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Siegel: 'Sporadic' defensive play at the core of Leafs trouble

Jonas Siegel
4/7/2014 6:14:46 PM
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TAMPA – Tim Gleason has built a career in the NHL on protecting the house.

"You hate when they score," he said with some distaste at the thought. "You take pride in it. You think it's your fault every time it goes into the net, whether you're on the ice or not. From a defensive standpoint or mindset, it's something that you do have to take pride in."

At the core of another failed season with the Maple Leafs sitting outside the postseason picture (they're still technically alive, but just barely) is a defensive foundation that ranks as one of the worst in hockey. And if there is one dominant trend in the organization's failures since the end of the 2004-05 lockout it's just that: they can't keep the puck out of their own net.

Season Rank (Goals Against)
2005-06 21st
2006-07 27th
2007-08 27th
2008-09 30th
2009-10 29th
2010-11 24th
2011-12 29th
2013 17th
2013-14 26th

Hired to replace the high-octane Ron Wilson in the spring of 2012, Randy Carlyle was supposed to help change all that. "I think that our defensive play, it's been sporadic," said Carlyle after a late season practice in Tampa, his team nearing elimination from the postseason for the eighth time in the past nine years.

And if Carlyle does lose his job for the house of cards that eventually collapsed in Toronto this year it will be in large part to his failing to influence change in the way the Leafs play defence. But a related question that Dave Nonis and the management team will have to ponder in the summer assessment that follows is how much of the defensive struggle is related to coaching and Carlyle's system and how much is simply a failing in personnel and their subsequent commitment to defence.
 
Carl Gunnarsson, one half of the team's top pairing on the back-end, downplayed the trouble as a matter of system. "I don't think there's anything wrong with the system," he told the Leaf Report.

Instead, Gunnarsson believed it was a matter of execution within that system. He pointed to a lack of patience, a tendency to stray from the game-plan at the first sign of adversity. And if there was one thing, he said, that made a club like Boston the stingiest of stingy it was their wholehearted commitment to the system Claude Julien has put into place.

"If they're down, if they're up, they always play the same way and they know that it works," he said. "For some reason, we don't seem to get it in our heads [that] when we do play according to the system and everyone is executing it's been working."

All of which would explain the unpredictability and inconsistency imbued in the Leafs performance this season. One good period has quickly spiraled into two bad ones. One good game has rarely translated into another.

Without saying so quite bluntly, Gleason seemed to suggest that an ingredient of will was missing with this Leafs team when it came to keeping the puck out of the net. That was never more apparent than in a lacklustre loss to Winnipeg over the weekend, one that saw Toronto simply outworked with their playoff chances riding on the line.

The Jets grinded pucks down low in the Leafs zone for minutes on end, one-on-one battles lost with alarming frequency. "I think we're hoping to get things out of the zone instead of bearing down and knowing it's going to get out," Gleason said. "The hope's got to stop.

"We're good enough offensively to put numbers on the board, we just have to find a way to bear down, take care of our zone first and then go from there."

Otherwise, the Leafs have been doomed by an uneasy assortment of fatal blunders resulting in a steady stream of breakaways, odd-man opportunities and two-time Rocket Richard trophy winners left open with far too much time and space.

That was the case when the Leafs last played the Lightning – they'll square off again on Tuesday night – Steven Stamkos scoring a hat trick in a Tampa win.

At practice Monday, Jake Gardiner went back to retrieve a puck in the defensive zone with pressure from an oncoming forward. "Get inside," Carlyle bellowed. "Don't let him come inside."

Only Gardiner did and the puck was quickly lost.

"Obviously with the defensive zone coverage we need to be a lot more inside and lot more stiffer and not as giving of many opportunities from that critical area," Carlyle said afterward.

It was a point of emphasis for the coaching staff during the Olympic break. "There's looseness," he said. "We have people back in position and the stick is not in the right position. It's a foot, six inches, two inches [in the wrong place]. And those things are happening to us. Those are the things that are frustrating for everybody."

That was evident, he said, in the two of the goals scored by the Bruins in a third period comeback last week (the Leafs won in overtime). Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron tallied the second and third Boston goals with a swarm of Leafs in and around the puck.

"We had people right there," Carlyle said. "We had all five guys around the puck. But somehow they snuck the puck through us – they made good plays – but we were in position. Stick position was an area that obviously we didn't have it in good enough position."

On the day of his first training camp in Toronto, the Leafs head coach declared that "it's going to just as important to prevent a goal as it is to score a goal and recognition of that is not going to be taken lightly."

Part of his job then would be to enforce that mandate, infuse his will on the group.

He has not managed to do that in either of his two full seasons behind the bench, his preferred style of play often clashing with the personnel. The Leafs have been one of the league's worst possession teams under his purview, spending far too much time in the defensive zone. They subsequently yield more shots against than any other team and fail all too often in that defence – they rank fifth worst in goals against despite boasting terrific goaltending from Jonathan Bernier for most of the year.

A bad penalty kill, one that ranks third from last this season, has only added to the trouble. And if there's credit owed to the coaching staff for the unit's improvement a year ago, then responsibility must go the other way when that performance falters.

But the question for Nonis is how much of the defensive trouble goes beyond coaching and into personnel?

A defence that features Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf at the very top isn't likely to have much success at goal prevention and needs obvious upgrade. Beyond that is a forward group long on skill, but short on the requisite commitment, competitiveness and attention to detail. Toronto's best players are often amongst its worst offenders.

Nonis will wrestle with those questions of coaching and personnel in another offseason that comes earlier than was hoped. What's clear is where improvement for the club has to begin. "Defence," Gleason said, "I think at the end of the day wins championships."

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