Thoughts on Horachek’s First Game As Leafs’ Coach

The Leafs lost their first game with their new coach by a score of 6-2, prompting a ton of people to criticize the team and to feel as if nothing much at all changed.

However, much like I was warning when the Leafs were on a 10-1 run that the results were favorable in spite of the effortt, today I will say that despite the score, the team actually played pretty good. So, just he opposite.

Sure, the Caps scored six goals, but one of them was on an empty net, one was a complete fluke, one was on a bad line change and one on a egregious Morgan Rielly error that caused people to lash out at local whipping-boy Jake Gardiner for no reason at all.  Now, the error and the line-change (something blown out of proportion on TV, and something that happens all the time, to most teams) were unfortunate, but more so because they lead to goals than that they happened, since errors are a part of the game.

I don’t mean to minimize these errors, but rather to put them in perspective. To my mind, when the errors are so explicit and obvious, they can at least be coached and worked on and aren’t as bad as goals that come from total systematic breakdowns of which have been common place during the last three seasons. It is these (either a poorly designed system or the inability to get the team to buy into it) which have the Leafs near the bottom in shots allowed and possession metrics.

The errors I can live with, if the team puts in a good effort and plays a strong five-man game that leads to shot suppression. I think the Leafs did that on Wednesday and they came out of the game being the team with the most scoring chances and the most possession time. If they are that every game, they will win more than they lose.

Now, I am not so  naive as to suggest that the Leafs played magically because of their new coach – frankly, two days is not enough time to instill a new system or strategy to the team. At this point, the team is basically the same team that got Carlyle fired but with maybe a bit more jump and possibly a renewed dedication to playing a 200 foot game. So, the changes from one game to the next were not extreme, but I thought that Wednesday’s game was a massive step in the right direction. The team came out in a challenging game, at home, against a team that is on fire, and they played a good sixty minutes where, unfortunately, the bounces did not go their way.

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Watching Horachek here, I’ll be honest, it excites me for the future. I like the way he answers all the questions and the way he balances between anayltics and in-game action – talking about how the team possessed the puck and played like he wanted to, but also how they have to eliminate fundamental errors. I also thought that he speaks in a way which is calm and reassuring, but also forceful – simultaneously blunt and politic – I think this is something you can’t really teach, but that it is important. If you look at how Carlyle, Wilson and even Maurice always seemed – at least to me – somewhat smug, caustic and condescending, I think it’s a really good change.  Perhaps this is a tad subjective, and probably is, but that’s how I see it.

So far, on the whole, I have been a fan of Peter Horachek every time he talks. He appears to be both intelligent and honest and I like his hiring very much. Some may argue that without changing the players you won’t change the results. To an extent, this is inarguable: the Leafs won’t be making much headway in the standings until they can ice a either a) an established top line centre or another centre who is at least as good as Kadri, as well as b) a top-pairing defensemen who can put the rest of the team’s defenseman down a peg on the depth chart. But, with that being said, there are still a ton of things that a new coach can do to improve what is here.

 

 

SLIGHT CHANGES  

With only a day or so to prepare for the game, massive changes just weren’t a realistic order in Horachek’s first game. It will be interesting to see how things shake down over the next half-season, but for the first game, the changes were slight.

The first thing you noticed was that the new coach split up the top line, pairing Kessel with kadri and Winnik.  I thought that this was an excellent idea. Winnik adds a bit of defensive responsibility to the first line and in my opinion, Kadri and Kessel should never see the ice apart.  What was nice in theory however, wasn’t exactly great in practice.  Winnik almost immediately showed why it’s risky putting a grinder on the top line when he ruined a beautiful Kessel rush by going off-side.

While I liked the idea of splitting up Kessel and Bozak, I was disappointed to see the coach go back to the same old on the first PP. One thing I ripped RC on regularly was putting Kadri behind Bozak on the power-play. It is my hope that Horachek will not continue to do so. In this game Bozak got more ice-time (he does kill penalties) but if the Leafs are serious about improving their team, it is absolutely imperative that they give Kadri more ice time than they give Bozak.

I was also mildly disappointed  to see the new coach revert back to this line – which is just too defensively brutal to justify keeping together, not to mention how important splitting up Kessel and JVR would be to having a balanced attack – once the team got down.

I was doubly disappointed to see him bring Clarkson out on the PP unit (actually healthy-scratching DC would have been my first move, had I got the job, which, surprisingly, I wasn’t even interviewed for) and for not breaking up the pairings on defense, as it is my immediate recommendation that Franson and Gardiner be re-united immediately and that Morgan Rielly be given the most minutes on the team. If you are forced to play Polak and Robidas, at least pair them together where they won’t ruin the games of your prized defensive prospects.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Though Horachek stuck with the traditional Franson-Phanuef pairings, and owing perhaps in part to Polak’s impromptu facial reconstruction, Reilly did play almost five more than his average amount of ice time.

It is not impossible that the Leafs could keep their assets and develop the desperately needed #1 D-man in-house via Morgan Rielly. The data shows quite explicitly that offensive defenseman have massive appeal as possession dominating players and with Rielly’s skating, I see no reason that he can’t be every bit as useful to the Leafs as Keith Yandle and Erik Karlsson are to theirs. If I was Horachek, I would make Rielly learn on the job as the new #1 defensemen,

Another slight change was that Horachek limited Clarkson to about three minutes less than usual and used Panik almost four minutes more than his average. This is a good sign, as Clarkson can strain the cap much more effectively from the bench or press-box than he can on the ice.

Overall, I think is was an auspicious debut. I like Horachek and I like the way the Leafs played in his first game. Going forward I expect much more significant changes to the team and I expect that as time goes on and roster moves are made that the differences between the old and new coach will become much more pronounced then they were in his first game.