There has been a disturbing trend the last three games for the Leafs, a rather widespread penchant for avoiding physical play. More and more I find myself yelling at the screen, ‘Hard on the puck!’ or something to that effect as a player, instead of committing himself to getting the puck, decides to coast, peel off or retreat out of the zone.
It started in New York with Kulemin on the forecheck, as he lost the race for the puck deep in the Ranger zone. I have come to expect him to press on, come in hard and either bump the defender off or attempt to get position on the puck. Instead he simply coasted past with a token poke at the opponent’s stick.
When at his best Kulemin gets in there using his smarts and his strength to come up with the puck, or at least creates enough havoc to provide an opportunity for a teammate to find the rubber or draws a penalty.
A look at the second half of last year, the preseason and first three games so far, provides plenty of examples of this hardnosed forechecking that earned him a top six spot despite still needing to prove himself at the NHL level.
It isn’t only him; Bozak, Kessel and Versteeg seem almost timid to enter deep into the zone if they may have to fight for the puck. Not to say they have been bad or lazy, just waiting for someone else to create the opportunities instead of doing it themselves. This could be a direct result of all three feeling the pressure to score; Bozak is held goalless and his many attempts to setup Versteeg have gone without reward. Versteeg for that matter seems to leave his hands on the bench when he gets opportunities. Sure he can dangle around defenders quite well, but give him a breakaway and he may as well call the goalie to let him know where the puck is going. That’s much more effective then the telegraphing he has done so far. And Kessel, he is the triggerman, always looking for the prime shooting lanes, which are not to be found mucking in the corner.
All three are focused less on creating opportunities, instead choosing to be the recipient of the resulting pass. I’m inclined to believe this lack of drive is more related each of them feeling pressured to score and not outright laziness or greed.
Beyond that line, the lack of hard puck pressure continues: Grabovski won’t do it, don’t expect it, when it happens be happy. Not his style, but that is okay providing he starts scoring on his own.
C-mac just gets out muscled, but at least he tries and 5 goals already is misleading, don’t expect the same player every game.
Armstrong does this job very well, always in there fighting as does the rest of his bottom six comrades but there just isn’t much scoring potential there.
This forecheck style dysfunction can be overcome a little by pure puck possession and clogging passing lanes. But when the weak forecheck is reflected in the neutral zone there is not really much hope. This team needs hard work from all players at all times to succeed.
No, you don’t commit to every play, sometimes retreat is the best option for the team in a given scenario, but when you have the opportunity to get in there and fight, do it. It creates chaos, turnovers and tires out the opponent, that’s how they won three straight. Thanks to Marc Staal for the fourth, oh, and Kessel.