HOCKEY IS BACK.
The day is finally here. Tonight the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Center in game 1 of the 2014/2015 NHL regular season. Damn, that feels good to write.
2014/2015 Season Primer
[dropcap font=”0″]T[/dropcap]he Maple Leafs, who ended the preseason with a 5-2-1 record, are looking to build a new identity this season. Since the beginning of training camp, Head Coach Randy Carlyle, along withÂ assistant coaches Steve Spott and Peter Horachek, have been preaching the need to play an up-tempo, defensively responsible, puck-possession style game.
Management’s decision to demote Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren in favour of young skill players like Brandon Kozun and Josh Leivo speaks volumes to what appears to be a significant philosophical shift within the organization. The Leafs appear to be moving away from a top 6 / bottom 6 model and toward more of a top 9 / bottom 3 strategy, with 4 lines that can all skate and push the envelope offensively. Also part of the philosophical shift has been the Leafs transition toÂ using speed to carry the puck into the offensive zone, as opposed to consistently resorting to dump and chase hockey. The coaching staff has also modified the defensive zone scheme that had forwards collapse low with the defense (leaving the points wide open) in favour of having the forwards stay higher on the half boards, in position to cut off passes and break the cycle.
These may appear to be small tweaks, but it seems obvious that previous neutral and defensive zone schemes simply did not fit the makeup of the group. Of course, only time will tell if these system adjustments pay off, but for now Leaf fans can be encouraged that, by all indications, this team is learning from pastÂ mistakes andÂ attempting to implement a game plan that fits both the dynamic of this current group, as well as the style of play that many of the most successful teams in the NHL have adopted over the past 10 years.
Narratives You Can Expect Will Be Beaten to Death
1. Advanced Stats
If you”re like me and are tired of hearing about analytics constantly (and I”m not even anti-advanced stats), you might want to hide under a rock this season. The advanced stats crowd is going into the season with a head full of steam after 1) feeling vindicated by Toronto’s late season collapse in 2013/2014, and 2) seeing many of the most prominent stats advocates get swooped up by NHL teams over the summer as the race for analytical dominance (and positive PR) went ahead at full speed. Toronto, by all accounts, was terrible in literally every possession metric in 2013/2014, and with the hiring of Kyle Dubas and his team of stats analysts, much media and fan focus is going to be given to the Leafs” individual and team metrics this year. Players that excel in possession-based metrics will be put on a pedestal, and players who struggle will be tarred and feathered. The Leafs” team Corsi/Fenwick stats will be the focal point nearly as much (if not more) than their win/loss record. Sounds crazy, but that is where we are at. So brace yourselves, and, if you can”t stand that conversation, probably stay off Twitter.
2. Randy Carlyle
Nearly everybody was surprised this summer when Dave Nonis not only kept Randy Carlyle in the fold, but gave him an additional 2 years on his contract as Head Coach of the Maple Leafs. After 2 consecutive season under Carlyle”s guidance that sawÂ the Leafs collapse in spectacular fashion, the writing appeared to be on the wall for the embattled coach. Management did not share this view though, and Carlyle was spared, losing his assistant coaches, including long-time friend Dave Farrish. In Steve Spott and Peter Horachek, management feels they have established a better mix behind the bench. The party line over the summer was that Randy Carlyle did not become a bad coach overnight, and that he is the coach they believe (with some tactical and systemic changes) can right the Leafs ship and return the club to respectability. The biggest indication of whether or not Carlyle is on board with the new direction will be how he distributes minutes. Should he revert back to his M.O. of relying heavily on his top players and burying the 4th line, the tension may reach a boiling point within the fan base. All that to say, despite the contract extension and vote of confidence from management, Carlyle is undoubtedly on a short leash.
3. Dave Nonis
While Dave Nonis may not be feeling the heat to the degree that Randy Carlyle is, should this club falter during the course of the season, the attention will quickly be focused on both of them. For many fans and media alike, the jury is still out on whether or not the core that has been assembled will ever be good enough to compete with the best teams in the NHL, and while Nonis has only officially been the General Manager of the team since 2013, he has been in Leafs management since 2008 as VP and Director of Hockey Operations with then-GM and President Brian Burke, who gave Nonis much of the same responsibilities that are typical of a GM. This is Nonis” team, and it is not crazy to suggestÂ that his future with the club will be decidedÂ by the performanceÂ of the group between now and March.
Narratives aside, tonight is about one thing and one thing alone: beating the shit out of the Montreal Canadiens. Carey Price and the Canadiens visit the Air Canada center at 7pm EST to take on Jonanthan Bernier and the Maple Leafs in what will certainly be an entertaining matchup, and a perfect way to kick off the regular season. The Canadiens are a skilled groupÂ who have proven they can play with the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs have some talent of their own too, though, and with the additions made to solidify the bottom 6 group, they should finally be able to roll 4 lines and take it to the Canadiens in waves.
Reports indicate that Cody Franson (knee) and Josh Leivo (foot) will both remain out with injuries (although Leivo has stated that he is ready), which opens up opportunities for Stuart Percy and Matt Frattin to draw into the lineup. The Maple Leafs will need to push the tempo of the game andÂ capitalize on what they are given. Getting traffic in front of Carey Price will be key as well. Should David Clarkson see second unit PP time, that will be his mandate.
Thanks for reading, and we hope to see you here during the game!