Speed Won't Kill Leafs, But It Might Not Help Either
Ron Wilson has tried just about every coaching technique at his disposal to get the Leafs going.
His latest plan? Speed.
Wilson inserted John Mitchell into Toronto's "top" line, putting the fast Mitchell between the quick Jason Blake and the speedy Phil Kessel.
Speed is an important strategy in hockey, but also one of the more misunderstood ones.
Speed for the sake of speed doesn't mean anything in and of itself. Games are won on the number of goals scored. There are no points awarded for the fastest forward on the ice.
So let's look ahead to Wilson's new speed line. He has his top line on the ice and they've caught an opposing team in a change. There's a three-on-one for Toronto crossing into the offensive zone.
The lone opposing defenseman sees three Leafs flying down the ice at him: Kessel, who finished last season with 36 goals, but is just returning from an injury; Blake, who has one goal on the season; and Mitchell, who also has no goals on the season. Who does Wilson think the defenseman is going to play?
He's going to play Kessel and bank on Blake and Mitchell not being able to finish.
And that's the thing about speed: it's just one ingredient in a successful NHL line. If no one can finish, you're no better off than if your forwards are the last ones into the zone.
Pascal Dupuis of the Penguins is a great example of this. He's a fast skater who's never had more than 20 goals in a season. His speed hasn't translated into offense, despite spending plenty of time over the years on the Penguins' top two lines.
John Madden of the Blackhawks is another example. In his prime, he was shockingly fast, but it never translated into huge offensive numbers. To be fair, though, Madden used his speed to play a much more defensive game.
Coaches talk about speed like it's some kind of magical spell. It can put players in a great position, but it only works if players finish their chances.
Not everyone in the NHL enjoys speed, though. Ottawa GM Bryan Murray recently blamed the NHL's injury epidemic on the speed of the NHL game .
While he didn't call for the reinstatement of the two-line pass ban, he did seem to yearn for the NHL's slower, more deliberate days.
But back to Toronto's odd-man rush. Ideally, with the defenseman playing Kessel, either Blake or Mitchell should be able to score. But will they? That's what Wilson needs to worry about.
Wilson sees a problem with his team and he's trying to fix it. But when he watches the Leafs, does he really think the problem is guys entering the zone too slowly? Or is it more that the players in the zone can't get opposing defenses moving out of position?
Will a fast line help Toronto win games? Or will they just get more frequent chances not to score?
Speed probably won't hurt the Leafs, but Wilson needs a better plan to figure out how it will help them.
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