What the Leafs can do

When we’re trying to figure out top-tier coaches and what makes them good, it seems a lot of the time we get bogged down in thinking they have some secret magic scheme or a way of breaking down X’s and O’s that us plebs can’t fathom. In reality, I think, what actually sets them apart most from their peers probably something a lot simpler than that. Across the big North American leagues, coaches like Mike Babcock, Greg Popovich, and Bill Belichick get a ton of attention in this regard. Books have been written about each of them, mostly about their big picture philosophies and ways of motivating.

In the case of Belichick, someone I’ve read a lot about, things boil down to a few key points: His teams are prepared for any situation through hard work, and he’s cut-throat in the sense he can stick to a plan, and if you don’t fit it anymore, you’re out. Because he’s so up front about all this, players, even guys like Chad Ochocinco and others who haven’t panned out with the Patriots, respect him for it. Everyone buys in.

Another thing that makes him such a success is his approach to scouting players, and finding guys who can simply “Do their job”. As Kevin Clark of The Ringer noted, that comes from a simple, yet extremely effective outlook, which obviously isn’t just limited to scouting prospective players:

One of his former lieutenants told me this, and I think about it all the time: The one thing Belichick likes to do, is, he likes to scout based on what guys can do as opposed to what the can’t do. And that’s the whole “Do Your Job” mentality right? I think so many GMs sit there and go “That guy isn’t fast. That guy can’t cover. That guy can’t do X,Y, and Z”, and Belichick flips it around and says “Wait, we got this guy here in the fifth round, what is the one thing he can do? And is that worth a 53-man spot?” And that is the question that defines the personnel situation.

It’s no secret I think the Leafs have the most promising GM-Coach combination in the NHL currently, and while that quote above seems a little overly simplistic on the surface, I do see how it can apply to the front office and bench staff in Toronto when you put on that lens. If we look at a lot of the most common storylines that follow this team, we can see it there too.

For instance, Babcock gets a lot of gruff for giving Zach Hyman a top six forward spot, but let’s think about what Hyman does well: He’s arguably the best forechecker in the entire league and is also dynamite in his own end. We know what parts of the game he isn’t good at, but he’s so good at the things he’s good at, that he earns his spot on the roster and his deployment. Translating a football philosophy to the NHL is a little difficult because positions are more specialized in the former, but if we consider how a hockey team can be put together, there is some room to do it. It’s this kind of idea that gives way to how Babcock’s assembled his lines to this point, and how they might look this year.

Hyman has already been penciled in alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner, and if that doesn’t work out, it’ll likely mean he gets back with Matthews. Either way, I’ll bet anyone that Toronto will balance their lines again and keep at least one physical player on each, instead of going video game mode and loading up one or two units. It’s simply trios put together of guys who can each do something notable, and in hockey I think this is probably where coaching is most valuable: In finding those strengths to make those combos.

Now, admittedly this all starts sounding a little like “The Secret” or whatever; “If you just view things positively, things will be better”, which we know is a pile of garbage. That’s not the intent here. It’s just, hockey in general seems to have a problem with unnecessary criticism of players, and it isn’t limited to fans. It goes from management to television analysts to writers and on down. Ever listen to a Hockey Night broadcast? It’s almost like whoever’s calling the game hates hockey and doesn’t even want you to watch. It’s easy to see, even from the outside, how team front offices fall into the same trap. P.K. Subban was the Habs’ best skater, but once that seed of negativity around his personality started to factor in, it became overwhelming and Marc Bergevin played himself by trading him. It felt like once the media storm gathered around that whole situation, Bergevin narrowed his focus into convincing himself why he should trade Subban over why he should keep him. It happens all the time. We see it in our own circle, as Leafs fans crucify Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner for a few defensive mis-steps and hang on to those in their minds, while underrating how dynamite those two are offensively. If management was dumb enough to buy into the same thinking, those players would be moved already.

No team can be made up of all Patrice Bergerons or Anze Kopitars, players who seemingly do all the things right. There’s literally, like, two of those guys in the league. And the Leafs, aren’t going to win by being as tight checking and physical as teams like the Kings or Bruins have been the last few years, no matter how much people – from casual fans to analytics heads – fantasize about it. They’ll do what they can do, and with so much top-end talent, that’s likely going to be trying to take their chances trading off scoring chances. That formula almost put Boston away in the first round, and a better version of it with Tampa (which the Leafs are much more aligned to now) did in the second. “Team identity” is a tough concept to come to terms with, but when you’re a team that’s in contention, it’s rooted in what you can do, not so much what you can’t. We’ll find out what that means for the Leafs and whether or not the “offensive juggernaut” label they’ve been receiving is going to fit. If it is, maybe we can take a step back on guys like Gardiner for a giveaway here or there, and just enjoy their contributions to all the goals.

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    • leafdreamer

      Funny how we went from the article going on about how greatness is focusing on things players do well and putting them in positions to succeed by focusing on their strengths to how Rielly needs to learn to defend…

      Hyman is indeed one of the best forecheckers in the league and his role will always be to dig out the puck or hold it in the boards in the o-zone and Rielly will always be tasked with skating the puck out of the d-zone and making things happen offensively and if Mike Babcock can put these players in situations where ‘what they do well’ is highlighted and avoid putting them in situations whereby their weaknesses are exposed we’re golden. Hyman on top lines digging out pucks for Tavares or Mathews and Rielly paired up with a guy that can cover for his pinches and defend breakaways is the recipe that Babcock will use. If it works he’ll be celebrated like Belachek; if it doesn’t we’ll have to admit that Hyman should have been on the 4th line and Rielly should have been swapped for a ‘real’ defenceman. Hopefully, Babcock’s recipe works.

    • Matmarwill

      Although being overly pessimistic is not a good thing, for the amount of money all these players and management get paid, they should be able to take constructive criticism. If they make a mistake, they should own it. I respected how Jake took ownership of his crappy game 7 against the bruins. And, jake has also received a lot of support in the blogosphere due to his shot suppression since, so i respect that too.

      What we should be able to expect from our top tier players, though, is that they atleast improve on their weaknesses over time. Case in point is John Tavares, who improved his skating tremendously after draft day and then, in the past two seasons, drastically improved his defensive play.

      With this in mind, i think we should be able to expect the following from the buds this coming season:

      1) Babcock dramatically reduces the use of the long stretch passes that the opposition targets to intercept.

      2) Morgan Reilly should improve his defensive game, in how to box out, etc.

      3) Jake Gardiner learns better how to dish out the puck to forwards when under pressure in his own zone.

      4) Leaf forward lines should learn to be responsible for returning to their own zone with proper backchecking and positional play for zone exits.

      Most of these are hockey basics and if this team actually performed these procedures correctly, it would go a long way towards reducing their shots against. That’s not too much to ask.

      • JJDangler

        Totally agree especially with #4……………people crap on the Leafs defense and fair enough, but the many of the forwards need to be more responsible in preventing zone entries and stopping cycles.