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Examining the Leafs' defensive zone winger positioning

The contrast between Carlyle's tactics and Babcock's is stark.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It's been two and a half years since I posted about the disaster that was Randy Carlyle's defensive/breakout strategy, but I've been thinking lately about how it compares to what is going on now with Mike Babcock's system. It's easy to point to improved possession stats and say that Babcock is doing good things, but somewhat more difficult to pinpoint what.

Let's start with a brief summary of what Carlyle had the Leafs doing while defending in their own zone: The wingers frequently dipped well below the hash marks in what appeared to be a vain attempt to help support struggling defenders. While this strategy allowed the Leafs to outnumber their opponents down low, it left attacking point men wide open in the event of a lost puck battle and also left the Leafs' defenders and forwards with no passing options if they won the puck battle.

Predictably, this led to a lot of dangerous scoring chances against the Leafs and a lot of "off the glass and out" breakouts. Even when the Leafs managed to actually get the puck to a winger, the winger almost always had to take the puck off the boards, which is a tricky play to make at high speeds.

Joffrey Lupul put it rather succinctly, following a 5-3 loss to the Blues:

We didn’t seem to be able to break the cycle, and they were using the points. We play with a lot of people down low in our zone so the points are going to be open. And yet they seemed to be getting the point shots through and a lot of tips and rebounds. Obviously something.. something was wrong there.

Perhaps the worst part of this strategy was that the Leafs didn't (and still don't) have the kinds of big, bruising wingers necessary to win a lot of puck battles down low and along the wall. Listen, I loved Phil Kessel, but he was only ever took a passing interest in puck retrieval. In HBO's 24/7 series that focused on the Wings and Leafs, we heard the phrase "they can't handle us down low" uttered by Wings players, Leafs players, and Mike Babcock himself.

Oh, how things have changed.

While you'll occasionally spot a Leaf winger dropping down low to cover for a defender, there is a lot more trust placed in the team's defence, and the wingers are a lot more ready to take a pass. Not being so deep in the zone certainly helps the breakout, but the other factor is that the wingers aren't glued to the boards and trying to take the puck from there. Instead, wingers are ready to receive a pass and immediately start skating. Just look at this example from the Leafs' last game against the Sabres:

Wingers in position

Brooks Laich is playing wing on the weak side and swoops low to cover Evander Kane, who, while not likely to get a pass at this point, is still not someone you want roaming free in your zone. Meanwhile, Colin Greening, playing as the C here, takes away the option of going back to the point through the middle of the ice. Ben Smith, playing RW on the strong side, is also preventing the puck from getting back to the point via a bank pass off the wall. Notice how he faces the wall anticipating the push back to the point.

Worth noting is that every other Leaf is in good position. Jake Gardiner's positioning is absolutely perfect, forcing his man to the corner while using good stick positioning to encourage the pass back to the point, where Smith and Greening are waiting to cut it off. That stick positioning is something all of Babcock's teams do very, very well. Frank Corrado, for his part, is the weak side defender, and has good net-side positioning on his man.

What I want to highlight here is that the Leafs' wingers aren't the only ones with improved play - but they are an important part of the system.

And guess what? It totally works. Greening's stick is in great position to disrupt the pass, even if he can't take control of it right away.

Pass interception Leafs winger

Even though Greening isn't able to control the intercepted pass, the fact that he and Smith aren't stuck down low allows him to get out to the point quickly, and the puck exits the zone.

Puck exits zone easily

If this were a Carlyle-coached team, the strong side winger (Smith, in this case) would have engaged the puck carrier down low and a) allowed a pass to get back to the D or b) not been able to do anything with the puck when he got it, since he would be standing almost still. Instead, the Sabres' cycle is broken, the puck is chipped out of the zone, and the Leafs are already putting pressure on the Sabres' D. For the record, after the puck bounced around a bit, it was controlled by the Leafs and they had the chance to rush the other way after a line change.

One caveat I will add to this breakdown is that wingers still definitely have to position themselves along the wall at the hash marks and make a play from time to time. It's also a spot they have to be in order to break up certain types of cycling, so it's certainly not as though Babcock never wants them engaging in that area of the ice.

Another issue to be wary of is what Gus Katsaros calls "the accordion." Basically, it just means that wingers can't be too far from the boards either, because otherwise, a bank pass goes around them easily (making an accordion shape), and they're stuck in no man's land while not covering the point. Michael Grabner provides us with one such example, as he wants to stand directly in between the point man and the scrum down low.

Grabner circumvented
Grabner circumvented

So instead of cutting off the pass, Grabner gets "accordioned" and caught in no man's land.

Next time you're watching the Leafs defending in their own end, appreciate how they aren't bunching up down low and how they use their wingers just a little higher in the zone to cut off passes to the point.

They aren't always successful, but they are certainly more effective at breaking up other teams' cycle, and this leads to less time being spent in the defensive zone.