life without Carlyle around, but Bernier being part of those leadership meetings and getting the first three starts suggests otherwise. All indications this year point to Reimer being considered a true backup on this team, and you can’t have backups making $2.3M when good backups elsewhere are making around $1M and your team is cash strapped. Eventually they are going to have to part ways.
- Bernier has started just about 70% of the Leafs games, and by my count is 14th in the league in save percentage. The team on the whole is tied for 18th with two other teams in 5v5 save percentage. In general, the goaltending has been fairly average this season so far, a reasonable distance from the near elite goaltending they got last season.
- Interesting to see Tyler Bozak’s usage under Horachek so far: He has played 21:33, 22:23, and 19:19 under the new coach. In all three of his games he has been a positive possession player, averaging a 53.66CF% with varied zone starts (70, 45, 40%). With Winnik on that line, Kessel is free to roam regularly, high or low, while Winnik and Bozak get after the puck. On this goal Bozak made numerous strong reads and won a few battles for an excellent shift:
Would be quite the story if this keeps up.
“Some of them can do it and some of them are just not capable of grasping it. Some have a difficult time dealing with the pressure that comes at the critical times. If there’s one thing you cannot do with this group, it seems you cannot apply more pressure to them. You’ve got to try to pick them up. It’s always about making them feel good.”
– Randy Carlyle, on coaching this team and how they need to be treated.
How Carlyle grew up playing hockey, and the type of environment surrounding the sport along with the politics and what you was expected of a player/coach, was a lot of different than the environment the current player/coach grows up in. I think Carlyle had a really tough time relating to some of these players and the discipline measures of his time were not effective or even allowed in this day and age.
“If I made a mistake with Randy it was a bigger deal than it was with Ron.”
– Jake Gardiner, on the difference between being coached by Wilson, and Carlyle.
This is sort of an example of what I just referenced, but there are a few caveats. A rookie is always going to get more rope than a guy in his third year making the same mistakes he did as a rookie. It wasn’t as if Carlyle benched Gardiner and sat him after mistakes. He regularly threw him out after blunders and he averaged over 20mins/game under Carlyle. How Gardiner plays now will be really interesting. So far, he has yet to play over 18 minutes in three games under Horachek, the first time in his career he has ever went three games in a row without eclipsing the 18 minute mark.
“Because it’s hard work. It’s always tough to do something you know you don’t like to do. I think we have lots of guys that just want to play offence.”
– Roman Polak, speaking frankly about how the team plays, and wants to play.
I agree with the gist of what Polak is saying, but it’s pretty interesting that Horachek has been able to sell this to the team and the team has responded, don’t you think?
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think I generally like the current lines, with a lot of things discussed here previously generally being incorporated now. Winnik is on the top line to cover defensively and work the wall, JVR is with Kadri for a secondary unit, and Santorelli is the 3C again. One thing I will say, though, is that when you’re down by a goal with under 5 minutes left, you should probably reunite that top line instead of putting a guy like Panik on the top line. That top line has its warts, but they can score. Let’s not forget that.
- I think if Komarov is now out during this road trip, the easy thing to do is bump David Booth up a line, and insert Sam Carrick as the 4C while Trevor Smith moves over to the wing. That’s a bad fourth line, but the team doesn’t have many options. I would consider calling up Matt Frattin, who has 10 goals in 22 games with the Marlies, if they want another option.
- I think we all know why David Clarkson is on the power play despite his lack of production there, but eventually you have to put Mike Santorelli on that unit. Santorelli is tied for fifth on the team in scoring, despite playing under 15 minutes on the PP for the entire season. In those 14 minutes and change, Santorelli has actually managed two power play points; Clarkson is closing in on 90 minutes of power play time this season and has one point to show for it.
- I think – if the Leafs continue trending in this direction in terms of how they are playing the game, how they aren’t getting dominated anymore, and how the team is actually playing hockey the right way – it will be very hard to trade anyone in the next few months before or at the deadline. The draft will be much more likely to provide a better opportunity make moves, after the Leafs get 40 games with a new coach to evaluate what is going on here. Save for trading guys due to reasons other than player performance (contract issues, cap issues, etc).
- I think Peter Horachek deserves some credit for implementing some readily apparent decisions and working on exits with the team. Seeing Rielly get top 4 icetime has been really nice as well; while he will have problems, like the empty netter he gift-wrapped last night, there is going to be a long-term payoff there. Putting Santorelli back at center has helped stabilize three lines, and while the Leafs aren’t exactly coming at teams in waves of power, they can at least roll three lines that can take a regular shift and not get dominated. Would love to see what Horachek does with Lupul, Holland and Komarov all in the lineup, too. Hopefully he gets that opportunity.