4 Changes Maple Leafs’ Coach Sheldon Keefe Should Make This Season

Recently the Toronto Maple Leafs signed head coach Sheldon Keefe to a two-year contract extension. Prior to that extension, his contract was to expire after the 2021-22 season. As a result of that extension, he’s now signed to stay until the end of the 2023-24 season. 

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There’s no doubt Keefe’s record makes him deserving. Since he’s led the team, the Maple Leafs have put together a better-than-solid 62-29-12 record. That’s the best winning percentage in Maple Leafs’ franchise history for someone who’s coached 100 games. However, many Maple Leafs’ fans are not convinced. The knock against Keefe is that he’s been unable to push his team past the first round of either of the Stanley Cup playoff series he’s coached. 

What We Know about Keefe as a Head Coach

What we know about Keefe as a head coach is that he’s gained a reputation for being a highly-prepared, creative, and adaptable as a bench coach. We know he’s been successful all during his time coaching in the minors. We know that he’s had a long-time partnership with his general manager Kyle Dubas and that they are on the same hockey page. 

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Alana Davidson/NHLI via Getty Images)

We also know that Keefe seemed to be out coached during the playoffs. Many Maple Leafs’ fans believe Keefe should do some things differently. We are among them.

From our perspective, Keefe could do four things differently this season if he is to create a team strong enough to win during the playoffs. Although we are not hockey coaches ourselves, we do watch the games and wonder why certain decisions have been made from a logical perspective.

Changes We’d Like to See Keefe Make This Season 

Here are four changes we’d like to see Keefe enact as a head coach. We believe these changes would help his team become successful both during the regular season and throughout the playoffs.

Change #1: Reduce Matthews’ and Marner’s Ice Time

When we watched the team play and lose during the postseason, it seemed obvious that during the Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were completely devoid of physical and mental steam. We knew that Tavares was injured during Game 1 and now know that Matthews’ wrist was more distressed than we had imagined. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

However, the high-scoring twosome was also exhausted. We believe Keefe should, starting during the regular season, cut both these players’ ice time in an effort to keep them physically and mentally at their peak.   

Change #2: Show More Regular-Season Line Match-up Creativity

For as stubborn as former head coach Mike Babcock was in NOT playing Matthews and Marner together, Keefe is just as stubborn the other way. He never seems to separate them. And, with NHL scouting staffs as strong as they are, it’s easy enough to prepare for predictability. 

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We believe Keefe should be more creative building new player partnerships. In the top six, we believe he should give Marner more time with Tavares and Matthews more time with Nylander. Such moves offer additional options, especially during the playoffs if the Matthews and Marner or the Tavares and Nylander pairings aren’t producing. 

During this preseason, with Matthews unable to play, the team’s total offense still produced. There’s no reason they should not continue to produce. There are good players on this team. We’d love to see more of them more of the time.

Change #3: Cut or Eliminate Marner’s Penalty-Kill Time

We know that Marner is effective as a penalty killer and that he likes playing on the penalty kill. But we also believe that doesn’t mean he should play there. In short, as we noted earlier, we believe Marner gets too much total ice time. Cutting his penalty-kill time could be one way to keep him fresher. 

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Obviously, Marner brings an offensive element to the penalty kill an opposition power play must consider, but it also costs him two or three minutes each game of hard ice time. We believe resting him for those minutes would produce more effective results over the long run. Use his offensive talents more five-on-five. 

In short, Marner’s being paid over $10 million each season to create offense. Let other players grow their abilities to kill penalties. Don’t risk a Marner injury killing a penalty. Or, if Marner does get penalty-kill time, make it near the end of the penalty where he can quickly jump to offense or when the opposition’s top power-play unit is tired or its second power-play unit is on the ice.

Change #4: Create Two Equal Power-Play Units

Rather than loading up one power play, create two equally competitive units. Play the units as equally as possible. Change these units regularly without any player having played more than a minute of ice time. 

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The power-play has shown signs of creativity this preseason under the direction of new coach Spencer Carbery. If the power play can start to work, it could be the single boost that moves the Maple Leafs over the top. Before, it was easy to defend redundancy because the same thing happened over and over. 

Two different groups would offer two different looks. It would make the Maple Leafs less predictable than last season. New movement, new positioning, and more creativity would provide the team additional options so that, if one unit weren’t producing, the other might. Competition between two power-play units might also keep the top players fresher for shifts following any penalty that doesn’t end in a power-play goal.   

Squeezing the Juice from Matthews and Marner is Not a Viable Strategy

We both understand the reasons a coach would play his best players as much as possible; however, that strategy can also backfire. Last season Maple Leafs’ fans saw the impact of playing Matthews and Marner until they dropped. Even when William Nylander was the best player on the ice for the team, his minutes didn’t increase.

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander seems to be in Auston Matthews’ background

For this team to be successful, we believe the bottom six units must actually add value to the team’s success rather than being time-killers until a top-six line jumps on the ice. This is a season where we believe the depth lines must build identities, where special teams must improve, and where the twosome of Matthews and Marner must become more than simply scoring machines on a team that goes nowhere during the playoffs.

We believe coach Keefe can move this team to success. Toronto’s a tough market, but it’s also a market ready to explode with support if the team can show the kind of progress we believe it could have. 

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Can these players be constructed into a successful team? That’s the job Keefe has moving forward.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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