Eight games into Sheldon Keefe’s career as a head coach has shown some promise for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs have shown some new wrinkles, had some unique looks in the lineup and produced some promising results on special teams.
The team has a 5-3 record under their new head coach. That looks pretty decent. It seems the team has reacted positively to the coaching change.
That being said, there’s still much work to be done to not only make this team a Stanley Cup contender, but a playoff team altogether.
The record of 5-3 can be viewed as a bit generous. While they had great games against Arizona, which was Keefe’s debut, Detroit and in beating the Blues, they’ve had stinkers. The loss to Buffalo, another by a backup goalie, was bad. The loss to the Flyers was much worse with the way it ended.
The win against the Wings came against really just a bad team which saw their goalie get hurt and their backup having to come in while feeling ill. They’ve split the series against Colorado, and while that seems like an excellent feat, they were lucky. They were badly outplayed for 2 periods as they hung on to a 4-3 win, after building a 4-1 lead. They managed to at least get a win against Buffalo in the 2nd half of a back to back, but they barely scratched it out and the top players really didn’t play to the level of the Sabres top guys over the 2 game weekend series.
Without Fredrik Andersen really, the team, who knows where they’d be. Since the coaching change, he has been great. He’s kept his team in every game and was 16 seconds from having 2 shutouts in his last 7 starts.
As the hockey saying goes, a coach is only as good as his goalie. Other than the Wings game which was so out of hand, Andersen probably factored in each of those other games keeping the team close.
He’s been the MVP all year really. He even showed some leadership by wanting to be in the nets on the 2nd night of a back to back, even after playing the previous evening. He wants to play and help the team win.
But besides Andersen, there has been some nice signs that made the coaching change a refreshing one and a needed one. It has not all been their star goalie as Keefe has really brought some unique changes for the better.
While Mike Babcock had some success, at the end of the day, a change really became necessary.
We won’t take away from what he accomplished. Players like Morgan Reilly, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri and Zach Hyman really grew leaps and bounds under his watch.
The Leafs surprised many making the playoffs with like 10 rookies 4 years ago and then broke the franchise record in points the following year. Even last years up and down campaign they managed 100 points and had 2 chances to beat Boston only to come up just short.
But a change was needed as it really felt the voice was being lost and the message was no longer being heard.
In comes Keefe and we’ve seen some mild improvements.
One of the bigger ones is High Danger Scoring Chances. Those are chances close to the front of the net right in the slot area. The Leafs under Keefe are averaging almost 2 more shots a game since he took over than previously this season. While it hasn’t necessarily resulted in more goals, chances create pressure and eventually they’ll start going in with the skill the Leafs have.
They are still averaging roughly the same high dangerous shots against, but have improved their goals against on these chances. The team has made at least 80 percent of the saves on these chances in 7 of the 8 games in the Keefe era. The one outlier was probably damaged after the late game meltdown in Philly.
During Babcock’s tenure the team reached at least 80 percent in 8 of 23 games. That means their save percentage was below 80 percent around the net in 15 games. That’s rough.
Definitely as mentioned, Andersen has been great. But one of the key changes defensively has been the collapsing the team is doing with all 5 guys at times being right near the crease. Protecting the front of the net clearly has been something Keefe has recognized and is dealing with accordingly. It’s a work in progress but there’s been results.
Clearly part of this improvement has been a result of the penalty kill which has improved immensely.
When Babcock was fired, the team was at 73 percent success rate. Since Keefe took over they’ve been at 90 percent. Special teams is a huge difference maker and you need success there to have any chance to succeed in the standings.
The powerplay too has looked much better going at around a 40 percent success rate after starting the season at 17 percent under Babcock.
Overall the offence has looked decent. The puck movement has improved. While they kind of got away from keeping possession of the puck a bit, they’ve shown that when they have it, its hard to get it back without giving up chances.
What they’ve benefited from has been usage. Other than a couple outlier games where Auston Matthews, John Tavares probably played too much, their big stars have really been around their season averages for playing time. But what we’ve seen is them playing in some different and unique situations.
They haven’t been exclusively starting in the offensive zone. They’ve been starting wherever based on the situation.
There’s been times we’ve seen Keefe load up the lines with 3 of his top guys. We’ve seen Tavares and Matthews double shift. We’ve seen him send these guys out there because the situation calls for a star to step up.
It’s actually pretty good to see because you’ll basically win or lose with your best guys. It seems that when the situation dictates, Keefe is not afraid to rely on his big guys to swing momentum or even maintain it.
Keefe is also not afraid to make lineup changes in-game, make adjustments when the situation calls for it and isn’t afraid to use his timeout if he needs it early. He in fact used it to keep the big unit on for the full power play and used it again in the last game against St. Louis after the Blues scored. He seems to understand the feel of the team and it being one that has struggled with leads in the past. He clearly did not want the Blues to gain any momentum.
While his in-game recognition is great, and something the team needed, in the big picture, he has to recognize that this is not a polished unit.
Sure, coming in mid-season, no training camp, a lineup that was in a state of flux with seemingly one injury after another and a bunch of players he didn’t know, is tough. And for sure, it will take time for a full system to be implemented and grasped by the players. But, the issues with the team went well beyond just the previous coach.
That was a big misconception of many that all that ails this team was the coach. The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of issues that need to be addressed before the Leafs can take the next step.
Absolutely, seeing the team try and play a way with what they have makes sense. Perhaps that stands to have some success.
The team appears to want to play with speed, pressure teams with their speed and use it to attack all the time. All well and good but it may not be sustainable.
The NHL is a tough place. Coaching is excellent and so are the players. Teams can adapt and are always looking to make adjustments to stifle the other team’s game plan.
The thing with Toronto is it seems they only have this one style. Much of that isn’t coaching but the personnel the coaches have to work with.
Slow the game down, play physical, play a game that requires a grind every shift, it doesn’t appear the Leafs have the ability to deal with that each and every game.
And playing with speed and trying with what they have to win battles, work hard defensively and be consistent in that regard may simply be too hard with what they have.
Simply put, the Leafs are too small, too soft, and not strong enough physically and mentally to be a contender. In fact these traits leave the playoffs as an intense battle they’ll have to endure all year round.
Seeing them quit against the Flyers was pretty disgraceful. With your backs up against it in battling for the playoffs, and having quit 2 weeks ago on the other coach, you have to wonder if the going gets tough, do they want it or not.
While GM Kyle Dubas has done a lot of moves and changed the roster a great deal in his almost 2 years as GM, it’s clear much more is needed.
Just this off-season he’s added Cody Ceci, Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Ilya Mikheyev among others.
But one thing he’s not acquired is the needed physical presence. Someone to add hitting to the team’s repertoire. Someone to add pushback. Someone to step up for their teammates.
Dubas when asked on toughness is quoted as saying:
“It is something we’ll continue to look for, but we are not going to sacrifice the talent base with our skill to bring in an enforcer type.”
That is all well and good, and many of his supporters absolutely agree with this assessment.
But it’s not like the proponents are saying Marner or Nylander should be traded our in exchange for toughness. For fighters like the Colton Orr’s of yesteryear.
It’s unlikely anyone is saying that at all, even though the biggest supporters of skill believe the old school types are in fact hoping for this result.
The actual truth is the Leafs have an abundance of skill.
If your team say only had Tavares, Marner, Matthews, Nylander and Reilly, would they be considered a highly skilled team? You bet they would be.
So, why couldn’t this nucleus be supported by a couple guys who bring a toughness element, a hitting element, a character element to the team?
They do have some solid foot soldiers with Hyman, Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin and rookies such as Trevor Moore, Pierre Engvall and Dmytro Timashov.
But they need a bruising forward. They need some no nonsense on defence. They need some jam, but the ability to stand up if needed. Not just little flickers of that.
Until they address these obvious holes, winning when it matters will be a distant dream.
