It’s hard to debate the fact head coach Randy Carlyle has had a major impact in the epic turnaround of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but what is it about his style of coaching that is the secret to his success?
As a diehard Leafs fan from the day I was born, watching the eight years of turmoil was unbearable. At the centre of the issue was the team’s atrocious penalty kill.
Toronto’s best finish on the PK since the 2005 lockout was 24th in the league. Even worse, out of the last four seasons the Leafs finished with the league’s absolute worst-ranked penalty kill twice. In each of the other two seasons, they finished with a far more flattering 28th-ranked penalty kill.
Enter Randy Carlyle and the Top 3 Penalty Kill
Almost from the opening puck-drop of the 2012-13 regular season, watching the penalty kill was a night-and-day difference from the eight seasons prior.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Leafs finally got away from the passive box. My memory of the Paul Maurice era is not 100 per cent, but Ron Wilson coached the passive box penalty kill for his entire tenure in Toronto.
Carlyle introduced a brilliant tactic to the Toronto PK: Covering the points. This style also includes attacking the puck carrier. Unlike the previous years where teams were given two-plus full minutes to pass the puck around and set up plays while the Leafs “blocked the passing lanes”, the penalty killers now put the pressure on opponents to make quick decisions. With the proper preparation in anticipating where these quick puck decisions will end up, the PK is now able to limit opposing power play possession time.
Statistically, this systematic change resulted in a second-ranked penalty killing percentage in 2012-13 and third-best so far this season.
The Improved Power Play
The power play is a bit of a different monster in Toronto. In 2010, the Leafs ranked dead-last. They improved the following year to 22nd and finally 10th (18.4 per cent) in Wilson’s last season with the Blue and White.
In Carlyle’s first full campaign in Toronto, the shortened 48-game season, the Leafs finished with the league’s 14th-ranked power play. This would appear to be a minor fall-off in production at first glance but it was actually a 0.3 per cent increase. Production-wise, the power play remained virtually identical. As a spectator, they did not change much, if at all, from prior seasons. With a top-10 power play entering his first season for Toronto, the umbrella-style attack with the man advantage was already a winning formula. Thus, Carlyle’s primary focus was clearly killing penalties.
So far this season, the Leafs have made a notable change to the style of their power play. There seems to be a lot more emphasis on creating lanes with constant movement. The level of creativity has evidently increased both 5-on-5 and on the power play, but more noticeably with the man-up. It appears to be paying off as Toronto boasts the league’s third-best powerplay at a whopping 33.3 per cent conversion rate.
Yes it is extremely early into the season and the percentages will be nearly impossible to maintain, but all signs point to improvement all the way around on special teams.
Many point to the fact the Leafs have been out-shot in five of the opening seven games. One of the reasons for this phenomenon would be the amount of time spent in the penalty box.
Toronto is tied for seventh in the league in times short-handed. In the game against the Minnesota Wild, the Leafs took four (yes four) penalties in the opening 20 minutes. That’s almost half the period. No wonder it took half the game to find a rhythm offensively. That’s kind of been the story for much of this season so far: penalties disrupting offensive flow, then the powerplay erasing all doubt with a timely goal in, virtually, every game. Anyone want to guess how Toronto was able to have a lead going into the first intermission? If you said the power play, you’re remarkably correct.
Back to the penalties, Toronto was short-handed seven times while only having the man advantage twice in the game against the Philadelphia Flyers (each team still recording only one power play goal).
This all goes without saying the irresponsible own-zone play, something Carlyle is as irritated with as he can possibly be sitting atop the Eastern Conference. This also doesn’t give the men between the pipes the direct credit they deserve. No penalty kill is successful without stellar goaltending and that was on full display versus Minnesota.
All-in-all, the Leafs are 4-1-0 when being out-shot this season and were out-shot by a rate of almost six shots per game last year.
One must ask themselves, if Toronto’s winning percentage is astoundingly high when being out-shot by their opponents, won’t the winning ways only continue if this bad habit is corrected?
That’s just it.
Three Paths to Success or Failure
The Leafs will either improve or continue to be out-shot. The pessimist will claim the current streak to be unsustainable. However, that point would only account for one of the three possible scenarios.
The slightly more modest optimist would simply say the Buds are bound to change their ways and step on the gas a little more offensively.
It would seem quite extreme to suggest the Leafs would actually regress in offensive production if they accumulated more shots, but for the sake of argument you could offer up that outcome.
Are any of these three or four points more likely to happen than any of the others?
Only time will tell, but the optimist would venture to say the Leafs have done it with revolutionary success in the last 55 games.