Wounded Leafs can learn from Senators' survival tactics | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in CanadaWounded Leafs can learn from Senators' survival tactics

Posted: Tuesday, November 5, 2013 | 11:18 AM

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High-scoring Phil Kessel is one of the Toronto players who may need to embrace a larger defensive role if the Leafs are to overcome their injury problems. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press) High-scoring Phil Kessel is one of the Toronto players who may need to embrace a larger defensive role if the Leafs are to overcome their injury problems. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

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Things don't look good for the Toronto Maple Leafs with two of their top three centres -- David Bolland and Tyler Bozak -- injured and expected to be out for a while. But that doesn't mean the wheels have to come off the bus.
Now the pressure is on the coaching staff.

Things don't look good for the Toronto Maple Leafs with two of their top three centres -- David Bolland and Tyler Bozak -- injured and expected to be out for a while. But that doesn't mean the wheels have to come off the bus.

The Maple Leafs need look no further than last season's Ottawa Senators for inspiration on how to succeed when the injury bug chomps down hard.

The Senators, you may recall, lost the services of their three best players -- goalie Craig Anderson, defenceman Erik Karlsson and centre Jason Spezza -- for significant periods of time and yet still managed to finish 14th overall in the lockout-shortened season with an impressive 25-17-6 record.

Paul MacLean, who wound up winning the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top coach, and his assistants Mark Reeds, Dave Cameron and Rick Walmsley, somehow managed to coax above-and-beyond seasons out of the rest of a team that otherwise could have folded its tent when the three stars went down with injuries.

Anderson was off to a great start last season, going 6-2-2 in his first 10 starts, before a serious ankle sprain in a Feb. 21 game against the New York Rangers knocked him out of the lineup for six weeks.

Much was expected from Karlsson, who was coming off a Norris Trophy season, not to mention a nine-goal, 34-point performance with Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League during the lockout. However, in his 14th game of the season, on Feb. 13, he suffered a serious injury after being stepped on by Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Karlsson had surgery to repair a lacerated Achilles tendon and didn't return until April 25.

Spezza played in only five regular-season games due to a back injury that required surgery.

How did the Senators overcome those losses? Quite simply, they bought into the coaching staff's defensive system and virtually every player made a commitment to trying to play low-risk, mistake-free hockey.

Ottawa GM Bryan Murray was impressed with the way his players stepped up to the plate when his three stars were out.

"If it is star players that are hurt, other players get a chance and you find they they are very, very willing to do what they are told," Murray said. "There are a couple of things in play. No. 1, they are getting an opportunity they otherwise might not have gotten, and No. 2, they understand that in order to keep getting that opportunity they have to do things right."

Stars must buy in

Can the Maple Leafs do the same thing? Thus far they have played a more loosey-goosey style of hockey that is often entertaining, to be sure, but has not come close to achieving the defence-oriented style that head coach Randy Carlyle prefers.

The loss of Bozak and Bolland certainly alters the way the Maple Leafs will have to play if they want to win. Bozak generally skates on the team's top line with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on the wings. Bolland has been one of the team's most consistent players since joining Toronto last summer from the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

Bozak is out with a pulled hamstring and cannot return to the lineup until Nov. 21 at the earliest because he was placed on long-term injured reserve. Bolland's injury situation is worse. He had surgery to repair a severed tendon on the outside of his left ankle Sunday in Vancouver, and is out indefinitely.

The real test for Toronto's coaching staff will be to convince the likes of Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul -- all potential top-10 scorers in the NHL -- to pay special attention to the defensive details that separate winning and losing. It may require altering their views on offensive hockey versus defensive hockey, which may be a tough sell. Also, the Maple Leafs' defencemen simply have to be better in terms of moving the puck out of the defensive zone.

Toronto's coaches will have to push all the right buttons if the team is to continue to be successful. Despite not having iced a full lineup this season, the Leafs are off to a surprisingly strong 10-5-0 start. But if it were not for goalies James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier, the Maple Leafs could very well be 5-10-0.

Toronto ranks eighth in the NHL in goals-against average at 2.40, but a lot of that is due to the solid play of Reimer and Bernier, who have saved the day on many nights when the skaters gave an otherwise mediocre effort.

One potential are for improvement is the faceoff circle, where the Maple Leafs rank 28th in the NHL with just a 45 per cent success rate.

"We have been getting a little bit better in terms of our percentage in the faceoff circle, but the reality is we have to get a lot better," Carlyle said. "We've got to start to compete more on the faceoff and do less trying to win them and perhaps start trying to tie the other centre up and have people come in [for the puck] because that's a stat that very rarely gets highlighted.

"But if you are always chasing and not starting with the puck, then you are in defensive mode... recovery mode. And we have been in recovery mode too much."

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