McKeen’s Hockey analyst and Maple Leafs Hot Stove’s own Gus Katsaros discussed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defensive structure, blue line pairings, and forechecking scheme with Alec Brownscombe and Callum Fraser on the Battle of the Atlantic on TSN1200 on Sunday.
To listen to the full episode, click here.
Gus on whether the Leafs are more aggressive with their forecheck so far this season:
I think it’s pretty much same as it was close to the end of last season. However, it seems like they are a bit more aggressive. I wouldn’t say it’s a straight 1-2-2. It looks like they are adding another forward who is pressing a little bit harder. I’d need to see a few more games just to verify, “Are they trying to make a hybrid 1-2-2 and a 2-1-2?”
If we label the forwards, F1 goes in and engages the puck carrier, the F2 becomes the support, and the F3 is the high man. It seems like they are using that F2 a little bit more aggressively than they were last year. He’s a little bit further down and if the puck is below the goal line, he is there. If the puck is in the midzone, he is actually in the offensive zone rather than the neutral zone.
I think they’ve taken a bit more of an aggressive approach, but not necessarily abandoned that 1-2-2 structure. I think that this is something that is ongoing, and they don’t do it enough consistently for me to say this is a tactic they’re using. But if after a few more games we start seeing the same similar patterns, then perhaps they are trying to do something that is more of a hybrid and adds aggression to a 1-2-2 rather than revert back to the 2-1-2 that they had when he first started here.
Gus on how he apportions responsibility for the defensive issues between the perceived personnel weakness on defense — particularly the right side — and the overall team structure as a five-man unit:
The first object is not really about the defense or the defensive side — the right or the left. The forwards just aren’t good enough [defensively]. They don’t properly support. They don’t put themselves in positions to help their defensemen with support. They don’t do the things to help the team get back the puck. We can kind of harp on the hole on the right side — and there is — and the defense is not necessarily Stanley Cup calibre — it probably isn’t — but on the whole, there is a disconnect between the forwards and the defense that is causing a lot of the weakness that is appearing in the defensive zone.
It is one thing to say that players can backcheck and easily provide support in that regard, but the Leafs don’t do that very well. It is still stemming from last year and it still hasn’t improved. The Leafs still have to do something to be able to be more in sync between the blue liners and the forwards. You could put any player, it seems, on the Leafs right now and they’d still perform just as well.
Scoring goals is exciting and they have every opportunity to be able to generate lots of scoring chances on almost every shift, but generating a scoring chance to the detriment of not playing proper defensively and not getting pucks back… in the early season, that is fine. You can get away with it. There is a lot of leeway presented. But the things that Boston exposed last year — the defensive elements that they still didn’t work on by the time the playoffs hit — are still not addressed today.
That stems from the disconnect between the forwards and the defense. That has to be addressed. If it isn’t addressed, the Leafs could have a fantastic regular season, but when it comes to the playoffs and things start to tighten up, you might have the ability to score from 1-2-3-4 lines, but if you don’t have the puck, your skill doesn’t mean very much. The reality is the Leafs need to really tighten up and do something to sync up their forwards and their defense.
Gus on whether there is a certain mix or set of pairing combinations that could yield better results than the Rielly – Hainsey / Gardiner – Zaitsev / Dermott – Ozhiganov/Marincin pairings:
I think you could tinker with all sorts of different pairings and get similar results. The fact that Morgan Rielly is playing like Bobby Orr reincarnated is well and good, and we are loving the offensive output, but he hasn’t really done many different things from what his defensive game was last year. He still gets kind of burned sometimes on the outside and he still sometimes lets in a little bit of space in the middle — and all Leafs defensemen are guilty of doing that and giving up a little bit of space in the middle.
I don’t know if there is one specific pairing that you could say, “This is our defensive pairing.” Dermott — I really love Travis Dermott. He is such a smart and skilled player. I feel that at some point in time, if you were able to ice six fully-developed Travis Dermotts, that could be a Stanley Cup-calibre defense.
I am not too concerned about the defensive elements of Jake Gardiner. It is what it is. We know what Jake Gardiner is capable of and we know his defensive limitations. You have to put somebody that is kind of monitoring those and is able to help out. Zaitsev is not the guy. But, really, is there anybody else who is?
Ron Hainsey really isn’t the answer, either. He might be more defensive because of the fact that he is not able — at least not until recently — generate a lot of offensive output, but he is not necessarily a defensive anchor to be able to throw next to Jake Gardiner and say, “Okay, now we have a good defensive pairing.”
Every single Leafs pairing has some kind of a fault, and that is why I constantly harp on the fact that they don’t necessarily need an upgrade on the defense, but they do desperately need to get the forwards synced. If the defense doesn’t worry too much about playing defense and they have the support to get pucks back in their own zone, then I think they should be okay.
They all do a fantastic job of being able to throw outlets up to skilled forwards. They still do the breaking out and cheating into the neutral zone, so they have defensemen who are able to hit players in stride or at least take the battles to the neutral zone. But there isn’t one specific pairing that the Leafs, in the current makeup or even internally, will find that they are able to throw out as a defensive unit. They’re just going to have to play a much, much better overall team defense.