Towards the end of the season, I thought it was commonly accepted that Randy Carlyle would bite the dust in the offseason, paving the way for this current Leafs core to get a chance to compete for a playoff spot under a different head coach. Perhaps one that isn’t so deliberately harmful on the possession game.
A lot of people, when pointing out the flaws in any sort of stats-based analysis, like to mention that hockey is a very fluid game with lots of moving parts. It makes data recording more difficult. I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily true. If you’ve tracked zone entries, which involves recording which player moved the puck into the offensive zone and the way he did it, you begin to notice a lot of repetitive movements that have wildly different results.
Dump and chase, as a tactic, is only noticeably successful when a defenceman is forced into making a mistake. That’s one that is rarely made by NHL defencemen anymore. Usually, a d-man who is first on the puck has the ability to move the puck away from a dangerous area, out into neutral ice, and we can repeat the cycle. On the occasions a forward chips and chases the puck past the defenceman, he’s usually out-skated the other players on his team, and has no support even if he has the puck down low.
Entries into the zone with the puck, however, are not only pleasing on the eye (watch what Patrick Kane does in the neutral zone next Chicago game. You may develop an appreciation for what Kane does so well that a lot of players simply can’t do) but according to some excellent research done by our pal Eric, lead to more shots. That post has been read by plenty of coaches at the junior and pro levels, and, being published in the summer of 2012, may be a precursor to a fundamental change in the way the game is played. There’s a huge focus on possession.
Dumping the puck into the zone is conceding possession to your opponent. That may not have been the case twenty years ago, when new expansion franchises meant teams had to dress sub-standard defencemen, and players were not as well conditioned to receive body checks and hits as they are today. Carlyle loves his depth players to dump-and-chase, and the worst crime one of his players could commit is making a turnover. Carlyle will bench Jake Gardiner for one too many turnovers, but ignore the plays that lead to positive puck possession.
Watching my Dad play alumni hockey made me hate dumping the puck even more. The “old-timers” that played NHL hockey would play a bunch of 20-and-30-year-olds going 10,000 miles a minute, and they’d dominate them because they never willingly gave the puck away. If they encountered a wall of defensive players, they turned around, ran it back to their d-men (or even goalie), and started up again.
The dump-and-chase was introduced shortly after the introduction of the forward pass and worked wonders, exploiting the fact defencemen instinctively stood motionless at the centre line. We’ve been led to believe by people like Don Cherry and other dinosaurs with limited memories that this is the way hockey was played back in the 1960s and 1970s, by the successful teams.
Which makes the passage by Bourne interesting. Did Al Arbour coach his players the same way, and allow a younger Bob Bourne, Clark Gillies, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier to hold onto the puck and avoid giving up possession needlessly? There isn’t too much footage available of full games from that time, but it’s worth noting that our memories aren’t flawless. Tyler at mc79hockey showed us a clip of the Philadelphia Flyers at the height of the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ era and the Flyers, unlike teams of today, avoided needless hits after players have given up the puck. They didn’t play like the scary team some clubs, and players, modelled themselves after.
Also from that Bourne post is an interview from Kyle Dubas, the general manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds:
“There’s nothing more that makes me or our staff cringe than when we’re watching players in Bantam or at the Minor Midget level and the parents are yelling and the coaches are yelling to get the puck off the glass or to dump it in and chase when they’re on the attack. I think for the most part we cringe because we know we’re probably going to have to correct those things to try to reset or rewire a player after a playing style like that was ingrained in them for 10 years, and it’s difficult.
I think every single player that plays the game, deep down and innately wants to have the puck on their stick. Myself and [coach] Sheldon [Keefe] told them that we weren’t going to be mad at our players if they tried to make a play and turned the puck over. That’s what every player in hockey wants to do, if they know that they have the grace of the staff.”
Oh, to be able to write about a team whose coaches want players to have the puck and not give it up routinely.
The personification of the divide between Carlyle and a coach like Keefe would be Jake Gardiner. On the surface, Gardiner is a young defenceman who prefers to make risky decisions and plays to out-produce his mistakes. Essentially, he’s high-risk and high-reward. In his post-season press conference, Carlyle didn’t explicitly say who he was talking about during an anecdote about a particular young defenceman upset at how short his leash was, but it’s not hard to divine the player is Gardiner:
“One example. One defenceman, a young defenceman, that’s playing a rover type of hockey early in the season versus more of a condensed style of hockey and a more conservative style at the end of the season. And then coming back and saying that the leash he was afforded in the beginning of the season wasn’t as long as he was afforded at the end of the season, and the coach says ‘if you had played longer you would have had a longer leash’ so it’s like the chicken before the egg, but specifically that one player feeling that his leash was short where we believed it was longer than that.”
I’m not sure Gardiner’s talents are used to the best of their abilities under Carlyle. Once I get my hands on the All Three Zones data (donate here to the project. It’ll improve hockey writing by leaps and bounds) I’ll be able to suss this out with a little bit more data, but my feeling with regard to the Maple Leafs is that they were very restrictive in allowing their defencemen to move the puck out of the defensive zone, and restrictive about giving the defencemen much leeway in the neutral zone after a turnover. Entries under Carlyle can be characterized as possession entries by top six forwards, dump-in attempts by the bottom six forwards, and nothing in between.
The point is that Jake “Mistakes Happen” Gardiner will give up the puck more than a Tim Gleason, but he’ll also have more opportunities to allow the Leafs to succeed. Hockey is not a game of raw numbers, but rather a game of ratios. You can’t say “the defenceman that makes two mistakes leading to goals is worse than the defenceman that makes one mistake leading to a goal” even if you assumed the players had equal ice-time. I’d rather a defenceman who makes three plays and two mistakes than one who makes no plays and one mistake.
Humans, however, weigh losses higher than gains. It’s a core component of Daniel Kahneman’s Prospect Theory and, judging by the way some hockey writers tweet out giveaway numbers, some groups of humans are more susceptible to the inherent bias than others. The leaders in giveaways in the NHL: Erik Karlsson, Taylor Hall, Nik Hjalmarsson, Jeff Petry, Joe Thornton, Alex Goligoski, Phil Kessel, and so on, you’d be silly not to want any of those players on your team.
In the case of paying attention to Gardiner’s errors and blatant mistakes (which are frequently discussed in this comments section) it’s a case of missing the forest for the trees. When you step back and look at Jake’s season as a whole, you see that every Leafs centreman is a better puck-possession player on the ice with Gardiner than without. Considerably, in fact:
If possession isn’t right for you, what about this? Every regular Leafs centreman, who all play different styles and have different usage, were on the ice for more goals for (per 20 minutes) with Gardiner than without, and on the ice for fewer goals against:
Why would Jake be the target of so much consternation rather than a Gleason or a Paul Ranger? I can already hear people yammering that you don’t need stats, you just need to watch the games, idiot, to know that Gardiner is the Leafs best defenceman. That’s kind of the point, though. The Leafs have many problems, but Gardiner’s game as a whole isn’t exactly one of them. Regardless of the mistakes he makes on the ice, it’s evident that the plays he does make (with or without the big leash) make the Leafs a better hockey club. Ultimately, that’s what counts. In his press conference, Carlyle framed himself as the wise old sage and Gardiner as his talented, but foolish, protégé, but I’d argue that Gardiner’s play is more consistent with the overall philosophy of successful hockey teams.
Carlyle’s philosophy is bent on defensive mistakes, however. He wants to minimize his own and maximize the potential for an opponent to make a turnover, because that’s how goals are scored. I’m sure I’ll have the data to prove this at some point during the summer, but Carlyle preached an unnecessarily conservative system, and he has to go.