Could Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 be what the Leafs forwards need?

I was listening to the newest Steve Dangle podcast and a listener emailed in a question about which coaches should replace Randy Carlyle. It’s interesting because one or two episodes ago, Steve & Co. couldn’t really place a finger on a candidate. One of the many emailers submitting a question about Carlyle provided a list of names to choose from. One of them was Guy Boucher.

Steve talked about Boucher for a good while, and I thought it was pretty interesting because though our work is fairly different, we came somewhat to the same conclusion. After the Leafs lost to Detroit, it became clear that it would take another miracle (the Leafs could very well win six straight and get in the postseason by a hair—weirder things have happened with this team) for the team to make the playoffs, and you get the sense that heads are going to roll after this season with all the expectations.

Which makes me think it’s time to line up a replacement (I’m not the only one—James Mirtle eviscerated the Leafs’ current regime in Monday’s Globe), and Boucher came to mind.

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Boucher was coach of the year of the AHL in the 2009-2010 season and had some success in his first season coaching during the 2010-2011 season as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also became a household name and a storyline in the postseason thanks to his bizarre media interactions, mysterious scar on his cheek and employment of the 1-3-1 counter-attacking scheme. The Lightning made it to Game 7 against the eventual Stanley Cup champions Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.

I’ve described the 1-3-1 in the past as “a counter-attack formation” and go into it in a little more depth here, when I was profiling potential candidates to replace the deposed Alain Vigneault in Vancouver.

The Leafs strengths to me, lie in the idea that they are a team that relies heavily on the counter-attack and speed from the wingers. Even though they got rid of Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski last offseason, they still have a bevy of fast forwards: Phil Kessel can flat-out fly. James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri may not all win in a skills competition fastest skater contest, but they’re able to get moving pretty quickly. Even Dave Bolland has had a couple of rushes where he can out-skate a defenceman if he’s given a step and a lot of ice. It’s probably the team’s biggest strength.

The issue with Carlyle is that he’s so determined for his system to work in Toronto that may not play to the Leafs’ strengths. He likes dump-and-chase, gets his depth guys doing that, and only really lets his first line play with the puck. The result is that the secondary scorers are miscast and, as an end, the Leafs have a huge secondary scoring issue. His biggest problem is in the defensive zone, however, where Carlyle has his forwards collapse collapse collapse. There’s a problem with breakouts, and also leaving glaring holes in the defensive zone coverage that opponents have figured out this season—the supposed “tough” parts of the area becoming easy to get to.

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Breakdowns in coverage happen whenever you play a lot of time in the defensive zone, so the Leafs ought to play in it less. The way to do that is to stop things in the neutral zone, which is where Boucher’s Tampa Bay system worked.

I sent an email to Kyle Alexander of and SBN’s Raw Charge, who I’ve talked to a few times about Guy Boucher and the post-1-3-1 era. The story is that after Chris Pronger embarrassed the Lightning system on national TV by not moving the puck forward, Steve Yzerman told Boucher to stop doing it, and the Bolts collapsed. In Boucher’s first year, the Lightning were a 51.3% Corsi Tied team. A year later, they were 47.6% with practically an identical roster.

Anyway, here’s what Kyle had to say about Boucher’s ability to potentially highlight the Leafs’ biggest strengths:

I think he would work in Toronto or Montreal, systems wise.
Montreal would probably be better because he’d play Subban 30 minutes a night. Toronto doesn’t have that guy right now (Tampa Bay has Hedman.)
TB had slow defensemen too and it worked for a while. The system clogs the neutral zone and forces dump ins, but is generally very demanding in the defensive third. Mistakes happen. Big breakdowns. Nothing Bernier and Reimer aren’t used to.
The 1-3-1 works best with defensemen who can cover a lot of ice very quickly so Gardiner and Reilly would probably feast. I don’t think Toronto has the forward depth to keep up. He preaches relentless, first on puck aggression. His best line was Downie, Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim. They gobbled up toughs and allowed Stamkos to shine. With Grabbo, MacArthur gone I don’t think the Leafs have that type of personnel. Kessel would be checked too easily.
He’d be an upgrade over Carlyle but that’s not saying much and I’m not sure he’d be left to his own devices in Toronto OR Montreal which is what he needs to be successful.

The good news is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to find a Steve Downie or a Dominic Moore in free agency than it is to find a James van Riemsdyk or a Phil Kessel, but, hey: Dave Nonis had no trouble acquiring Carlyle-type players previously, so maybe he can do it again.

I’m also a little more optimistic about the Leafs D than Kyle is. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are the best two Leafs going right now over the last little while, Stuart Percy may be ready to come up and it’s not like Dion Phaneuf is a big, slow, lug.

Still, while all the pieces aren’t there yet, a coach’s job is still to tailer the game plan around the roster he currently has. Boucher banked on his checking line in 2011 and made everybody better. Is there a line like that the Leafs could ice? You have to think Nik Kulemin is part of it, and there are a few interesting centremen out there headed to free agency like Steve Ott or Marcel Goc who you have to think would fit nicely onto a hard-checking line.

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Steve and Chris on the podcast went in a different direction (Steve has a good anecdote from Steven Stamkos about how Boucher was able to get Stamkos to concentrate on his strengths) but it was interesting that the two of them talked so much about Boucher, when he was the first name that came to my mind Saturday night when I was thinking about coaches that could best use the Maple Leafs forwards’ speed. Maybe his name will begin to get tossed around. As for current employment, Boucher is with SC Bern right now until the end of the 2015-16 season, and I don’t know the details of his contract but I don’t think coaches sign these European deals without some sort of NHL out.

Anyway, just a thought. Him, or somebody using a system similar to the 1-3-1, could be what Toronto needs right now.

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