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Craig MacTavish got fired in the KHL: How does this affect the Leafs?

SB Nation logoSB Nation 2019-11-08 KatyaKnappe
Craig MacTavish wearing a suit and tie: Craig MacTavish at their 2019/2020 KHL Regular Season match against CSKA Moscow, who won 5-2. © Photo by Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Images Craig MacTavish at their 2019/2020 KHL Regular Season match against CSKA Moscow, who won 5-2.

Craig MacTavish coached in the KHL for about five seconds this season before he got fired, and normally that’s just another LOLOILERS story, and I ignore it. But he was coaching Lokomotiv, Egor Korshkov’s old team, and a team I’ve watched play 100 times or more, so I was a little curious.

And then Bob McKenzie figured out how to market the story:

Bob got my click, and thank you, sir, that was a good read for totally different reasons than a few chuckles over the media.

MacTavish starts out telling you about how he got fired, and how he knew he was going to get fired. Frankly, he took the job expecting to get fired, and rightly so. The coaching turnover in the KHL is chaotic enough to satisfy even Leafs Twitter. It’s extremely on brand for a Canadian in Russia to learn he’s been canned while in a McDonalds, though.

MacTavish then jumps back in time to getting hired, and I found this assessment of the players interesting:

The players, young and old, were a pleasure to work with. They were hard working, dedicated and would do anything you asked, living by the old Animal House adage – thank you, sir, may I have another? There were no issues whatsoever regarding work ethic and passion. That was a surprise. The players very much have an old- school North American mentality of respecting authority. They’re mostly intimidated by authority figures and uncomfortable with communication with the coach.

It took longer to develop trust with the players than I expected. However, over time I came to enjoy them and respect their perspective on the game.

Recall that mostly manufactured controversy about Igor Ozhiganov finding the way players interacted with Mike Babcock weird. This is the other side of that same coin, and if we’re shocked that another culture is different, uh, culturally, maybe we need to broaden our minds a tad.

But it also made me think of this interview with Sergei Federov that came out recently.

Federov is an executive with CSKA, and he was lamenting the loss of their young players, teenagers, who are choosing the USHL or Canadian junior leagues instead of development in the Russian club system. He thinks, and he’s not disinterested here, obviously, that it’s a mistake. But his description of the way Russians used to be trained is apt:

GK: Tarasov talks about you and your teammates in his memoir—about reducing the importance of the goal scorer and rewarding every moment that contributes to the play. Do you miss that mentality?

SF: Both [North American and Soviet] training systems are right. They both survived and won through the years. Both systems should exchange the best ideas and adopt them.

Soviet training—under Tarasov, Tikhonov—was all about character. It was all about team first, your last name second. We had careers because of that mental setup, and that is why we won in Detroit. I was just going to tell you—if we take the Russian Five and look at the ages of the men on that unit, we were from different generations, but all from the Soviet Union system. That is why the Russian Five succeeded.

If we go even deeper, I never thought to myself, “I have to score.” I played the game the way I was taught, and when [the Russian Five] got together eventually, we tried for each other more than for ourselves. We helped each other—we never talked about it, just reacted on the ice.

That sounds like Lou Lamoriello talking. Maybe, while we’re exchanging ideas, we should reevaluate how different we ever were or really are now. Because just saying Russia is culturally distinct is too simplistic. They love hockey, so they are us, and yet, not.

Exchanging ideas and learning is exactly why Dave Hakstol went to Sweden last summer when asked and worked with the national team coaches in some training sessions. Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock find Russians to sign every summer and change their own team a little, and NHL hockey, in the process. Because the KHL is not exactly like the NHL even if their clichés are.

MacTavish again:

It took me a while to understand the KHL game. It is a frenetic, high-energy game that seldom sees more than two passes completed in succession. Passing, to me, has always been the most graceful, entertaining form of the game. Glenn Anderson would constantly say, “Can’t pass, can’t play,” and Edmonton saw the greatest passer in history of the game, so I have always viewed passing ability as essential to success.

On 95 per cent of the KHL teams, when the defencemen get the puck – with any time – the forwards take off for a stretch pass and chip to forecheck. This tactic is executed with the intensity of a fire drill. All the defencemen would see was the sight of diminishing players fading through the neutral zone. I thought it was a crazy way to play and still do, but at least I understand the rationale behind it now.

Offensively, they’re expecting and managing the turnover.

KHL logic holds that it’s better to turn the puck over just outside the opposition’s blueline than inside yours. Take the passing skill and decision-making out of the hands of the defencemen, who presumably lack that capability. The hockey is entertaining and fast. Players have good puck skills but the playmaking just isn’t near the NHL level.

If you don’t see some of the Leafs offensive tactics, particularly last year, in all of that, I think you should go watch some video. The other side of this coin is the way the defending team concedes the neutral zone in the KHL. Both teams are in on it, this scheme of making the point of contention the offensive blueline so that gaining the zone takes priority over controlling the entry, while denying the entry takes precedence over owning the neutral zone.

The Leafs, obviously, have some excellent puck-controlling defenders, and their role in gaining the zone is more like a forward’s is on a team like Lokomotiv. We know from things Babcock said last season that the Leafs were trying to get behind the defence they were facing with their chip outs and stretch passes and chip ins. The subtext of that was that they didn’t have the kinds of players who could get the puck through the neutral zone and over the line, particularly without William Nylander in the roster.

