Originally posted in December, 2019 in the early days of Sheldon Keefe’s coaching career, this post was republished as part of the Retro May look back at some of our work over the years.
Point shots are inefficient; enough statistical studies have proven it. Yet, most teams rely on them ad nauseam. They take turns lining up and firing at the offensive bluelines until a shot hits target and someone emerges victorious.
The Maple Leafs now aim differently, not just in how they fire at the net, but in their overall strategy. Instead of spray and pray, they choose skill and control. The team’s new offensive system isn’t revolutionary, but creative enough that its success could transform the NHL for the better.
Watch these sequences taken from last season’s playoff series against the Boston Bruins.
The Leafs cycle the puck well, but the offence doesn’t feel threatening. What’s wrong?
The Bruins don’t make any real defensive choices. They stay in their dice formation protecting the slot, perfectly content in letting the Leafs handle and shoot the puck on the periphery. The clips often end with a point-shot aimed towards the stick of a forward. The deflection attempts easily get countered.
Offence is movement. Movement forces decisions from the defence and creates confusion in coverage. Breakdowns and scoring chances follow. It’s a formula — not infallible, but one that brings success through the course of a game.
It begins with using space. Players have to use the width and length of the ice to send the puck away from the defence’s grasp, especially right after they enter the zone to establish possession. The Leafs already do this well in the above sequences. But it’s not enough to use space. Even if it’s sometimes necessary to move the puck to the periphery to establish possession, it can’t stay there — shots from the slot score at a higher rate, and the little black disc has to find its way back inside.
To take it to dangerous areas, players have to move purposely inside the offensive zone.
Take a look at this recent goal of the Leafs.
Comparing the first video above to this one isn’t completely fair. The setting and the opposition clash; the rebuilding Rangers don’t equate the playoff form Boston Bruins. Yet, even considering the opposition factor, the contrast remains striking. In the second clip, the offence breathes; it flows. Players move their feet, they attack space, they support each other, and they find a scoring chance from the slot.
The offence is awakened by movement and a couple of strategic changes in zone deployment. The first one is the high forward, or more accurately, the higher forward.
Every team in the NHL utilizes a high forward — it’s the typical triangle offence. When the puck sits low in the offensive zone, two players move to the walls, one to keep possession, and the other to offer a cycle pass option. A third skater, the high forward, stands back in open ice, both in a defensive and offensive position. He can either counter an opposing breakout attempt or become a shooting threat.
When the puck moves to the top of the zone, contrary to many other teams, the Leafs bring their third skater even higher than most teams, almost at the blueline, and they make greater use of him.
This tactic has a few benefits: it involves defencemen in the attack, stretches and overwhelms the opposing defence, and enables more shooting opportunities from the slot.
Moving a forward up the point allows one defencemen to leave it to attack lower in the zone. A player moves up; another comes down. It’s a typical exchange. The Leafs encourage the switch; they want defencemen moving down the wall and they supplement the strategy with give-and-gos.
It’s quite hard for a blueliner to beat an opponent straight on as the last man back; only the most talented defencemen do it consistently. This is where the high forward proves useful. As he often out-races his coverage to the top of the zone, it isolates one defender and creates the potential of 2-on-1s. The high forward becomes an outlet for the attacking defencemen to quickly move around the defender, get the puck back and win inside positioning.
Stretching & overwhelming defences
The movement of the high forward also stretches the defensive box — a defender has to at least follow this forward halfway to the top of the zone. The mirror motion opens space underneath, specifically in the slot. As the defence isn’t as tightly grouped inside it anymore, a skater moving down from the point can then create plays around the net.
The offensive movement also creates confusions in coverage. Almost all NHL teams play zone defence, especially at the top of the zone. They rely on defenders’ ability to process the offensive situation and sort out who they need to cover.
The 2-on-1s and the exchange in positioning between defencemen and forward overwhelms defenders and makes it hard for them to stick with their assignments. Attackers slip by and gain a numerical advantage as they attack down.
A player standing in the slot won’t be getting the same shooting opportunities as one rapidly shifting through it. The first player will easily be neutralized—he’s not moving—while the second one can’t be as easily countered. He leaves but a second for defenders to react and take his stick away.
Bringing a forward high, out of the defensive box, gives him a chance to find space for a shot at the top of the circle, or reenter the slot with speed, attack space, and slip between defenders unnoticed. If this forward times himself well to reenter the play, he becomes a pass or a one-timer option for a teammate.
The other change to the Leafs system, besides the high forward, is the spacing of skaters lower in the zone. Before, like most other formations, the Leafs would try to clog shooting lanes when the puck moved to the point. They hoped the two or more forwards placed in or around the net could find a tip or a rebound. The tactic made sense with the reliance on point shots; it improved the likelihood of the shot from the blueline finding its way in.
The Leafs still operate this way at times, but now, instead of automatically grouping around the blue-paint, the lower forwards move into space more. They give better passing options to players at the blueline. The movement at the top of the zone enables movement down low. The point-men can slide along the blueline and quickly send the puck down the wall to a forward standing there, or try and reach cross-ice with a pass or a corner dump to another.
This change in strategy has some of the same benefits as the high forward. It helps stretch the defence and cycle the puck until a breakdown happens, allowing an attacker to skate in into the slot to capitalize.
The new offensive system of the Maple Leafs can be summed up with three words: better puck support. Instead of having players stand in coverage, they move outside of it until they see an opening. Instead of relying on hope plays, they control puck movements. Instead of letting the defencemen operate on an island at the top of the zone, the Leafs try to attack as a five-man offensive unit — all pieces interchangeable and equally important.
Of course, no tactic is perfect. The Leafs don’t defend very well, and the change of strategy can exacerbate this weakness. Sometimes forwards will be caught at the top of the zone in defencemen’s spot. They will be forced to defend the rush as the last man back and won’t make the right choices.
But the upside is clear. As the team gets more comfortable, we should see defencemen even more involved in the attack and skaters will show more patience moving the puck until a breakdown happens. The team’s offence should only grow more dangerous.
What Keefe’s Leafs are trying to accomplish should be looked at in a positive light — and not just by fans of the team. Many NHL systems are the death of spectacle. The skill of the top players in the world can shine even brighter. Systematically unleashing their creativity could benefit the sport as a whole.