The Leafs and neutral-zone play

Xs and Os from The Backhand Shelf’s Whiteboard section

If you’ve been reading this blog all summer, you’d probably be aware that I’m not too optimistic about the Leafs’ chances next season. It’s not that I think the team lacks leadership and stability and the character required to win, I just don’t think the team has enough talented players to roll out a competent top nine forward group and top four defence. There are some good pieces there, but overall, the team needs to focus its efforts on improving the high-end skaters.

The Leafs haven’t gotten expressly worse this offseason and I think generally Brian Burke has done a good job in a vacuum with the limited assets. The acquisition of James van Riemsdyk was a very good one, but the team still has some major holes. Van Riemsdyk is a good hockey player, but he won’t necessarily help the Leafs in their most pressing issue: the fact the team is a bottom-third team in puck possession.

Puck possession is key, the most important attribute for a hockey team. Sloppy possession can be cured by good goaltending, but those teams are few and far between. Even if Toronto were to pick up an elite goaltender like Roberto Luongo, it doesn’t help the fact that in three of the four “Burke” seasons, Toronto has been a sub-par possession club, lacking elite puck movers, particularly on the back end.

You can make the playoffs as a team that is below average with puck possession, but that doesn’t make it sustainable. This is the tied Fenwick rates of Cup winners, playoff teams and the Leafs since 2009:

  Cup Winner Playoffs Average Leafs
2009 49.45% 52.13% 48.86%
2010 57.72% 51.17% 52.83%
2011 51.65% 51.62% 44.48%
2012 54.91% 51.84% 46.48%

For those unawares, “Fenwick tied” is an easier way of saying the rate of unblocked shots a team fires at the net with the score tied at even strength. They’re tallied up here at Behind the Net for each season since 2007. The only team to win a Cup with a tied score of below 50% were the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, but they had a total systematic redesign when they switched coaches from Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma. For some reason, the system behind Therrien wasn’t working, but enough of that for now.

The Leafs caught awful goaltending in that 2010 season, one that ought to have been their best. Tomas Kaberle and François Beauchemin were puck-possession beasts and most of the depth guys were plus players such as Garnet Exelby, Jamie Lundmark, Viktor Stalberg and pretty much everybody except Colton Orr and Wayne Primeau. Unfortunately, Burke failed to recognize what he had and fix the goaltending at that moment, instead trading Beauchemin, losing Kaberle to age and the need to deal a vet with an expiring contract, and a couple of guys to free agency that were never replaced.

I think too many people focus on finding a #1 centre for Phil Kessel or a true #1 goaltender when neither of those options fix the Leafs’ most pressing problem: they acquire, and then lose, good hockey players for whatever reason.

Over at Fear the Fin, SnarkSD described the importance of play in the neutral zone as a predictor and contributor to team success. According to the chart at the bottom of the post, the Leafs were the sixth-worst team in the NHL through the neutral zone, ahead of just Columbus, Minnesota, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Calgary. Three of those squads have goalies considered to be #1s (Nik Backstrom, Cam Ward, Miikka Kiprusoff) but neither club has had any success in the last few seasons.

Only one team has been a negative possession team and a playoff team consistently for three seasons, and that’s the New York Rangers who have had respectable possession numbers (between 49% and 50%) and arguably the best goalie of the era.

To improve as a club, the Leafs need to improve in the neutral zone. It’s not about attacking zone or defensive zone play anymore, it’s about building from the middle of the ice and out. The team has three puck-possession centremen in Dave Steckel, Jay McClement and Mikhail Grabovski and five wingers who could conceivably score upwards of 18 goals in any given season.

The rest of the focus needs to be in that top four on defence. I’ve already laid out my case for the Leafs needing to improve on defence, which could be done still by signing Michal Roszival or making a trade for a forward who is less valuable at moving the puck up front, such as Joffrey Lupul, while his value is high.

I suppose the good thing about van Riemsdyk at this point is that the Flyers carried the puck into the zone 60% of the time rather than dumping it in with him on the ice this past season which was slightly higher than the team’s average and splits the middle between his most frequent linemates Jakub Voracek (66%) and Wayne Simmonds (48%). [NOTE–Check first comment below for clarification] He’s a guy who generates most of his offence from the offensive zone, so he isn’t a true puck carrier, but he ought to create some space while the elite guys like Mikhail Grabovski or Phil Kessel are moving the puck forward.

But he’s just a small glass of water where the Leafs need to fill a rather large bucket. There’s nothing wrong with the additions of van Riemsdyk or McClement from a hockey perspective, it’s just that Burke needs to do more of those. Small moves that tweak the bottom two thirds of the lineup and make them slightly better.

An above-average player at every position.

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  • beloch


    The table you linked to is about the player’s individual entries, not the entries with him on the ice. So JvR retained possession of the puck (carry or pass, rather than dump-and-chase) on 60% of the zone entries where he was the one sending the puck in.

    Overall, with JvR on the ice, 53.2% of the team’s entries were with possession, versus a team average of 52.8%.

    It doesn’t change your point, but I figured it was worth clarifying.

  • beloch

    The team Burke inherited in 2008 had a much better fenwick even with the lack of talent. The problem was Toskala goaltending. The 2008 leaf team that Burke dismantled was an above par possession club. And given the state of the leafs now I don’t think BUrke understands puck possession and its importance.

    Also, teams like PHX and Florida manage to win minus top end all star talent. Sure you can give Burke a pass because he doesn’t have Crosby, Malkin etc but he has not shown ability to leverage the players he has to create a competitive team. He is doing above average but other GMs have shown they can do more with less.

  • Saying their biggest problem is possession is a bit like saying “the Leafs biggest problem is that they’re bad at hockey”. I still think the #1 goaltender is the single biggest hole to fix. Dramatically reducing shots against will have to come with larger wholesale changes to the roster, so it’s somewhat deceiving to think of it as one problem.