Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle looks on with his team during a break in play with players (L-R) Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk against the St. Louis Blues during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto, Tuesday, March 25, 2014.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

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.

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies