Maple Leafs tease adjusted systems in preseason victory over the Flyers
Watching the NHL's preseason can be like wearing sweat pants or eating at a submarine sandwich shop: dull, and unbecoming. The lineups are thin, as rosters are routinely filled out with scrappy teenagers and over-the-hill veterans clawing with urgency to extend their NHL journey.
The hockey is typically sloppy, played at half-pace by players who are still learning new systems. The games are too often punctuated by undue 'make an impression' bouts fought by combatants with little chance of breaking camp with their club (Zack Stortini vs. David Broll right off of a neutral zone faceoff anybody?).
Moments of brilliance from players like James van Riemsdyk and William Nylander aside, the NHL's unique brand of preseason hockey can be hard on the eyes. It isn't meaningless though, particularly not for the players legitimately battling for jobs, or the coaches looking to implement new systems before the games start to count.
New Toronto Maple Leafs center Mike Santorelli is a perfect example of a player who made the preseason count last fall. His performance in camp with the Vancouver Canucks last season, despite being on a two-way deal, likely kept him in the league.
This year Santorelli is on a one-way deal worth $1.5 million, and opened his preseason centering Phil Kessel and Toronto's 2014 first-round draft pick Nylander, but that doesn't mean he's approaching things any differently this September.
"Honestly nothing," Santorelli told theScore on Tuesday night, when asked about the difference between being at camp to win a job, versus this year where he has a bit more job security. "Your mindset is always to get better."
A versatile forward, Santorelli has split time playing both center and right wing in his career. On Tuesday night he was playing center, a spot where he would seem to have more opportunity to play a major role (the Maple Leafs are relatively deep at wing).
"I don't want to look into anything," Santorelli said of his chances to compete for a top-nine job as a centerman. "I'm just preparing for the season."
As for the coach implementing a new system, Maple Leafs bench boss Randy Carlyle cautioned that his club's second preseason game means literally nothing in the grand scheme of this season. Still Carlyle detailed some of what he's hoping to change in the way his club plays this season, some of which was on display on Tuesday night.
"We've tried to make adjustments," Carlyle explained. "(We want to) be more aggressive down the ice; be more of a swarming, two down the ice - as far as two forwards, get fresh bodies over the boards when the opportunity presents itself. We're trying to be a more aggressive hockey club, a more skating hockey club in a lot of areas."
In addition to deploying a more aggressive forecheck and seeming to give puck-moving defender Jake Gardiner more of a green light to jump into the play, the Maple Leafs appear to have abandoned their defensive "swarm" on in-zone play. On Tuesday the Maple Leafs' wingers weren't positioned nearly as low in the zone as they consistently were last season, and the club's centermen didn't appear to outnumber puck-handlers along the boards with the same sort of self-defeating urgency.
Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier noticed another difference in the way his teammates played and executed in front of his net on Tuesday, and praised his club's more aggressive defense of the blue-line in a post-game scrum.
"I thought in our neutral zone we were actually more aggressive and we forced them to dump the puck," said Bernier. "That was the biggest difference I (saw)."