Olympic Thoughts On The Leafs

Richard Wolowicz

There is much to be learned from what Team Canada did in Sochi.

It's only natural that there would be some controversy over which players would skate for Team Canada's men's hockey team, but amidst all the debate around Chris Kunitz and P.K. Subban, one important aspect of the team hardly earned any talk at all: the coaches. Although none of them are particularly imposing characters, it was nevertheless impressive to watch Lindy Ruff, Claude Julien, Ken Hitchcock, and Mike Babcock go to work. Really, the only part of the Canadians' game that didn't come together during the tournament was the power play, and in such a short time frame, we can forgive them that. They did win the tournament after all, and they looked absolutely masterful doing it.

A vision, a plan

Right from the opening game it was obvious that the Team Canada players had bought into Babcock & Co.'s system, and the blueprint the coaches laid out was never seriously altered at any point in the tournament. Sure, minor adjustments were made, but the Canadians played the same tight-game, low-scoring style six times with six wins to show for it. They might have lost a game to a lesser team it's true, but with so many good players on the roster, it seems that Canada's coaches accepted that risk.

Facing quite frankly inferior goalies, for example, you'd think that an all-star offense such as Canada's would have racked up points like crazy but Canada wound up walking away with narrow wins each time. Canada's shooters seemed to be stuck on trying certain types of plays to score certain types of goals. We saw hundreds of tipped point shots, players crashing the net, and rebounds. It's probably fair to say that some of Canadian fans' mid-tournament consternation came not just from the scores but also from a lack of pretty back-door plays, wild odd-man rushes, and end-to-end solo efforts. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that Canada was just preparing for more formidable foes.

And what is that plan?

Possession. Possession possession possession. Possession.

So much was made of Canada's defensive game, and there is no denying it was impressive. But that DID NOT mean that the team had to get hemmed into its own end for whole periods at a time ("allowing only bad shots") and it ALSO didn't mean using some awful trap system. Maybe the play wasn't scintillating for the average viewer, but it was still a heck of a lot more exciting than watching a team like the Swiss for six games.

The way they knocked pucks loose with poke checks would be inconceivably aggravating to play against. The way they read plays and broke them up was like watching five hockey players with ESP; what a forecheck. Positioning was stellar - never did a defenceman pinch once and get caught without a forward helping out. (You might point out that Latvia scored on a breakaway, but that wasn't because of a bad pinch.) And backside pressure? Hoo boy. The neutral zone might have been a choke chain.

In short, Canada played Canadian hockey systems with a hermetic seal and in so doing, yes, they played defensive hockey. But at no point did the cede the puck unnecessarily. They never gave up their own blue line without a fight. They were not content to 'just keep someone to the outside'. It was stifling defensive hockey the way it should be played - in the other team's end.

Instead of taking note of all this, Randy Carlyle noted that he thought there was something to be learned from Latvia's game against Canada. The one where Latvia played the trap and their goalie collapsed due to exhaustion. Gap in talent yes, but really?

Some debate

It is perhaps debatable whether or not such a system could be implemented so successfully without such a star-studded roster. After all, Carlyle has to shelter certain players and stress more about match-ups than Mr. "I have four first lines and three first pairings" Babcock.

Maybe there is more to this debate, but for now I just don't see it. I saw four of the smartest hockey coaches in the world implement a fantastic possession-based system and they shut down the best the rest of the world had to offer. If you, as an NHL coach witness this play, how do you not immediately think "so this is where hockey is going"?

Oh, Randy.

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