TORONTO – The first practice of Toronto Maple Leafs training camp was brought to you by the letter “D.”
“Probably the whole year,” forward Matt Frattin said. “Defence wins championships.”
Forget about a championship for a second. The Leafs are just trying to win more games and make the playoffs.
After giving up almost 36 shots a game last year, the most in the NHL, coach Randy Carlyle and his staff spent Saturday installing a new defensive-zone system. It’s not a drastic difference, but there are tweaks that players hope will make them more effective and less vulnerable this season.
“We’re going to try something a little different,” winger Joffrey Lupul said. “I think it’s going to take a little bit of the second-guessing out of it. .. It’s nothing that no one’s never seen before.
“I think maybe last year was something we’ve never seen before. This is more back to kind of how you grew up playing.”
Most kids don’t grow up playing a style that sees them get outshot by eight per game, and one of the goals this season is to have the puck more and, as a result, put goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer under less pressure.
Step one is changing some responsibilities. Bernier described it as players swarming the puck less and needing to be more patient.
Much of the change has to do with wingers cheating more to the point than collapsing toward the net.
“Sometimes last year it worked, sometimes it felt like that puck was always getting up top and they were getting a lot of shots because of it,” Lupul said. “It’s systematically a little different, but at the end of the day it comes down to those one-on-one battles.”
Along with new assistants Steve Spott and Peter Horachek, Carlyle said the staff went over different scenarios this summer and didn’t make too many major changes to systems. Like everything else, defence is about the little things.
“The difference is, where do you move your winger? Do you move him down the wall to squeeze or do you hold him tight to the point coverage? Do you hold a guy in the middle of the ice?” Carlyle said. “Those are things: your rotation when the puck changes sides, who goes.
“They’re all basically based on the same thing, other than the fact that we have to do a better job of being stiffer and harder to play against.”
Carlyle said veteran Roman Polak, acquired during the draft from the St. Louis Blues for Carl Gunnarsson, can help in that area.
But Polak is just one defenceman, and the Leafs know as a group they have to be better defensively than last season. One area is communication.
“Any time you can have a group of guys that communicate, it makes the game a lot easier and it makes it a lot easier to make plays,” defenceman Cody Franson said. “I think that’s one area we can definitely improve in, and it’ll help us break out of zones a lot quicker.”
One simple goal for the Leafs is to have the puck more than they did last season, but that’s easier said than done. When they don’t have it, they know they have to be better at cutting down on quality chances.
Centre Nazem Kadri said “it’s going to take some time to wrap our heads around” the new defensive system. But Carlyle isn’t worried about players picking it up.
“They’ll get it,” Carlyle said. “That what this is about, that’s what the exhibition games are about.
“As a coaching staff, you pick your poison on the things that you’re going to shove at the players, and I guarantee you every coach is shoving defensive-zone coverage.”
Notes—Centre Tyler Bozak and right-winger David Clarkson are out with what Carlyle called lower-body injuries. The players got hurt during pre-training camp workouts, and there’s no time frame for their training-camp debuts. Carlyle said he did not foresee them being long-term problems. … The Leafs signed Quebec Remparts defenceman Cody Donaghey to a three-year, entry-level contract. The 18-year-old from St. John’s, N.L., impressed at rookie camp in London, Ont., to earn a spot in main camp.