According to one player who has played for both coaches, the similarities are uncanny.
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser can list them all, too, from where the wingers are positioned to how defencemen are supposed to pressure the puck carrier.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle’s system in the defensive zone, Fraser says, is almost a replica of the one he learned in his rookie year under legendary coach Jacques Lemaire.
“There’s very few, minimal differences but pretty much it’s the exact same thing,” Fraser said. “[Some aspects] are taught the exact same way Lemaire did.”
For an organization that has laboured to prevent goals against for years, there aren’t many better models than what Lemaire managed with the New Jersey Devils.
His final full season as head coach was in 2009-10, when the Devils led the NHL with just 186 goals against, and Fraser played 61 games in a defence-first role.
While Carlyle’s overall approach – with a strong forecheck and plenty of offence – would hardly be compared to the neutral zone trap that Lemaire employed, the elements he has borrowed are clearly working, as the Leafs have become a team that’s far harder to score on.
Some of that improvement is due to goaltender James Reimer and his .929 save percentage, but there’s also something to be said for the effectiveness of what Fraser calls “a swarm mentality” in their own end.
“In the past, we were a little passive on defence and allowing teams to make skill plays around us,” he explained. “Now, we’re just trying to instantly shut guys down and keep things to the outside.
“In the zone, we’re trying to tighten it up. I mean, it works. You see more and more teams [around the league] developing it.”
Statistically speaking, there are indications of the change, too. While Toronto continues to allow a similar number of shots against, they are coming from further out, on average, than a year ago.
According to a new tool developed by Calgary computer programmer Greg Sinclair, the average shot on goal against the Leafs is coming from 36.7 feet away, an increase of roughly a foot and a half from last season.
The analysis (somekindofninja.com/nhl) relies on the league’s shot-distance data produced every game and indicates Toronto has improved the most in this area on the penalty kill, where shots are now coming from 37 feet away compared to just 33 feet a year ago.
After only 13 games played, it’s a small sample size, and use of the NHL’s shot-location data is still in its infancy. But the numbers appear to reflect what has happened on the ice in the early going, with the Leafs looking better prepared in their own end as Carlyle’s teaching takes hold.
“We’re doing a good job of putting in place what he’s asked for,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “The little things that have been implemented with the changes in the system, when we do play that system, it gives us a chance every night. That’s why we’ve had success this year.”
“It’s been great because essentially we just want to cut down teams’ time and space,” Fraser added. “We’re trying to break down parts of the ice and have five guys everywhere, so that when we don’t have the puck, we can quickly close on the guy.”
Not that anyone is mistaking the Leafs for a defensive juggernaut just yet. This is a team with three minor-league veterans adapting to life on an NHL blueline many nights, and that has allowed an average of 3.5 more shots a game than it has generated (a stat in which Toronto is sixth worst in the league).
And even with strong goaltending, the Leafs are middle of the pack (13th entering Wednesday’s games) in goals allowed per game.
Figures like that are why Carlyle believes his vision is a work in progress, and even after a four-game win streak and an 8-5-0 start, he isn’t getting overly excited about how far they have come.
“We’re a hockey club that has to come to work every day, recognize our deficiencies and then try and work on those,” Carlyle said, adding defensive zone coverage is something he plans to address every day.
“Just because we’re three games over .500, I don’t think we should be waving any pompoms or doing any jumping up and down. We’re supposed to be 13-0. That’s the way the game is played.” That’s pro sports. You want to be as strong as you possibly can. To sit here and make any great proclamations on where we are, I think it’s very, very foolhardy.”
Are the Leafs keeping shots to the outside?
Phaneuf on ice
Grabovski on ice
From 20 ft or less
Distances listed in average feet
Source: Greg Sinclair / somekindofninja.com