At the beginning of the season, fans weren’t expecting too much out of the Toronto Maple Leafs. There are no major offensive threats up front and there are a few questions on the blue line and in net. Furthermore, there’s the possibility that majority of this roster could be moved by the trade deadline.
After the first month, the Leafs were 1-7-2. At that point, fans knew that they were in for a long season.
Fast forward to mid-November.
Before November 10th, the Leafs were 2-8-4. Coming up on their schedule were the Dallas Stars and the Nashville Predators, both with respectful home records at that point.
The Leafs finished the rest of the month 6-3-1.
Now, the present. The last five games played, the Leafs faced the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks. All have great offensive weapons.
Their record was 3-2, losing to the Kings and the Sharks.
The Leafs are coming out with huge wins against the best in the league (add in two wins against the Stars and a shootout win against the Predators earlier from the year). Now, nearing the halfway point of the season, the Leafs are 16-17-7, seven points off from the final wild card spot.
If anyone had said that the Leafs would push for a playoff spot this year, I wouldn’t believe it. But here we are and it’s a possible scenario.
But how is it that a team with no major offensive presence can pick up wins against the top teams in league? We don’t have a Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin or even an Anze Kopitar on our team.
While NHL stars are leading their teams, the Leafs are being led by James van Riemsdyk (29), Leo Komarov (28) and Tyler Bozak (27) in points. These three are playing great hockey, but you can’t compare them to the likes of the above mentioned players.
Which brings me back to my original point, how are the Leafs able to put up a strong fight against the best in the league and still manage to come out on top?
Here are a few points that have made them successful to this point:
1 -Tenacious fore-check
Even though the Leafs don’t seem like an intimidating team, they seem to put great pressure in the offensive zone. One player I want to point out that is leading the charge in this department is Leo Komarov. Every game, Komarov is always putting pressure on the opposition, which eventually leads to quality scoring chances. His mix of physical play and speed is what makes this player worthy of staying with the team down the road. His constant physical presence is what makes him special. And it’s paying off as it has landed him second in team scoring.
During the Kings game on January 7th, Holland did a great job holding the play down low in the Kings’ zone. He continued to fight off a number of players while still managing to hold onto the puck. With this aggressive style, they are doing a better job at maintaining offensive zone pressure. Whether it leads to a shot or not, it still gives them some offensive zone presence that could lead to a potential scoring chance.
The Leafs have done a better job getting in on the fore-check and forcing teams to be held in their zone.
Here is one play that leads to a goal. It’s the highlights from the Leafs and Kings in December, but pay attention to fore-check and the puck movement in the offensive zone (video posted by DRL Productions):
At the 3:29 mark of the video, before the Leafs second goal, Michael Grabner starts the play by finding Nazem Kadri on the wing. Kadri then chips it back to Matt Hunwick. Hunwick, with ample time, takes his time to settle the puck down. Kadri finds an open lane for the pass. As he gets a shot off, it’s tipped by Grabner in front to make it 2-0.
Before that, Kadri is aggressive on the fore-check and Grabner ends up keeping the play in the offensive zone by creating a turnover.
Here is another example form the November 2nd game against the Dallas Stars:
At the 3:07 mark of the video, the Stars got caught by all three Leafs forwards at their blue line, initiating them to make a pass back and regroup. While the pass was weak, Michael Grabner was there to get the loose puck. He then moved off the boards and the Leafs came in to set up in the offensive zone. It then leads to Brad Boyes’ second goal of the game.
Now this play would eventually get called off because it was offside. However, it was a smart play by the forward group to aggressively attack the Stars’ defenders at their blue-line. It was a key factor leading to that potential goal. That fore-check led to a bad pass and engaged the Leafs to quickly enter the zone and get a play going.
This game overall was a great example about how the Leafs are effectively being active on the fore-check. I’d recommend watching the full video.
2 – Controlled Break-outs and Zone Entries
During that same LA game, the Leafs had a number of great breakout plays.
Here is a few video from the game against the Kings on January 7th, via NHL.com:
At the beginning of the video, the Kings had some good pressure on the Leafs after entering their zone. After a chance in front, the puck came to Jake Gardiner and he quickly moved the puck up to Shawn Matthias. From there, he was able to find Boyes up the middle for a clean breakout play. While as simple as it is, it’s still an effective strategy to quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone and to possibly get fresh legs on to join the offensive rush.
Following that clip, Jake Gardiner collects the puck in the neutral zone with Tyler Toffoli coming up on him. With a smart heads up play, he spots P.A. Parenteau. As he enters the zone, Parenteau makes a great pass to find Tyler Bozak who gets a good shot off on Jonathan Quick. The Leafs made a quick counter attack and made a smooth entry into the zone.
We’ve seen this mostly all year. They constantly and effectively move the puck out cleanly without any sustained pressure from the opponents’ defense, forcing them to turn the puck over. From previous years, I’ve seen a lot of panic when it comes to breaking out and just throwing the puck wherever. This year is different.
Even in the offensive zone, the puck is moved quickly. When there’s no option, they patiently hold onto the puck without turning it over.
In the same video posted by DRL Productions, it shows another great breakout play off the rush from the Kings.
At the 2:14 mark of the video, Bernier makes a great save on Marian Gaborik. The Leafs then quickly countered with Matt Hunwick making a quick pass to Morgan Rielly. Rielly then moves the play up and spots Peter Holland to send him in on a breakaway. While the score remained 1-0, it’s another quick and simple breakout that ultimately gave the Leafs a quality scoring chance.
