With the practice rink deathly quiet, the assistant coach yelled out in a thick Boston accent as five Toronto Maple Leafs took their positions in the offensive zone around him, awaiting instructions for the next drill.
With winger Mason Raymond in the corner with the puck, Greg Cronin had a quick story to tell to hammer home why they were doing the exercise the way they were.
It was because the St. Louis Blues did it to them two nights earlier.
“They got five chances there, and we had three,” Cronin said of the game’s first 18 minutes, which were far more lopsided on the shot clock at 22-6 in the Blues’ favour. “Two on the power play and one on the rush.
“Why did they get more? Because they spread us out.”
The Leafs are reeling right now. Tuesday’s loss to the Blues was their sixth in a row, and in the first practice after that mess, it made sense the coaching staff would use the game as a teaching tool.
The lesson on this particular drill? St. Louis had noted the Leafs’ tendency to play their forwards deep in the defensive zone and lined three players – two defencemen and a forward – along the blueline to counteract it.
The result was the Blues were able to get shot after shot on goal and maintain possession of the puck, as they confused and spread out the Leafs defenders, doing so particularly well on their first goal in what became a 5-3 win.
It was vintage Ken Hitchcock, as the venerable St. Louis coach had clearly identified some weaknesses in the Leafs’ positioning before the game and had his troops take advantage.
Thursday, after a lengthy video session, it was Cronin’s job to explain what went wrong and how the Leafs could pull off something similar in coming games.
“Teams obviously prescout us,” defenceman Cody Franson explained. “You have to try and find little tweaks here and there.
“It’s just being aware what teams are trying to do to us. St. Louis meant to spread us out. We tried to swarm early, and they did a good job of rolling off and moving the puck east [to] west. Sometimes you have to adjust.”
It’s no secret the Leafs have struggled defensively this season, and that is the primary reason they’re sitting on the outside of the playoff picture going into Friday’s nearly must-win game in Philadelphia.
Through 74 games, Toronto has allowed 2,677 shots on goal, a total that will balloon to almost 3,000 by season’s end and go down as one of the highest marks since 1987, when the NHL began publishing shots on goal.
At one point early in Tuesday’s game, St. Louis was on pace for 80 shots. That ultimately came down to just shy of 50 as the Blues rang up a lead and sat back, but that start highlighted just how severe the Leafs’ issues can be against the NHL’s best teams.
It was only the 36th time this season a team has allowed 48-plus shots in a game. A remarkable eight of those have been against the Leafs.
What’s odd about the shots-against problem is how often it gets glossed over as irrelevant or unimportant in Leafs circles. Before Tuesday’s game, alternate captain Joffrey Lupul had noted that they had been outchancing teams during the losing streak, at least according to the staff’s own metrics.
Cronin then used his own five-to-three count at practice as further evidence they had been keeping things close, regardless of what that pesky shot clock said.
And leading scorer Phil Kessel addressed a question about not generating a shot in the first five minutes with a shrug.
“You guys worry about that more than we do,” he told reporters. “We’ve done that before and won.”
And they have. But what all the comments along those lines seem to miss is that teams such as the Blues are finding ways to control games on multiple levels, not simply according to their own internal metrics, which can be skewed by everything from bias to score effects.
To hear Blues players tell it, Hitchcock aims for the equivalent of defensive perfection, and his teams often excel and take pride in suppressing not only chances against, but shots, too.
There is, after all, bound to be a strong correlation between the two over time, and a problem in one is almost always a problem in the other.
There’s another lesson in that for a team looking to borrow from the best.Report Typo/Error