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An Overview of the Maple Leafs Breakout

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A look into how the Maple Leafs start to transition the puck

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Introduction

Since the Bruins had been almost guaranteed to face the Leafs in the first round of the playoffs for a few months now, I took the risk of spending over a month on a preview series. The series will take a look at the Bruins forecheck against the Leafs’ breakout, the Bruins breakouts against the Leafs’ forechecks, what the teams do after a defensive zone faceoff win, and a “macro” look on the series.

This series will have an analytics lens, but primarily focuses on the x’s and o’s of the game. There will be lots of graphs and video examples along the way to help contextualize and visualize the information. If you aren’t someone who likes to read a lot, there will be a summary at the bottom of each article. I hope you enjoy!


What are forechecks and breakouts?

In these series of articles, we will be talking about forechecks and breakouts. In the simplest words, a forecheck is when a team is defending in the offensive or neutral zone. A breakout is when a team controls the puck in their own end and is trying to get the puck into the offensive zone. Breakouts and forechecks counter each other.

Objectively, there are a few reasons this area of the game in important. Successfully exiting the zone, especially with control of the puck, increases the chance of entering the offensive zone. Alex Novet showed this in his presentation at the RIT Hockey Analytics Conference in 2017.

A slide from Alex Novet’s presentation at RITHAC in 2017

Ryan Stimson of The Athletic also found that, “A one percent decrease in the opposition’s controlled exit rate increases the forechecking team’s goal scoring by 0.05 goals per sixty minutes.” You can also switch that around and phrase it as an increase of goals against for the breakout team.


How do the Leafs break out?

This article will be a general overview of the Maple Leafs breakout tactics and how this affects the bigger picture. In the next set of articles, we will dive into more detail, and include matchup analysis to see how the Bruins match up against the Leafs. One thing to keep in mind as we advance in this series is that data is rather limited. Because of this, the metrics referenced will have a large level of uncertainty.

Corey Sznajder has tracked much of the available “micro” statistics that are available to the public. The statistics support the reputation the Leafs have as a “stretch” team.

Corey classifies this quadrant of teams as glass & out. They don’t turn over a high percentage of exit attempts, but also don’t control a high percentage of exit attempts. This is due to a systematic lack of forward support.

The Leafs want to push the opposing defensemen back. In order to do that, they must place their forwards further up the ice. Essentially, the Leafs are willing to control fewer exits in order to 1) avoid turnovers in their own zone and 2) create high quality controlled exits.

In the clip above, all five Leafs players start below the faceoff dots, supporting the puck battle. As Morgan Reilly wins the puck and begins to try to exit the zone, the two wingers streak up the zone. While the forward who leaves the zone, Connor Brown, could have supported the play along the boards, that would have also allowed the opposing defensemen and high forward to be more aggressive. Additionally, if this play connects with Brown, it will almost certainly result in an entry into the offensive zone. In the end, Vatrano’s pressure results in an uncontrolled exit.

How does this affect the Leafs? Well, it helps them a lot offensively it would seem. There is a lot more thought that went into constructing the Leafs’ breakouts than, “Send players up the ice and hope they recover the puck.” Because many of these uncontrolled exits are “planned,” or at least have support put in place, the Leafs do a terrific job of recovering the puck in the neutral zone. This allows them to control entries and create rush opportunities.

This plays a part in them finishing top 5 in goals, expected goals, and shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5v5 this season. This could also help their save percentage, as well, as shots off of turnovers have a high shooting percentage. They fall in the upper third of the NHL in save percentage despite giving up many high quality chances, at least based off of location. Still, the effects this has are limited because it is only a small part of the game.


Summary

The Maple Leafs stretch the zone on exit attempts. Because of this they turn over the puck less frequently, but also control fewer exits. They seem to recover pucks in the neutral zone which helps them create chances off of the rush. It may also help them defensively as shots following turnovers have a high shooting percentage.