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Sheldon Keefe’s choice: Play better within the CBJ system or go Maximum Leafs

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My head and my heart are at war over how to beat the trapping Blue Jackets.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The Leafs lost the first game against Columbus. They gave up one goal in a game where their defending was good enough for Frederik Andersen, who was good enough to save one goal over expected, and put the team in a position to win it at the other end of the ice.

They did not.

Look at the Leafs all-situations offence. It’s not terrible. It’s got some good levels of shooting and some good locations, but it’s got a lot of junk from the left point, too. It’s okay, just okay. The Leafs aren’t an okay offensive team, they’re a great one. Or they’re supposed to be.

This looks like precisely what the Leafs were doing in October and November when the generally tougher defending in the league stymied their system that had worked like a charm the year before. Leafs zone time meant players circling the outside and passing to the point as the only option.

This is how the Columbus trap works in their defensive zone. And, frankly, their own end too. The trap doesn’t trap you inside it, it keeps you out. It’s not a trap at all, it’s a force field, a bubble they erect over the dangerous parts of the ice and no one is allowed in. Not even them! That’s why their offence is so terrible.

The Blue Jackets force field worked fairly well for them against the Leafs, and now Sheldon Keefe has to decide how to tip the balance his way. The path divides here, today, and he has a choice: Do they infiltrate the Columbus bubble or do they smash it apart?

Inflitration

Bob McKenzie on OverDrive yesterday thinks the Leafs played a very good game out of their comfort zone, defended better than they usually do, and could as easily won it as lost it: Give it a listen. He does concede some forwards need a better game, but his recipe for success is to do more of the same.

But if the Leafs do that, they are playing Columbus’s game and hoping their shooting talent wins in the end.

Justin Bourne has some thoughts on this, and he doesn’t like the hope approach.

Bourne describes, very ably, what I’m calling infiltration of the CBJ bubble:

The tweak that needs to be made is simple: “short support.” This is not revolutionary thinking, but it does take a less hopeful mindset, as it attempts to take control of the game without needing chance to fall in your favour. A few of the Leafs scorers play in a way that hopes for error on the other side, then capitalizes on it. Short support is a different kind of thinking for a Leafs team that likes to spread out their offence, go weak side, spread the rink with boards-to-boards passes, and generally try to pull teams apart.

He describes how forwards using speed and a different deployment in the offensive zone can get more zone time, get more shots, and tip the balance.

From looking at the shotmap of game one, we can see that they did infiltrate some of the time. If you look at Bourne’s video examples, you’ll see a lot of times they were kept to the outside and then...

The “next” player to the puck for the Leafs was always the defender, then another Columbus player. You can live with the next guy being a defender, but the guy after that guy needs to be a Leaf player in Game 2. If breakdowns aren’t going to come, they have to find ways to extend possessions and keep prodding, hoping to find chances and wear Columbus down, or at least force them to take penalties.

What he describes is a way to concede to the Columbus structure, but to get inside it to open up opportunities for the Leafs to use their skill.

But there is another way.

Maximum Leafs

The Leafs are a fast team that can open up the neutral zone with stretch passes, use their speed and their skill and overwhelm their opponent. That’s their comfort zone.

Watch this goal:

That’s CBJ’s best defensive pair totally flummoxed by Brayden Point’s speed and his buddy’s skill.

Now Marner, who draws the CBJ box defence (never not PK-ing) this way and that until they are twisted inside out, and the rest of the team has moved into the slot.

He drew the bubble to him.

This is the Leafs being the Leafs (yes I know that first one is the other Blue and White team). Speed, skill, and the devil take the hindmost because we aren’t worrying about a rush chance against. This is the choice Keefe can make. He can decide to just smash that bubble, or shove it aside and get into the dangerous parts of the ice, not by hoping for a mistake from Columbus, but by forcing them.

That takes a strong belief in the team and their strengths. It means letting the Leafs play to their strengths at their top speed. And it means you’ve decided that McKenzie and Bourne are wrong when they assume the CBJ bubble is just to hard to break.

You also have to be willing to risk odd-man rushes against. You can’t live in fear of your mistakes. You have to, in other words, trust your defence.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

And that might be the hardest thing of all.

McKenzie is right, the Leafs did play out of their comfort zone, and it worked for them well enough that if they wanted to be in a coin-flipping contest with the Blue Jackets, that’s the way to do it. He thinks Columbus defends the rush too well to try that against them. But... Points up.

Bourne is right, the Leafs did get pushed out by the CBJ bubble, and they need to get inside it somehow. He wants them to make some different choices offensively because the CBJ bubble just can’t be broken. Marners up, er, points up.

But that sounds like fear of failure. Fear of making mistakes. It sounds like we’ve decided the playoffs are “different” and the goal is to prevent goals, not score them. It sounds like we’re meant to play the Columbus game until they let us win.

My heart really wants Maximum Leafs. I really want them to just go for it, press for every high-risk chance, and trust that what goes back the other way is tolerable. Go big or go home. Be yourself, and score five goals. And if you give up four you’re heroes, six you’re goats. But it beats flipping a coin.

My heart wants hockey that isn’t boring. My heart wants thrills and excitement, and maybe not quite the Edmonton-Chicago defence is a dirty word series, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of the trap. I don’t want to hope we get lucky. I want the players to go out there and just Do. Do it the way they are made to. Be yourself, Leafs, no matter what they say.

But my head thinks Bourne’s infiltration is a good idea.

Tell me where you’re at right now. How do the Leafs beat the bubble-trap?