Looking at some of Corey Sznajer’s manually tracked data from last year, the Leafs were a fairly rush-based team, but not excessively so. The rumours of them dumping and chasing “all the time” were created by people eye-testing the game who have a strong emotional attachment to the idea that only a controlled carry is good. Your eyes can’t count. The Leafs used controlled entries well above average.

MacTavish goes on to say that the best teams in the KHL, like SKA and CSKA play a style more like North American hockey, and have better passing defencemen. With the Leafs this year, and the addition of Tyson Barrie and even Cody Ceci (you can’t tell me he doesn’t pass better than Zaitsev and Hainsey) the stretch pass has faded away, and it seems (I hate this word, and yet here I am using it) like the Leafs are getting a lot of controlled entries. But my eyes can’t count, and when we have more data on this, we should examine it.

This year, the players on the Leafs controlling the entry are mostly the ones you’d expect, but Nylander, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie all bring skills that the Leafs were missing for all or part of last year.

a screenshot of a cell phone © Corey Sznajder
From four manually tracked games so far this season.

It’s worth thinking about, when looking at a small amount of results, who the players were up against. John Tavares, playing against top lines, might have a tougher job gaining the zone and might just need to dump and then forecheck his way to a scoring chance more often than the more lightly used Matthews line. JT could use a tough forechecking winger, you know.

MacTavish neatly illustrates that you have to coach the players you have, and ask them to do things they can actually do, and this seeming change in the Leafs this year may be based in the personnel as much as in the new assistant coaches. In the radio hit on Wednesday where Babcock talked about who he’s cutting from the team, he also talked about the benefit of having new voices on the coaching staff and trying things that will work best with the players they have. He doesn’t just want a “Babcock way”.

I realize large numbers of fans simply can’t hear that. And the press can’t either. They’ve spent years telling you “Babcock likes thing x” stories, most of which bear no relationship to what’s going on. One I’ve heard most is “Babcock likes to carry eight defenders.” And yet here he is devising a system to play 21 players that requires an extra forward, not a defender. He says in that radio hit that he doesn’t like five forward lines at practice. He wants four.

The Leafs results so far are better defensively than they’ve ever been set against a struggling offence. There’s also a large number of fans who simply can’t hear that reality either. They know Cody Ceci is bad, worse even than, gosh, maybe anyone ever, and the Leafs allow too many goals. But in reality, he’s not really a factor at all, but the Leafs have had some terrible goaltending. When that changes, will they be scoring enough to get wins in this slightly restructured system?

I don’t actually know the answer to that, but I’m a lot more optimistic the Leafs can gain quality of shots for than I am that their defence can get better. So they’re failing right now at the easiest thing to fix. Maybe they need to open up more, and maybe we’re already seeing that. Maybe these two halves of the equation aren’t very related at all. Hockey is complicated like that.

MacTavish really goes deep on his coaching style versus the expectations of the Russian team president:

I quietly disagreed and felt building a deeper, individualized, trust relationship with the Russian players would help me influence their behaviour, decision-making, buy-in, loyalty and, ultimately, performance level. This was probably the biggest disconnect between Yuri [Yakovlev] and me.

He felt a transactional, dictatorial relationship with the players was the best way to maximize performance and I was looking for more of a North American transformational style of leadership.

If this management / leadership discussion is starting to sound too theoretical, I apologize. I paid $75,000 to Queen’s University for a MBA program and you’re going to have to suffer through it.

What I find striking is that a large and loud contingent of Leafs fans both think that Babcock is a transactional, dictatorial coach and also want Kyle Dubas to morph into Yuri Yakovlev and fire him for the win-loss record. Meanwhile, another loud group think Babcock is not berating his star players enough, and should just telling them to try the puck in the net more. I assume they think Kyle Dubas is too busy reading a spreadsheet to notice. The evidence doesn’t really support either the “big meanie” or the “too soft on the punk kids” view of things.

MacTavish talks about his struggles learning about a big roster of players, and that struck me as a very different challenge to the one the Leafs have: 21 skaters who will need to play out most of the season packed into an NHL schedule vs the 31 men that are in the Lokomotiv team photo on opening day with MacTavish sitting there, already waiting to be fired. This is also a challenge for the players. In the KHL, you’re always fighting for a spot on the team unless you’re a star, but for the Leafs, the stars can’t take a single shift off, even metaphorically. Ask William Nylander how that works out when you do.

I’m going to give Fedorov the last word with some advice for everyone, not just NHLers, and not just Russians in the NHL:

GK: North America often comes with higher salaries, more distractions…

SF: They need to keep their head down and keep working. The locker room, what’s on the ice…that’s more important than anything away from the arena. When you create something, create an aura there, then you can explore more about life outside. Stay in the system, think about hockey games, think about practices…come there early. Life will always be there outside of that. But if you are not going to do well in hockey, tell me the point of why you are there. If you come to the NHL…game on, dude!

And that’s how Craig MacTavish got me thinking about the Leafs, and their struggles.

Now how about a little backchecking demonstration:

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