The Toronto Maple Leafs have become a lightning rod for debate about shooting percentages, with many arguing the Leafs have been lucky and will not continue their winning ways. Is it possible the Leafs have designed a system to score more goals on fewer shots than other teams?
Since Randy Carlyle took over the team on March 2, 2012, the Leafs' shooting percentage has climbed consistently. In the lockout shortened 2013 season, the team led the league—converting on over 10.5% of their even strength shots compared to a league average of 8.7%. This season, the Leafs rank 4th overall, and whether it's luck, skill or coaching, these things have become an important question for deciding if the Leafs are a playoff quality team.
To my eye, the Leafs have designed a fast-break offence that generates high quality chances in transition. Even more dangerously, their quick transitions create a gap between the opposition's defensemen and forwards that the Leafs exploit for rebounds and dangerous lateral passes. Their high shooting percentage is structural—not pure luck—and will need to be coached against in order to beat them.
Increasingly, however, that is the case and we’re seeing as much of the negative side as we are the positive. Turnovers, prolonged defensive zone time and errant break-out plays can make the Leafs look disorganized, under prepared or even greedy for offence.
Hockey 101: The Fast-Break
Hockey doesn't have a singular definition for a fast-break, and they can be hard to capture in a single still image. The Leafs use a variety of fast-break plays, including set plays from behind their own net, set plays from defensive zone draws and diagonal passes across the whole neutral zone. For my purposes, I consider an attempt to cross the neutral zone and create a controlled zone entry in a single pass to be a fast-break.
The Leafs’ first goal against Edmonton October 29th was a set play from behind the net.
Below are three images that allow us to see the whole break out. The weak-side winger and centre streak on the play, while the defenseman dumps up the boards to the strong-side winger. The strong-side winger is moving in what is called an "over-top" breakout pattern in which he skates toward his own end instead of away from it. His job in this set play is to pull the defenseman down the boards and then chip the puck out behind him. Once in the neutral zone, the Leafs’ weak-side winger and centre collect for an odd-man rush.
Above we see Morgan Reilly (44) behind his own net, collecting the puck. Phil Kessel (81) has won a board battle, dished to Reilly and is now circling for the fast-break as the weak-side winger. Dave Bolland is going for a change at the very right edge of the image, and we’ll see Nazem Kadri come on in relief to play centre.
Reilly has sent the puck up the boards to Mason Raymond (12), the strong-side winger, who has successfully drawn in the Oilers’ Anton Belov (77). Belov likely thinks Raymond is isolated because he can't see anyone available for a pass. Instead, Raymond chips the puck into the open space behind the pinching defender.
Kadri (43) has come off the bench directly into the open space behind Belov. He retrieves the puck roughly 70 feet from where Raymond chipped it, and we can already see the two-on-one forming, with all four other Oilers helplessly behind the play.
It’s a straight line, 178 foot skate for Kessel down the weak-side to end up alone in front with the puck.
We can see all five Oilers in this shot. In three passes – a dump, a chip, and a pass to space – all of them have been left behind.
The fast-break offence is not simply a matter of creating breakaways for Phil Kessel. Instead, the fast-break offence breaks open defenses, forcing defensemen backward and trapping forwards behind the play. In fact, many of the Leafs’ goals come on rebounds and second opportunities.
For instance, still a few moments into the first period against the Oilers, the Leafs show another look in their fast-break offence. This time, a diagonal pass initiated from inside the Leafs’ defensive zone to just outside the Oilers’ defensive zone gives Mason Raymond (12) open space in front of him, eliminates back-pressure on the play, and opens up an odd-man opportunity with the chance for rebounds and deadly lateral movement.
The pass arrives from Gunnarsson (36) to Raymond (12) in the picture above, trapping all three Oiler forwards behind the play and creating a clean 3-on-2 entry with limitless offensive options for the Leafs.
In this case, Raymond cuts in on his forehand and has his shot blocked by Jeff Petry (2). David Clarkson (71) is able to retrieve the puck in so much uncontested ice and the Leafs begin a shift of sustained pressure from the fast-break.
