My main critique with Ron Wilson in the past was his player deployment. I believe that the more successful organizations will find a way to get better usage out of their offensive players by starting them in the offensive zone and their defensive players by starting them in the defensive zone.
But as late as December in the season, this was a reversed trend for Wilson. He started his better defensively second-line in the offensive zone more than he did with the defensively suspect first unit. Mikhail Grabovski, probably the best two-way player employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, “leads” all forwards with percentage of shifts started in the offensive zone.
I thought of this initially because the new Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle got his start in Manitoba, like Alain Vigneault, Claude Noel and Scott Arniel all did. Why this is somewhat important is that those three coaches are all pretty good about player deployment. There’s a clear indication that these coaches have defined “offensive” and “defensive” roles for their players, and while it may not come with success at wins and losses, both Winnipeg and Columbus, teams not expected to do too much this season, are both better puck possession teams than the Leafs.
Last season, there was a clear gap between the usage of Bobby Ryan and Saku Koivu, Carlyle’s player earning the optimized offensive minutes and Koivu earning the hard minutes, starting a lot from the back end. Using similar criteria, for forwards who played at least 10 minutes a game, there was just a 61 faceoff difference at either end between Tyler Bozak (Wilson’s highest used forward in the offensive zone at 33 more starts than the defensive zone) and Colby Armstrong (28 more defensive starts).
I compared a few teams last year, measuring the raw start difference for each team’s highest used forward in offensive situations and highest used in defensive situations, including Carlyle’s Anaheim Ducks, Vignault’s Vancouver Canucks, as well as Wilson’s Leafs. The Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins and previous years champion Chicago Blackhawks were also looked at:
Carlyle’s player usage last season more closely mirrored Boston’s than Toronto’s.
What does this mean? It means that the days of Joffrey Lupul getting an inordinate amount of defensive time is likely over, and line matching may give way in part to zone matching. Obviously, this won’t happen on a real visual level for the remainder of the season, but it’s something to look for going forward.
As a real proponent of zone starts, it’s good to see that the Leafs hired a coach who appears to be aware of them, perhaps not to the extreme level of Vigneault and Joel Quenneville, but to enough effect to give certain players clearly defined roles. I’d like to see some separation between the first and second lines in Toronto as far as usage goes.