James Reimer with the defenseman high and the offence low
The Leafs have a starting goalie and his name is James Reimer. Drop-and-block goalies need a strong defensive system to be effective.
Now it's up to Randy Carlyle to shape the talent he has been given into a world-class defensive system that matches Reimer's drop-and-block goaltending style. Notice the words "defensive system."
While there may have been a bit of the sophomore jinx hiding in the corners of Air Canada Center, the goaltending was really a reflection of the overall defensive system. When the defence performed their jobs, the goaltending looked incredible. Remember Reimer in January 2012?
The critical point here is the defence needs to match the style of the goaltending. A few antidotes should bring us into focus of why this is predictably true.
When Ed Belfour first arrived with the Leafs as a chaotic stand-up goalie, the defence had to readjust from the butterfly styles of both Curtis Joseph and Felix Potvin.
During the first two months of Eddie's first season with the Leafs, while he won games, he was often booed at home. Once the defence got out of the slot and circled high as needed for a standup goalie, instead of down low for a butterfly goalie, Eddie's numbers returned to normal and that year he set a franchise record for wins.
But similar observations can be seen for butterfly goalies, especially with the newer no-red-line high-speed era. Jaroslav Halak had an incredible run with the Montreal Canadiens during the 2010 playoffs, at one point stopping a record 53 shots.
At the end of the year, as a restricted free agent, he was traded and signed a contract with St. Louis.
In St. Louis under the coaching system of Davis Payne in October 2011, Halak went 1-4 with a .843 save percentage. Defensive systems matter. This is the same Goalie that stopped 53 shots against the Washington Capitals in the playoffs in the previous system.
When Ken Hitchcock took over, St. Louis went from one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL to one of the best, finishing with the best overall GAA in the NHL with both Halak and Elliott achieving below an amazing 2.00 goals-against average. Halak finished with an amazing 1.97 GAA. Elliott was even better with a 1.56 GAA.
To emphasize that the system matters, Elliott, who had the best GAA with St. Louis, finished 44th overall in the NHL with his former team the Ottawa Senators with a 3.34 GAA and a .893 save percentage.
The difference is how Hitchcock arranges his defence to support his drop-and-block goalies. If you watch video replay of the defence post-Hitchcock you will notice at least three key differences in the style.
The defencemen when turning into the corner skate through the top of the crease to get there. They make these big circles and are near the net. When the play turns around they are ready to be in the slot protecting the goalie.
They are rebound killers. They live in the crease right in the top of the blue paint. This allows them to handle the rebounds while facing the play instead of being in the goalie's way, back turned to the play.
They guard the slot against offenders. Instead of being behind or between a defender, their in-the-paint position means that, while the offender might be first to a rebounding puck, they are going to get pushed and managed out of the way instead of the offender gaining a "wide open" shot into the net.
What turns Elliot and Halak from scapegoats into two of the top goalies in the NHL is a great defensive system.
Reimer was great in January when the Mighty Buds were knocking over teams, but when the Leafs defence started playing sloppy and loose instead of low and tight, they went into the inexplicable skid of February.
If you're going to have Francois Allaire teaching drop-and-block goaltending, you also need to teach the defencemen to live in the rebound area all the time.
They have to cycle through the side of the net, stop when required and clear pucks. They have to be able to push offenders out of the way while the goalie is down blocking.
Whether the media convinces Burke he should buy Luongo or not will not matter at all unless Randy Carlyle teaches the defencemen to manage the net area.
With the Leafs' defensive pairings, look for Reimer to return to the form of Optimus Reim if Carlyle can improve their defensive system.