The departure of Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur this offseason wasn't exactly unexpected. We knew that Grabovski’s style of play wasn't meshing well with Randy Carlyle’s punch people in the face first, figure out how to generate shots second approach. Meanwhile, MacArthur had found himself a healthy scratch during key games near the end of the season and into the playoffs. Even though we sort of saw these moves on the horizon, it has done little to soften the blow that losing these two has leveled on the teams top 9 forward group.
Carlyle has prided himself on being a “defensive coach”- wielding a complex system that keeps shots to the outside therefore minimizing high quality scoring chances. We can debate the merits of this system another day, knowing that research tends to indicate that shot quality evens out over time and shot volume is the best indicator of future success.
Before Carlyle, Ron Wilson also attempted to bring defensive responsibility to the Leafs, specifically on the penalty kill where he was known as a “guru” of sorts. Of course the Leafs had one of the most atrocious penalty killing units in the league (Finished last in PK% in both 2008-09 and 2009-10).
Despite a focus on defence the Leafs have actually managed to have one of the better offensive groups over the past 2 years. Last season the team averaged 3.02 goals per game, landing them 6th in the league. In 2011-12 they were a respectable 10th with 2.77 per game.
In watching those 2 Leafs teams one of their key attributes has been forward depth up and down the lineup. Kessel and Lupul have certainly been fantastic over that time, but contributions from the likes of Kulemin, Kadri, Grabovski, MacArthur, and Bozak have played a role in the team’s offensive success.
In 2011-12 Grabovski finished 3rd on the club in scoring with 51 points, with MacArthur finishing 6th, with 43 points. There is no doubt that in last year’s truncated season both players were counted on less offensively, ending the year 8th and 11th in scoring respectively. Without these two and the flexibility they afforded the coaching staff I am unsure if the team will be able to generate offence consistently throughout the forward group.
New Leafs forwards David Clarkson and Dave Bolland will help mitigate some of the lost production, but not all of it. Clarkson and Bolland have each broken the 40 point plateau once in their NHL careers. While they are useful players in their own right, they are far from offensive dynamos.
Now it’s not all bad - perhaps the Leafs can embrace their new situation and deploy two lines designed purely for scoring. Line combinations won’t be final for a few weeks but I would expect the top 9 to look something like this:
Kessel – Bozak – Lupul
JVR – Kadri – Clarkson
McClement – Bolland - Kulemin
In this case we would see McClement switching to the wing, allowing Bolland to play his natural position of center. The new 3rd line would feature three players known for their defensive capabilities. Kulemin's 30 goal season is more and more becoming a distant memory and McClement has consistently been an 8 to 12 goal scorer. While some have lauded Dave Bolland's offensive potential, a conversation PPP had with Chicago bloggers has me thinking his offensive contributions will be limited.
Ideally Carlyle would feed his 3rd line absurdly brutal minutes. Lining up against tough competition and starting the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone. Essentially, these 3 guys wouldn’t skate in the offensive zone unless there was a commercial break and they were stretching their legs. (Free fantasy hockey advice: Don’t draft any of them!)
The top 2 lines would need to be used in as many goal scoring positions as possible. Offensive zone start percentages for these lines should be above 50%. Last season, both Kessel and Lupul had O-zone starting percentages under 50% (Behind the Net), which is a bit of a head scratcher for me. Neither of them are Selke candidates and should be used accordingly. They are elite offensive players and their primary focus is to produce goals (hockey being the goal scoring competition that it is).
A great example is how Alain Vigneault utilized Daniel and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver last season. Both players started well over 60% of their shifts in the offensive zone. The tougher, defensive zone starts were reserved for players like Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Christopher Higgins.
Carlyle and his coaching staff may need to take a page from Vancouver’s playbook and provide more scoring opportunities to their top 6 forwards. In years past the Leafs’ forward depth allowed for more balanced zone starts and overall deployment. However, the departure of Grabovksi and MacArthur has changed dynamic of this group – hopefully the coaching strategy reflects this.