Former long-time NHL and Team Canada coach Ken Hitchcock provided an insightful interview on Leafs Lunch on Wednesday, discussing the Leafs’ strengths and weaknesses defensively, their depth down the middle, their power play, and more.
A team like the Maple Leafs coming in with their depth down the middle, how do you split up your team to defend against something like that?
Hitchcock: That is the new NHL. It used to be you built it around the goalie and the top-four defensemen, but now, it’s built around four centers. When you’ve got a 1-2 punch, it is effective.
There have been a lot of teams that have great one-two punches, but to me, the key is the third guy. The third guy has to do all of the heavy lifting, and that is what Kadri does. He opens up all kinds of space and bad matchups for the opposition because he is able to do all of the heavy lifting. He takes on the other team’s best players, plays those hard 5-on-5 minutes, and it opens up space and time and freedom for Tavares and Matthews.
But that is the NHL. That is what you need if you expect to win on a long-term basis in the NHL: You’ve got to have that 1-2-3 punch, and then your fourth guy has got to be a defensive player but more from a forechecking standpoint than anything else.
Do you think you can win in this NHL trying to outscore people?
Hitchcock: I don’t think Toronto is like that. I know what you are saying, but I think they are way more accomplished on the 200-foot game than they get credit for. Their mistakes go in the net, sure, but some of the goals were flukey. The Radulov goal was a good play by Rads, but it was a deflection and those things happen. I don’t think Toronto is not competing over 200 feet. I think they are playing 200 feet. I think they are going to end up scoring five or six and end up allowing one or two pretty soon if they compete at that level.
I have been very impressed with… Montreal was a little bit different because Montreal has so much team speed now on the checking side of things, but Toronto is heavy on the puck. Their top players – Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Marleau – are all committed for 200 feet, so I think it is going to turn around. It wouldn’t surprise me if they continue to score at this level, but as time goes on, they are going to allow fewer and fewer goals.
That first power-play unit is at about 50% so far. Put your PK hat on. What are you trying to do besides not take penalties to slow the Toronto power play down?
Hitchcock: The new power play, there are about seven or eight teams that use power plays like this. The term I use is, “downhill.” This is a downhill power play that is very hard to defend, so you have to make a decision on what you are going to give up.
I would say the only way to defend it is you have to give up the point shot from the top. You’ve got to play more passive up there – maybe top of the circles – and then put all kinds of heat down below. If you look at the two goals Toronto scored the other day, all they did was put pucks into areas and have more numbers in those areas. And they play downhill. They’re not really looking to score; they’re putting pucks where they can outnumber people.
It’s similar to what the power play is in Winnipeg. That type of natural shot – Marner on one side, and everyone else plays downhill on the other side. It is hard to defend. To me, if you are going to give up anything, you’ve got to give up the point shot from the top.
If we were to just look at the blue line, there has been a lot of talk about the stretch passes. The Leafs love that. Do you like the shorter passes? How would you basically tell your D to play to maximize possession of the puck and getting it out, but keeping it out of your own zone?
Hitchcock: Mike is a big proponent of… the term both of us use is, “Push the pace to create space.” That is what he does. He’s very good at that. His teams are very good at that. He really creates room underneath.
To me, Toronto is going to get better because they have got some younger players who are just adapting to… the NHL is a third and fourth effort league. They are just starting to learn that type of one-on-one effort that has to go in with defending. As you see things move along, you’re going to see the impact of a guy like Ron Hainsey take place because he is going to end up more and more engaged as the season goes on.
I just think their defending – their one-on-one defending – is going to get better and better. There is going to be less and less space. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They don’t get the credit for the way they backcheck. They track back as hard as anybody in the NHL.
I just think, over time, their one-on-one play down low – where they’re getting beat a little bit right now – is going to get cleaned up and you’re going to see them become even more effective. It is not like they get into a position where they are just trading chances with teams.
Again, in the NHL, you have to have defensemen that can literally win one-on-ones. I think you’re starting to see some of the younger guys get more and more engaged and they’re going to get better and better at it.
That is part of the conversation – whether the actual bodies back there are good enough. You want a whole bunch playing really good defense. Sometimes you do it with star defensemen, sometimes with more by-committee defensemen. With Morgan Rielly being a lead guy and Jake Gardiner, are the actual bodies good enough for the Leafs to win not just in the regular season but into the playoffs?
Hitchcock: I think they are. The way Toronto plays is that they outnumber you. As soon as there is contact, their support is in quick. Toronto’s major attribute is that they play so fast defensively. They get credit for how fast they play offensively, but their strength is how fast they play defensively.
As a defender now, what has really changed now is that you used to have to go in, stop the puck up, win your one-on-one, and take the puck. Now all you have to do is get it stopped and bring more numbers than the opposition has. That is what Toronto does really well.
They’ve got enough people to do that. Rielly – maybe he is not big, but he gets a lot of one-on-one plays killed and then they support the puck so quickly. They’re in and they play so fast defensively that they are out of it. I think that is the new NHL.
You’ve got to have at least four guys who can move the puck on the backend. Even your smaller players, they don’t have to win the one-on-ones, but they’ve just got to get it stopped up. I think Toronto does that.
Where does Auston Matthews rank for you among NHL players?
Hitchcock: He is right at the top. He plays this game where he looks like he is Peter Forsberg – like he is 28 years old in the prime of his career, and look how young he is. That, to me, is what is amazing. He has got such a maturity about his game and he is so young.
I think he is going to learn a lot from Tavares. He is going to learn a lot about consistent play and the value of 200 feet. I think John is going to really help him that way. He is such a good player and such a top player right now — and he’s so young. That is what is incredible.