As observers, we might say that any goal from that pressure is not the result of the fast-break. In fact, opportunities for creative offensive play are created by breaking open the neutral zone this way, and sustained pressure is possible in part because defending forwards are chasing back into the play. Uncontested space and unchecked Leafs are created by that one diagonal pass, and pressure is possible from the defensive chaos.
The truth is that when we measure by shooting percentage, this system will always result in a higher than average number if executed well. If, however, we measured in sortie percentage, or percentage of attempts up the ice, it may result in a relatively low number compared to other teams.
Fast-break plays are not high percentage themselves—the passes get picked off, icings happen and turnovers can trap the streaking forward(s) up ice. The Vancouver Canucks showed just what can happen when a team is prepared against the Leafs’ set plays, and how devastating a possession sequence can be against a team that is looking to jump into offence all the time.
This is the exact same set play as we saw in the Kessel goal above. Dion Phaneuf (3) has dumped it up the boards past the forward pressure to Mason Raymond (12) who has drawn Jason Garrison (5) down the boards with an ‘over-top’ break-out movement.
There are two key differences that make this outcome a turnover resulting in continued pressure against the Leafs.
First, Garrison is ready for the set play. Where Belov follows Raymond in image two above, Garrison has jammed his leg into the boards to try to block the chip play and actually manages to knock Raymond’s stick away from him in the process. So the puck is dead.
Two, Daniel Sedin (22) began moving up ice when the cycle lost control and Phaneuf gained possession. He’s not skating away, but he’s positioning himself to be in the direction of the fast-break. In doing so, this already is an unlikely goal for David Clarkson (71), who is in the Phil Kessel role of weak-side streaker on this play.
Similarly, in the image below we have a single pass to cross the neutral zone like the 3-on-2 above, but you’ll notice it looks a lot different against the Canucks.
In the 40 seconds leading to this pass, the Canucks’ back-pressure created a turnover with four Leafs caught cheating for offence. The Canucks not only managed their own two-on-one, but had a long series of pressure and several scoring chances from the chaos of the Leafs chasing back into the play.
When the Leafs finally regain control, Morgan Reilly (44) carries to just inside his blue line and then fires a long pass to James Van Riemsdyk (21) at the offensive blue line. But the rest of the unit is exhausted from the sustained pressure.
His resulting entry is to stop up, wait for help, and eventually dump it to the corner. A wasted sortie.
Many coaches believe strongly in the idea that hockey is as much about what you give up as what you create and this system gives as good as it takes. Long passes are simply harder to connect and turnovers happen. Forward defensive responsibilities lapse when the set play requires they skate straight out of the zone. Extra pressure of the Leafs defensemen can mean they never have enough time to make the long plays that are key to the Leafs’ offence.
It can sometimes be as simple as running the third forechecking forward vertically away from the puck a little earlier, as we see in the Vancouver game. That player can control passing lanes and provide back-pressure enough to spoil all but the very first shot on the fast-break.
For many hockey analysts, the perceived importance of possession leads them away from this system as well. Owning the puck is not on the agenda for the Leafs, and they are out-shot so often at even strength that the stat itself is a news story. More importantly, the margin by which they get out-shot serves as a key piece of evidence in the debate as to whether they can continue to win games.
I don't mean to dismiss this aspect of their game. The Leafs have reached 30th place for even strength shot differential at -10.4 shots per 60 minutes - meaning 10 more shots against than for every 60 minutes at even strength. That's a massive number, and we will certainly see a few more 4-0 wallops like the one they suffered in Vancouver shown above.
That said, the Leafs will also continue to win some games in which they've been out shot. Head Coach Randy Carlyle has designed a system that does not attempt to win through possession or getting more shots, and while we can argue about the merits of that system, we can't say the Leafs are failing at it.
Sum It Up
There’s no known threshold of allowable shots against in a winning season, and it’s unclear at best whether the Leafs will still be near the top of the Atlantic Division come April.
But one thing is clear—their shooting percentage is repeatable and by design. Designs can fail or even be made to fail by opposing teams, but luck is a very unsatisfying, even mystifying explanation for how and why.