Two weeks ago, I opened a “Leafs needs” article heading into the trade deadline by talking about their need for a top-nine forward (Hello, Nick Foligno), and more specifically, about Alex Galchenyuk. I explained that it’s not impossible that what the Leafs have found in him (quality play) is real and lasting, but that it probably isn’t smart to bet on it as your one and only plan. My reasoning wasn’t overly hot-takey, I don’t think, as I mentioned that his laudable NHL credentials (size, seasons of quality output, age, high pick) combined with worse teams than the Leafs cutting ties with him points to likely deficiencies in his game.
With the deadline behind us, and with injuries thrusting Galchenyuk into an even bigger role on the Leafs’ top line, two things look clear to me. One is that he can hang talent-wise and effort-wise in that roster slot, his goal to open the scoring on Thursday is an example of that. But two is he won’t get many looks there in the playoffs – if he stays in the lineup at all – if he doesn’t prioritize the defensive obligations that exist … in the offensive zone.
What I mean by “defensive obligations in the offensive zone” is simply a matter of not getting lured in by the siren song of the hockey puck, and when necessary, staying out in the safe parts of the rink where the play stays in front of you, at least until your team wins said puck back. Sometimes these rotations look complicated, but as a forward you really just have to notice one thing (maybe that the guy who was F3 is diving in after the puck, or that a D-man is pinching down), and you simply have to cover that more defensive spot for a hot sec.
Thursday night, Galchenyuk got pulled out of those rotations by the temptations of offence, directing contributing to two Leafs goals against. Let’s look at them, and we’ll finish by discussing what this weakness means for the Leafs. Because if they decide they can’t trust him on a good offensive line, will there be a spot for him at all in playoffs?
The first goal we’ll look at is Kyle Connor’s first that puts the Jets up 2-1 in the opening frame. Have a look before we talk about what went wrong.
The play started moments before this with a Galchenyuk dump-in and forecheck that was pretty standard and uneventful. The puck switched sides left to right, John Tavares stayed on it, and Galchenyuk reattacked with a good route as F2.
Marner, as he so often does, takes on the role as high forward, staying above the play.
If you’re Sheldon Keefe, you can’t complain about how the battle plays out in terms of early positioning. When the puck is down low in a 2-on-2, it’s mostly a battle of effort and technique and luck to come up with it, while Marner stays above.
The next picture (below) is great. The Jets left winger seems strangely low, but it makes sense given they’re still sorting out puck possession – meaning it’s not exactly d-zone coverage positioning yet – and the Leafs are in really good spots as the battle moves along. (That includes Jake Muzzin creeping down as the middle defender. If the Leafs get the puck, he can be on offence, if the Jets get it, his gap will be tighter than if he were pulled way out).
The puck gets pushed back behind the net, and the rotation here is pretty black and white. F3 can reattack, becoming F1, the next closest forward to the puck (in this case Tavares) can join him as F2 in the hunt, and the farthest forward from it all can pull straight out above the fray and take on the role of F3.
Above, Muzzin is in the right spot to pinch down on the wall, which makes for a pretty simple rotation too. As he heads down the wall, his D partner can slide over, and F3 can step into the spot that other defender previously occupied. Galchenyuk’s got to get back now – you can feel the direction of the threat tipping.
But Galchenyuk doesn’t pull straight back – he first comes laterally across the net, presumably lured by the puck’s enticing melody, just long enough to notice that things are breaking down and the Jets are getting out of the zone.
And it doesn’t take much, but if he just takes a more defensive route, he’s in this lane on the backcheck. At one point, he was directly above the guy who eventually scores the goal. If he comes straight back as the play changed sides, he might even be skating backwards alongside Justin Holl. (Holl, for what it’s worth, looks like he wants to skate forwards at Scheifele to defend him, trusting he has help on the other side.)
It’s not a big gaffe, not at all, but Connor was his guy.
Watch it again in full if you like.
Next shift though, the Leafs are in the offensive zone, and they win a draw back to Jake Muzzin, who fires one wide. Ten seconds later the Jets score.
The puck goes into the corner, and the weak-side defender – Justin Holl – is in the best spot to apply pressure and try to win back the puck. Mitch Marner sees the Jets have a forward looking to fly the zone to get on offence (and open ice where he’s skating), and hustles to get back with him. That’s kind of key here – Marner is again taking on that F3 role as high forward concerned with defence.