The team isn’t even near securing a playoff berth and have shown signs of these deficiencies in spades. While it’s likely they’ll be competitive based on skill and riding the coattails of Andersen, the lack this lineup has is very obvious and sorely needs fixing.
Just take a look at the last 4 finalists. In 2018 the Washington beat Vegas.
The Caps have the leagues biggest monster forward in Tom Wilson. He alone raises the toughness quotient exponentially. But the D led by John Carlson and that had Brooks Orpik were no pushovers. Centres Nik Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov don’t back down. And you don’t see many tougher than Alex Ovechkin. They had size, grit and heavy players but were highly skilled. Not 4 lines of skill. Instead, balance.
Even the Knights, an expansion team, had a solid mix. While they weren’t as highly skilled, they brought their work boots and battled. They had some muscle on D led by Brayden McNabb and Derek Engelland. They had maybe the last of the policemen in Ryan Reaves who can play. James Neal and David Perron are kind of dirty but can bring offence. They were loaded with worker bees. They lacked skill but had enough to reach the final. They won 3 rounds. The Leafs haven’t won one since 2004.
Last years runner up were the Boston Bruins. Not much needs to be said about them. They’re a hard group to play. They take the body, they get under your skin and play in your face. The stars of the team both don’t back down and the big trio form one of the leagues best lines: The Perfection Line. With the hulking Zdeno Chara still and pain in the butt players up and down, it’s not shocking their balance got them to the finals and off to the great start this season.
The team that seemed destined to beat them at their own game were the St Louis Blues. One noticeable trait: they’re big. They may not all put you through the glass but Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson and Robert Bortuzzo all stand at least 6’3 and 210 pounds. To compare, only Justin Holl stands over 6’3 as well as Martin Marincin who really doesn’t count since he doesn’t play.
The heavy Blues D was able to slow the Bruins attack and while goaltending played a role, so did the mix of forwards who possessed not only speed and skill but plenty of grit and work ethic. Sure it’s pretty unique a guy like Alex Steen centres your 4th line. That’s serious depth. But they had balance. And with Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron, there was no shortage of skill.
You do not need all 12 forwards to display the same speed and skill traits. Add a few big tree trunks up front. Add some surly, miserable SOBs to the group. Yes, skill is great, but time has proven skill only doesn’t win.
Until the management group realizes this, we may be in for a long wait.
Absolutely, a guy like Wilson, the Tkachuk brothers, these are unique. Parayko, Dougie Hamilton on D. Brent Burns. These guys are hard to get, improbable to trade for. But say a Josh Anderson? A Wayne Simmonds as a rental? A David Savard? A Robert Bortuzzo on D? A Kyle Clifford on your 4th line even? Are these open the war chest of top end assets worthy? Likely not. These are just guys at quick thought. There’s probably others.
And none should require carving up the main nucleus of 5-6 guys. There’s still plenty of talent to offer up. It’s not about that though. It’s a willingness for management to do so.
Yes, there are cap considerations and the Leafs are up against it. But if the management team is as good as they say they are with finding ways to maneuver with the cap, they’ll find a solution to add and stay compliant.
Trust the process. Sure, that sounds as good on paper to do as much as the Leafs lineup card looks good on paper. Fact is the NHL and the Stanley Cup is probably the hardest trophy to win. How Chicago won 3 and Pittsburgh won back to back is amazing.
If the talent level with this group is so amazing as it’s been made out to be, they shouldn’t struggle this badly. But it is a struggle because there’s no balance. Skill is one element. It can be a difference maker, giving your team a special edge.
However it seems it’s the be all, end all of this group. It’s been touted as this new wave thinking. Something not done before. You can though be both innovative and still stick to the core of the game. Hard work, balance, heart, will, emotion, toughness, teamwork, battle level, fight with skill wins.
Until the team finds those elements, seeing 1 cup win may be a reach, never mind multiple cups based on skill and numbers alone.
We shall see if Dubas and company recognize this and are willing to take action. They have the right coach it seems so far to direct this band. Now it’s time to get some big brothers to watch over and support them like champion teams do.