Spoiler Alert: The writer of this post is optimistic. Just so you know.
Auston Matthews put it well. It was a “Pretty special night for a lot of guys here. And a big two points with everything that’s been going on the past couple of weeks and the past 36 hours.”
And, right he is. Matthews, who’s back in his hometown, scored the goal that iced the game. However, a number of other players also had good games. Among them was Tyson Barrie, who scored his first goal of the season. He looked more fluid on the ice and more courageous to purposely leave his defensive zone to engage in the offense.
Pierre Engvall also scored his first goal of his NHL career, and that has to be special – especially for a coach who has shown faith in him all the time during his time with the AHL Toronto Marlies. For fans who recall, Engvall was a seventh-round draft pick who had been a Sheldon Keefe project for several seasons. How good is that for Engvall?
Third, Ilya Mikheyev was given top minutes with John Tavares and Zach Hyman’s line. In fact, Mikheyev had the most ice time of any forward in the Maple Leafs lineup. And, he responded with two assists. Should he play more in the top six, his scoring should improve. He has, to my vision, the ability to be a Calder candidate.
Keefe had the team looking like a different team than former head coach Mike Babcock. Although it’s a small “n,” it might be time to ask the question: “What players serve to benefit the most should Keefe allow the players to engage in the puck-possession kind of game that might be just up their alley?”
In this post, I want to offer some guesses in response to that question.
Player One: Alex Kerfoot
Alex Kerfoot seems like an odd player to start with, but he came over this offseason from an offensive-minded team (the Colorado Avalanche) and has been a bit of a revelation. He’s shown he can center the third line and play a solid defensive role with the team. Although he had missed three games recovering from facial surgery for dental fractures (that has to hurt), he blocked four shots and had two hits in Thursday’s 3-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes.
If Keefe has been watching, and you can be certain he has, he’ll note that Kerfoot has been successful on the power play and might give Kerfoot time with the second power-play unit. I would look for the 25-year-old forward’s scoring to improve from his eight points in 21 games this year.
Player Two: Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews scored his 15th goal of the season in the win over Arizona. How, you ask, could he improve on that successful homecoming? The answer is that he might be given more ice time. Under Babcock, he averaged just over 19 minutes per game this season. That’s up from last season and is what Babcock said would happen prior to this season’s start.
However, Matthews plays lots less than other stars of his ilk – such as Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, for example. Should Keefe get more minutes – and he’s a young, strong player – his scoring should improve. Matthews has 28 points in 24 games this season, but he could have more if he plays more. I look forward to his reaching the 100-point mark if he’s not hurt.
Player Three: William Nylander
William Nylander told everyone prior to the season that he was going to dominate. However, with coach Babcock, it always seemed to be one step forward, one step backward. I read him as an emotional young man who could benefit from a healthy dose of positive reinforcement. When he’s good, he’s very good. Keefe might encourage him into stardom.
During the Coyotes game, he scored an assist on Matthews’ final goal of the game. And, the young Swede has five goals and four assists in the 10 games he’s played in November (and has 18 points in 24 games this season). Should he be given more freedom to create and be protected from Babcock’s “tough-love,” which I believe translates to negativity for young players, he might flourish.
Player Four: Ilya Mikheyev
During the Coyotes game, as I noted, Mikheyev had two assists and led all Maple Leafs forwards with 18:32 of ice time. I believe Mikheyev could become a special player. Obviously, so too does Keefe. He moved him to the top six and increased his ice time.
Mikheyev responded, and I think he’ll continue to respond should he be given the opportunity. I predict he will drastically increase his 14 points in 24 games this season.
Player Five: Pierre Engvall
Pierre Engvall, as noted, is a Keefe project. Keefe brought him up to the Maple Leafs with him, gave him ice time, and – obviously – Engvall contributed. He had his first goal in his second NHL game. It was a shorthanded marker, where he simply outraced the Coyotes’ defense. Pretty good night.
Will he stay with the team? Who knows? But he had a chance and he thrived. Why not give him another? I think Keefe will do that.
Player Six: Tyson Barrie
Perhaps Tyson Barrie (perhaps Mikheyev) has the biggest opportunity with the change in coaching. Barrie scored for the first time during the season and looked free and easy on the ice. Should he be given more ice time and the creative freedom he needs to impact the game, watch out.
I predict more power-play chances and more freedom to create when he’s on the ice. I also predict Barrie’s scoring will improve under Keefe’s more open offense.
What Might Sheldon Keefe Mean to the Maple Leafs?
Ok, I offered a heads-up that you’d likely detect a large dose of optimism in this post. I wasn’t really certain how Keefe’s presence with the team might change things; and, perhaps over the long haul, it won’t much.
However, in one game, Maple Leafs fans got a small glimpse of general manager – and long-time Sheldon Keefe supporter – Kyle Dubas’ vision for the team. He wants an open game, with fast skilled offense players who overwhelm an opponent with speed, skill, and heart. That vision, for lack of a better metaphor, would be like a “Hoard of Huns” coming at you in wave after wave.
I could be wrong. However, if I’m not, Maple Leafs fans are looking at the potential for some fun hockey over the next little while.
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