Because of that, when Holl goes down into the play, and with Tavares below him in the offensive zone, this is another simple read for Galchenyuk. Just pull out and fill Holl’s spot until that battle is sorted out. D down, forward out.
The thing is he does take on the roll of Holl, sort of, but where he ends up is not where a D-man plays while their forwards are in a 2-on-2 battle along the wall. They’re either in the battle or out of the battle, not in no man’s land, neither helping nor in a safe defensive spot. (This might have been better had he entirely not covered for Holl’s pinch, and instead just got into the battle.)
The puck squirts out into the middle, and because Marner has been minding Pierre-Luc Dubois outside the zone, he’s got a good view of that, and can jump down to grab the loose puck. In theory, anyway. Dubois does a good job tying up his stick, and that’s all it takes for a pretty harmless moment to turn into an uncontested breakaway.
It’s a matter of inches, because look in the frame below how much higher Galchenyuk would’ve had to be to have body position on Scheifele – like maybe a step or two? If he just had his skates on the blue covering for Holl, this isn’t anywhere near dangerous, it’s a dead play and maybe an O-zone possession.
So now he’s flat-footed and Scheifele is gone. Speaking of no man’s land, Muzzin gets caught by a matter of circumstance. The play likely looks harmless to him (until it doesn’t), so he’s likely thinking he’ll just gap up a bit before pulling back to defend a possible rush, and because of the way he had already decided to turn in that gap-up pivot, he’s absolutely cooked.
This below is a great example of how hockey screenshots lie, because while the image doesn’t look like much in still form, even a moving frame or two show you it’s a clear breakaway.
A less than two-second GIF:
It’s just a positioning thing. Marner gets tied up, fine, but Galchenyuk is in the wrong spot and Muzzin happens to be turning the wrong way.
You can watch it all again here.
So the question, then, is how much of a big deal do you believe those positional errors to be? They weren’t much, were they? Do you believe them to be the type of one-offs that happen to all players, or do you believe they’re indicative of a player who doesn’t excel at that part of the game, and can’t be trusted?
Making that assessment is a big part of coaching. Because you can find the best defensive forwards in the league – Mark Stone, Ryan O'Reilly, Patrice Bergeron, you name it – doing the same things Galchenyuk did in those clips, and far worse. It happens to everyone, sometimes. On the other hand, some players are extremely gifted but that spatial perception, that ability to read plays and how they could unfold, it never comes.
Sometimes players who struggle at that part of the game can come to understand they’re being judged on it, they can always hedge on the defensive side of things, and for a while you can get the good parts of their game with that defensive bent. But that doesn’t last forever because those players eventually get comfortable, and it’s not natural to them.
Generalities aside, I think this is an issue with Galchenyuk’s game that plenty of teams have taken note of, and something the Leafs will have to consider heading into playoffs. If he’s a guy that is on notice that positioning is hyper-important to his spot on the depth chart, they can probably get gains from having him in. That probably means he’s best utilized coming in and out of the lineup, knowing he’s on unstable ground. That’s not a fun way to play, but it is the NHL and not house hockey, and if he wants to stay in the league it might just have to be the way it is until another team wants to give him a contract with term.
I don’t know where the Leafs sit on this, but let’s face it – if you’re nervous about a player’s ability to execute his role in the system, you’re probably not comfortable with them playing big minutes for you in your top-six. And if Galchenyuk isn’t in the top-six, will he still give you that same effort with a heightened defensive commitment in your bottom-six? Is he even the type of guy you want in that bottom-six if you’re hoping for shutdown minutes, or physical minutes, or PK minutes?
If the Leafs are healthy in the playoffs and you have Galchenyuk doubts, it probably looks something like this:
Some mix of Thornton-Galchenyuk-Engvall-Spezza-Simmonds (Robertson?)
If Galchenyuk is at his best though, and you feel you can play him a lot, it looks like:
Some mix of Thornton-Engvall-Kerfoot-Spezza-Simmonds (Robertson?)
Your bottom-six gets a lot better when Galchenyuk pushes good players down. Looking at those two groups though, the group with Galchenyuk out of the top-nine looks more preferable to my eye, and I’m not sure they’d want him on that fourth line because of the type of minutes they’d want to give those players.
I’m sure the Leafs are hoping he can lock down that part of his game, because a good Galchenyuk makes them a deeper group. I imagine his play over the next 12 games, and his attentiveness there, will make a difference in how their lineup looks on Night 1 of the playoffs.