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Leafs looking down the middle to spark turnaround

by Chris Lund / Toronto Maple Leafs

If you were to ask any chess player what the four most important squares on the board are, they'd likely name off e4, e5, d4, and d5 barring some sort of remarkably unique perceptive genius.

Those four squares comprise the middle of the board and, as the story goes, the player who controls the middle of the board vastly improves their probability of winning the game. Controlling the centre is not the end game — far from it — it's simply a means to the checkmate. By controlling the centre you control the majority of the board, allowing your pieces greater mobility and restricting the avenues of your opponent.

Control of the centre allows you a greater number of attacking options, gives you openings to trap opponents and affords the opportunity to develop your tactics according to your preference. Very skilled opponents have the ability to find ways around these roadblocks but, ultimately, if you control the centre you put yourself in the proverbial driver's seat. You set yourself up for success.

Where am I going with this rambling introduction to beginner's chess?

There are actually many parallels between the chessboard and sport — in this case, hockey. You start from stationary positions, develop attacks, counterattacks and defensive systems. If the king was stationary in the fashion of a goaltender and his net we'd have this extended metaphor wrapped up and ready to ship home to mom.

While the 2004 lockout brought in many rule tweaks that opened up the game, many of the pre-2004 keys to success hold true. Teams that consistently control the middle ice — the neutral zone over the whole rink or the slot in the offensive and defensive zones — win the most games.

Since installing Peter Horachek as the team's interim head coach on Jan. 7, the Leafs have won just one game of the eight they've played. What has confounded many analysts and fans is belief that the team has improved despite winning once. How is this possible?

The transition period has led to the Leafs installing a system with a handful of differences from the one they deployed earlier in the season. Defensive focus on taking away the slot coupled with increased pressure through the neutral zone has seen the Leafs cut down on the scoring chances and shots Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have had to face. A conscious effort to activate the middle of the ice on zone exits has led to the team playing less in their zone.

Unfortunately, the timing of these adjustments have coincided with a dip in the Leafs' shooting percentage and save percentage. They haven't had many friendly bounces on the offensive side and the world-beating displays of goaltending, which earned them points in early season run-and-gun games have been few and far between.

In sum, when it rains it pours.

"There are signs of good things here. Obviously we're getting losses and it overshadows everything else that we're doing," said Leafs forward Nazem Kadri. "There are a lot of positive and I feel like, despite the results, we've taken steps in the right direction."

Don't expect to see the Leafs deviate from the process. Similar commitments to this style of play — tightening up the slots and neutral zone — have led to long term success for powerhouse teams like the Kings, Blackhawks, Ducks, Bruins and Red Wings.

Occasionally getting dialed in too closely on our particular team leads to focus on them "not playing well" or "not putting in a 60 minute effort" but sometimes the opponent simply doesn't behave the way you want them to. There are two teams playing to win, after all.

"I don't think any of the top teams, any of the good teams, play that way," said Leafs interim head coach Peter Horachek when asked about coaching a free-wheeling brand of hockey. "If you want to start something, if you want to get a mindset, if you want to play a certain way, you have to play hard defence and attack the net at the other end."

"There's a certain way to play in the playoffs and win championships and if you're going to start a culture of winning you have to play hard, solid D. It doesn't mean you stop scoring goals."

Within the conference, we've seen the impact Barry Trotz — who Horachek worked under as an assistant coach in Nashville for nine seasons — has had in Washington employing a similar approach.

At the end of 2013-14, the Capitals were in the League's bottom 10 in goals-against but thrived on the rush which encouraged large offensive output. Fast forward to the midway point of 2014-15 and they're in the top 10 in goals-against with very few changes in personnel.

After working through some early season growing pains — they earned 10 wins in their first 23 games — they've become one of the hottest teams in the League and appear poised to return to the playoffs.

For some visual proof of the similarities, take a look at this John Carlson goal against the Red Wings — one of the tightest forechecking teams in the NHL.

An outlet and quick touch off the sideboard gets the puck moving up ice by putting it on the centreman's stick, and the efficiency of the movement traps two forecheckers behind the play. Backstrom skates the middle of the ice and holds possession over the blueline, laying it off for his winger who spots the trailing defenceman (Carlson) who has beaten the back-pressure down the ice. The pass puts it on a tee for the goal.

A clean breakout leads to possession through neutral ice and a one-timer down the middle of the offensive zone with traffic in front.

There are any number of plays we could drop in here to show the success other teams have had taking this approach both with the Capitals and Predators under Trotz — who Horachek worked with — and a number of the other teams in the League. This clip from the 2013-14 Red Wings, for example.

For the sake of brevity, we'll leave it there.

The Leafs have been gradually implementing similar changes to improve their control of the middle. Take a look at this breakout and shot on goal from Toronto's game in St. Louis.

Take note of the similarity. Defender gets the puck moving up ice, winger lays it off to a central skater and they enter the zone three across with possession, getting a shot on net with a forward driving the net.

How is this different?

Take a look at this clip from a November game against Nashville.

There are notably larger gaps in the spacing between defenders and forwards and the winger is the outlet of choice. By activating the winger rather than the player down the middle, you cede control of centre ice to your opponent and leave a tighter window to operate. There are times in a game where you can exploit your opponent down the flanks, but if you can make the middle your path of least resistance more often than not, you make your life much easier.

Defensively you can see similar benefits in their play. Consider this sequence against Ottawa.

The Leafs have five players in the neutral zone and pressure the puck carrier who is forced to skate down the left wing. By maintaining position in the slot they limit the offensive player to a shot from a tough angle and give Reimer a high percentage stop.

Compare this to an earlier sequence in the season against the same Senators.

We see that the Leafs have fewer players back pressuring puck carriers, giving their opponent more room to shoot from central locations while driving the net looking for rebounds. The Leafs won this game, but gave up many looks like the one above.

Leafs centremen have seen the benefits of the tweaks in their play.

"We're trying to be a little bit lower in the D zone and to jump and help the D or to be a quick option," said Leafs centre Trevor Smith. "I think it works well having that option in the middle because a lot of teams go up the wall and a lot of teams forechecks' are trying to take the wall away. Usually if we hit that guy in the middle clean it acts as a clean breakout for us."

While the wins haven't come yet for the Leafs, there is still belief that the points will follow by sticking to the process in the dressing room. As a team that just faced four very strong Western Conference opponents, they have seen firsthand how successful teams execute a similar gameplan.

"They don't give you any ice. They get right up in your face and keep you to the outside and they punish you," said Mike Santorelli. "That's how you need to play in order to be successful."

With 34 games remaining on the schedule, many of which against Eastern Conference opponents that are also in the thick of the hunt, the Leafs now face the most crucial part of their schedule if they are to get themselves back into a playoff picture. The team has said they're making the commitment to playing for one another and, with belief in the tactical adjustments, a reversal of fortune from the past month could be in the cards.

"There are areas that we definitely need to improve and we will improve on," said Kadri. "There's definitely a little bit of a different approach with him but (Horachek) knows what he is doing and we're going to follow his lead."

"That's what's going to win in the playoffs. Maybe it's not going to work every single time — we've been playing well and structured and haven't gotten wins — that's something we've got to understand. We've got to stick with it and eventually playing the right way will work out for us."

The pieces are developing on the board as we venture into the second half of the season. The Leafs now look ahead to their endgame — a playoff position — with the means to that end in place.

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