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Four “Big Events” that Shaped the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Season

In reviewing the Maple Leafs 2019-20 season, what four events were key to the season?

If the regular NHL season ended right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs record would be 36-25-9, the team would have 81 points, and they would be in the Stanley Cup playoffs because they would have placed third in the Atlantic Division. That gets them in.

It wasn’t the kind of special season the team or the fans wanted, but once you’re in the postseason anything can happen. Given where the team stands currently, in this post, I want to review four “big events” that marked the Maple Leafs’ 2019-20 season.

Related: Dubas Confirms Interest in Barabanov

Event #1: Mike Babcock Was Fired as Head Coach

When the team started the season, it was coached by legend Mike Babcock. Everyone knows that Babcock was, at least by reputation, one of the best coaches in the history of the NHL. But it simply didn’t work out for him this season in Toronto.

Simply stated, the team didn’t play well for him and he coached only 23 games before he was fired. His season ended with a 9-10-4 record, but it was a six-game losing streak in early November that sealed his fate. He lasted almost five seasons as the team’s coach – from May 2015 to November 2019.

His coaching history was that he was a winner, but he just didn’t do it often enough with the Maple Leafs. This season, under Babcock, the team had been on a 78-point pace and wouldn’t have even made the postseason. That wasn’t good enough.

Event #2: Sheldon Keefe’ Was Hired As Head Coach

After Babcock was fired, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas hired his old friend and Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. The two had worked together in two organizations. First, when Dubas was the general manager of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he hired Keefe as the team’s coach. Second, when he became general manager for the Marlies in 2015, he again hired Keefe to coach the AHL team.

Immediately, with Keefe coaching, the team ended its six-game losing streak. Not only that, in Keefe’s first 20 games as a head coach, but the team’s record was 15-4-1 record – the best start under any new head coach in the franchise’s 102-season history. (from “By The Numbers: Sheldon Keefe’s Historic Start With Maple Leafs,” Jordan Horrobin, Forbes Magazine, 01/06/20)

When Keefe first took over, the Maple Leafs beat everyone. Of his first 15 wins, 10 wins were on the road and eight were against teams in the playoffs. Although the Maple Leafs eventually cooled off, as noted earlier in the post, by the end of the regular season – halted by the coronavirus – it improved enough to be in a playoff position.

Event #3: Key Injuries Undid the Maple Leafs’ Season

That the Maple Leafs couldn’t sustain the initial pace it had played at when Keefe first became the coach wasn’t only the fault of the players. Part of the issue for 2019-20 was that key injuries hobbled the team.

Here’s a list of some of these injuries:

First, the team started the season short-handed because Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott were both out for a month healing from offseason surgeries.

Second, John Tavares broke a finger and missed games.

Third, Alex Kerfoot missed games with a concussion and then had dental surgery later.

Fourth, Mitch Marner went down with a high-ankle sprain and he didn’t play between November 9 to December 4.

Fifth, Andreas Johnsson missed most of December. Later, in mid-February, he had surgery on his right knee after colliding with teammate Kasperi Kapanen. He’s still out of action.

Sixth, Jake Muzzin missed most of January with an injury, then he was hurt again and missed much of February.

Seventh, Frederick Andersen hurt his neck.

Eighth, Cody Ceci went down to an ankle injury and missed 14 games.

Ninth, the great young rookie Ilya Mikheyev suffered a lacerated wrist in December and has been out since then.

Tenth, and finally for this list, Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly broke his foot and was out two months.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs Prospect Nick Robertson: Looking Better than Advertised

Event #4: Kyle Dubas Emergence As a General Manager

Still, given this litany of injuries and the bad news that came with them, in my mind one of the best things that happened during the season was the emergence of Maple Leafs general manager as an intelligent hockey thinker and – to my mind – one of the good guys. Call me old-fashioned, but being a good person is something I value. And, I saw that with Dubas.

To just name a few things I think Dubas did well, first – although he’s been critiqued for signing core players to big contracts – especially Tavares, William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Marner – I think in these signings he showed he had a strong judge of talent. Fault the money, but don’t fault the value of this group.

The Nylander contract – panned at the time – has proven to be almost team-friendly given today’s standards. Nylander had a great season – his best ever. Matthews has grown into a great two-play player and would have likely scored 60 goals this season. Marner played better than a point-a-game pace and showed his skill both offensively and on the defensive side of the ice.

Second, the time Dubas spent caring for rookie Mikheyev after his emergency surgery is the stuff of legends (OK – that’s overstated a bit). However, for the better part of three days, Dubas hung out with Mikheyev in the hospital watching sports, buying him clothes and other personal effects, and just being a good friend.

That kind of treatment puts the Maple Leafs on a different level of organizations insofar as how it takes care of its players. I’m certain it will invite other foreign-born players (especially Russians) to emigrate to the Maple Leafs as a destination of choice.

Where the Maple Leafs Currently Stand

The Maple Leafs are now clearly general manager Dubas’ team. He has his stamp on the team all the way from the coach to the players. The group of hockey thinkers he’s collected seem smart, creative, and able to balance the needs of the team with the limitations of the salary cap and its upper limits.

Given the lost revenue the NHL experienced as a result of its regular-season suspension, practical wisdom will be needed moving forward. I, for one, have faith that the team’s leadership is up to the task.

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