The video with the Dallas Stars (posted above) is another good game where they were entering the zone cleanly, particularly at the 6:00 mark.
3 – Defensive play and Shutting Down top Lines
Compared to last year, the Leafs play in their zone was atrocious. This year, they are more aware of their surroundings as well as more aggressive on the puck carrier. This more structured play is one of the reasons why they have become more of a complete team compared to previous years.
In the highlight video from the Kings game from NHL.com, Dion Phaneuf pinched up to make a hit on Dustin Brown. Dwight King and Trevor Lewis were up on the attack, while Lupul and Marincin were back for the Leafs. Lupul came back to help and take away the passing lane along with Marincin, leaving King to take a shot on net with Reimer being square with him.
It was a great read by Lupul to come back and cover for Phaneuf by helping take the passing lane away, forcing King to shoot.
Leafs captain, Dion Phaneuf, in my opinion, has elevated his play. Last year, players would easily beat him to the outside and he wasn’t as aggressive on the puck carrier. I’m talking about plays like this:
Phaneuf was targeting Max Pacioretty as he entered the zone. He attempted to make a hit, with Pacioretty just squeaking by. Phaneuf then just sat back and let Pacioretty walk in to make it 1-0 Montreal.
It’s plays like that had everyone in an uproar and rightfully so. At this level, there is no excuse for someone to get by that easily. From that video, there was no effort to get back into the play. This year we’re not seeing those types of bad decisions. He’s starting to show the true nature of his game by bringing back his physical style of play, actively pursing the puck carrier and staying in position.
Another key contributing factor is the ability to shut down opposing team’s top units, as well as decreasing the number of shots in general. Morgan Rielly has been given that responsibility of being that two-way player to shut down the teams top units and so far, he’s been faring well in that department.
A few months back, I took a look at the emergence of Rielly in his new shutdown role here.
Has he shown some promise? Yes. Does he need to improve? Of course. I’d be lying if I said he didn’t need to improve his skill. Yes, he still makes some mistakes, but the drive and work ethic is there. There are times where he’s not aggressive on the puck carrier and should attack more often, but those are things that he’s still learning.
Here are the same highlights form the Leafs game against the Stars on November 2nd that was posted above:
On the Benn goal at 2:08, Rielly is in good position in front of Benn. As Benn makes the toe-drag move, Rielly still hasn’t made an attack on Benn. He freezes, giving Benn the opportunity to move into the slot and score to tie the game.
Once Benn made the move, Rielly should’ve made an attempt to knock the puck and be aggressive. This is what Babcock is instilling in his young blue-liner.
While Rielly had to deal with shutting down Benn and Seguin, that was the only goal allowed while Rielly was on the ice with the duty of shutting down a deadly duo.
Mike Babcock wouldn’t have given him this role if he didn’t think there was any promise. Rielly has 18 points, 15 of which have come at even strength while seeing limited power-play time. He’s averaging just over two minutes on the penalty kill and has logged over 800 minutes this year, second among Leafs defenseman.
4 – Patience
This relates to the controlled breakout section mentioned above. They’re not rushing to set up a play. Their breakouts are smoother compared to previous years and they’re also patient in setting up a play. Every time the puck is on their stick, they take their time to look at their options. Patience with the breakouts and with the puck movement are paying off for the Leafs this year.
The more patience you have, the fewer turnovers you create as a team. After watching the team the previous years, if they were in a situation where they were being pressured, they would panic and turn the puck over. This year when they feel like they’re being threatened, they fall back, regroup and start the play again to breakout. Obviously, you don’t want to take too long to make a play. But the Leafs are using that extra split second whenever they have a chance and it’s one the attributes that are helping them be successful.
5 – Mike Babcock
Let’s face it. Those four points mentioned above are in large part due to the head coach. It’s absolutely astonishing how Mike Babcock was able to turn this team around in a short amount of time. Usually, it takes time for players to buy into the coach’s system. The Leafs now are showing that they are able to play his style of hockey. Babcock came into this team with nothing and has transformed a team with no possible chance at a playoff spot, to being seven points out.
He is the one that has made this team the way it is right now. It is a small sample, but look at the numbers compared to last year. *Note: 2015/16 numbers as of Saturday, January 9th, 2016.
|GF/GP||2.51 (24th)||2.56 (17th)|
|GA/GP||3.13 (5th)||2.59 (17th)|
|GA||257 (5th)||101 (21st)|
|Shots/GP||29.2 (22nd)||31.1 (6th)|
|SA/GP||33.5 (2nd)||31.2 (5th)|
|CF%||46.4 (27th)||50.0 (16th)|
|C +/-||-517 (27th)||0 (16th)|
|SCF||1697 (22nd)||909 (6th)|
|SCA||2087 (26th)||865 (11th)|
It’s no surprise that Mike Babcock has had a positive impact on this team compared to what it was in 2014/15. All of the against categories (shots and goals), the Leafs were ranked in the top five last season.
This year they are at the other end of the spectrum, lowering their shots against, scoring chances and goals against this year. It’s a great sign to see the Leafs improving and not regressing completely. Although there’s still lots of time left, their play under Babcock has improved tremendously in all three zones.
*Statistics from NHL.com and War-On-Ice.