It’s almost been two seasons in one for the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. Although I was never pessimistic about the team’s chances to make the playoffs, I have to say that I am much more optimistic since Sheldon Keefe took over as coach for the team.
For about a third of the season, the team was led by iconic head coach Mike Babcock. But Babcock was dismissed and former-Toronto Marlies coach Keefe was put in his place. That change has made a huge difference in the team’s level of play and in the entire demeanor of the team.
I now have no doubt the team will both make the postseason and has the horses to make a strong run. In this post, I want to outline why I believe that’s the case.
Keefe Is More Matter-of-Fact Than We Believed
Sheldon Keefe is a living example of how a coaching change can make a huge difference in how a team performs. And, as far as I can tell, the players have responded to his leadership. Given his reputation as a player’s coach, I wondered how he might respond to any problems that might arise – as they always do when young men form a team.
But two events made me realize that Keefe wasn’t as touchy-feely as one might have expected. The first was when he was asked if he felt bad about backup goalie Michael Hutchinson’s not getting the opportunity for success with the team. Keefe’s answer was matter-of-fact, and he said that Hutchinson had his chances – just not recently.
The second was his benching of both Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander when they showed a lack of interest in checking. He limited both their playing time to three shifts in the second period and then didn’t play them for the final thirteen minutes of the game. His message was clear: if you don’t care, we’ll play someone who does.
In short, the Maple Leafs are playing much better under new head coach Keefe than they played with Babcock as their head coach. When Babcock was dismissed and Keefe became the head coach, I couldn’t believe how much things improved. The team’s play was very different. A weight was lifted off the players and they have played more freely on the ice.
Certainly, they will continue to make on-ice errors, but they actually seemed to try harder every night than they have been. In fact, the recent 8-6 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes was highlighted by a three-goal comeback in the third period. The team could have folded, similar to what they did in the Philadelphia Flyers game when they gave up five unanswered third-period goals.
Keefe Cares and Has The Team Caring
In fact, just prior to the coaching change and with no knowledge of what was coming, I had written a post for another site entitled “Why Aren’t the Toronto Maple Leafs Trying Harder?” To me, the team seemed as if it didn’t care. I believe Keefe has them caring.
The attribute I have come to appreciate about Keefe is that he considers his players. For example, when he scratched Nic Petan to play Nick Shore in his hometown of Colorado against the Avalanche he came under some criticism. That Shore scored just was the second right thing that happened that evening.
Keefe’s decision contrasted so greatly with Babcock’s decision to scratch Toronto-native Jason Spezza for the Maple Leafs home opener. In retrospect, and with the sort of criticism we’ve been hearing lately about Babcock, that isn’t a surprise and might have been expected.
Keefe Is Both Logical and Creative
Keefe embraced no-brainer logic when he put Tyson Barrie into his old position as the power-play quarterback. That’s what Barrie was so good at and where he had been an on-ice leader with the Colorado Avalanche for several seasons. He’s also tried new things by pairing Barrie with Morgan Rielly to create, at least on paper, an elite defensive first-pairing.
Keefe also was creative when he built a line of Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner. That line combination has been together for the last two games, including the comeback third period when they combined for nine points in the 8-6 victory. Although Keefe says he hasn’t decided if the trio will stay together all the time, it seems like a logical thing to me.
Keefe noted, “I would say we’re still kind of in the experiment stage. How it works out long term is not necessarily just on how that goes, but how things underneath them go. We look at all of that.” (from Marner and Matthews together make Maple Leafs magic, but Keefe will always consider options, Terry Koshan, The Toronto Sun, 12/23/19)
Keefe Has Matthews Playing a 200-Foot Game
Keefe is helping Matthews work on a 200-foot game, and that part of his game is progressing. I’m watching Matthews grow as a player. Few players have Matthews’ skill as a sniper, but that’s been the case since he was a rookie. However, Matthews is starting to play better defense by working harder to catch up to on-ice mistakes (not always his) or making stick-lifts or puck strips before opponents can finish their plays.
Matthews has also stepped up as a leader. His comments about the team deserting Andersen put pressure on the team, but mostly on himself, to be better. That kind of growth will push him to embrace the best version of himself as the hockey player he could become.
All the attributes Keefe possesses won’t make the team perfect. You need a coach because there are always things to improve, to work out, and to tweak. However, I’m excited to see what general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Keefe have in mind about the way they believe this young team should play.
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