Keefe’s Maple Leafs Facing Some Difficult Realities

Count me among those who believed Sheldon Keefe’s tenure would reap immediate rewards to the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team and the city. I was excited when Keefe was named the new head coach of the Maple Leafs because I was anxious to see what might happen when general manager Kyle Dubas was able to engage his vision.

Related: Ex-Maple Leafs’ Mike Babcock: Stubborn, Confusing, and Out of Work

Not that I believe Dubas has made every choice well, but I have come to believe he’s tapped into a different way to play than former head coach Mike Babcock was.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs former head coach Mike Babcock (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

And, it started so well – the roster tweaks worked. Players who had been languishing suddenly came to life. The team had a pulse: the players were trying. When the first loss came, I told myself that it had to happen sooner or later.

My First Discouragement

The first time I blinked was during the third period of the 6-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the team just quit and left their goalie hung out to dry. The Flyers wasted no time in peppering a besieged Frederik Andersen with one goal after another.

I was reminded of another 6-1 loss on Nov. 16 to the Pittsburgh Penguins where the team simply left young Kasimir Kaskisuo on his own during his NHL debut. That troubled me because I could see quitting on Babcock, but not on a kid excited to be making his first NHL start.

Related: Maple Leafs: Culture, Confidence and a Cure

Against the Flyers, they quit on a valued teammate – Frederik Andersen. As I say, I blinked and realized that reality had set in. It wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to take work to become successful. There would be growing pains and setbacks.

And, that’s where we are right now with this highly talented, under-performing team. It’s been four steps forward (games won) and three steps back (games lost). But, the big picture calls for these difficult realities to be addressed and solved. In this post, I want to outline what I believe are three difficult realities the Maple Leafs must face and solve during their final 52 games of their season.

Difficult Reality #1: Goaltending Situation Must Be Settled

After the laydown in Philadelphia, when the team allowed five goals in the last 10 minutes of the third period, Keefe was asked if he would give Andersen both starts in back-to-back games. His response was “No.”

“That’s not something we think is in Fred’s best interest. It would be selfish of us to do this at this point, I mean there’s a big picture in mind here and right now our focus is to try to get our game as set up as good as possible so that it doesn’t really matter who’s in the net.”

Apparently things changed after the loss to the Flyers. On the flight home, it was reported that Andersen pleaded his case with the coaching staff. He wanted to fight through it with the guys. The coaches capitulated and he played in back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 6-7, 2017. That’s rare: there were 43 back-to-backs between now and Dec. 3-4, 2019, and Andersen didn’t play twice in any of them.

Frederik Andersen Toronto Maple Leafs
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In truth, Andersen played a great game against the Colorado Avalanche in the back-to-back. It was an amazing hockey game, with two really good teams going at each other. Andersen still lost.

Andersen’s a stand-up guy who wanted his team to know he was with them despite the fact they quit on him. Will that act turn into a moral victory that solidifies the team? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that the team doesn’t trust its backup goalie enough to start him. That difficult reality needs to be engaged.

Difficult Reality #2: Changes Have Only Begun

When Keefe took over the Maple Leafs, the team was playing old-school-Babcock hockey. In addition, given the revelations coming forth about how Babcock made player decisions about who to play and how players should be treated, one would have to guess the dressing room was to some extent toxic. There are no doubt wounds to heal. Keefe must address both a change of vision and a change in team culture.

Related: Ex-Maple Leafs Mike Babcock Teaches All Coaches a Valuable Lesson

As my THW colleague Nic Turner wrote on Dec. 3, Keefe is working to implement the collective vision he shares with general manager Kyle Dubas. That vision will take time to implement and solidify.

What we know about Keefe is that he won’t engage Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If something isn’t working, he’ll change it. Already he’s made big changes to the underperforming lineup Babcock previously employed. He also seems to consistently make in-game tweaks.

Specifically, the so-called ‘Negotiation Line’ of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander was a change, and Nylander’s been playing some great hockey. Keefe also changed two of his three defensive pairings.

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Tyson Barrie is now playing on the top-pairing with Morgan Rielly, and Cody Ceci has been matched with Travis Dermott. Those are beginnings, but the difficult reality is that more changes must be made to fully implement the new vision Keefe and Dubas share.

Difficult Reality #3: Matthews Is Struggling Under Keefe

On Wednesday night, Matthews played game seven for his new coach. The results are not rousingly successful. Both Keefe and Matthews are trying to figure each other out, and making that match work is one of the biggest difficult realities both the coach and the highest-paid Maple Leafs player face. Matthews has scored just two goals and two assists in the seven games Keefe has coached.

Perhaps it was Matthews’ own frustration pouring out after Tuesday night’s Flyers game, or perhaps it was exactly as Matthews noted. He called his team out, noting that they quit and that such on-ice behavior was unacceptable. Undoubtedly, there are levels of frustration for Matthews. I don’t doubt his veracity, but I also believe his own lack of success probably weighs on his comments.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keefe, as he typically does, defended Matthews, “If anything, I know his numbers haven’t been there. I think he scored in his first two games (playing for the new coach) and I thought he played excellent in Detroit. He didn’t get any points but he dominated the hockey game.” (from ‘Uninspired Matthews mirrors Maple Leafs’ difficulties,’ Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun, 12/04/19)

Keefe wants Matthews to focus less on scoring and more on a “concern on every shift, every puck, every play.” He added, “We’ve got really good players that expect to score and want to make a difference. The reality is, you don’t score every shift and a lot of shifts you have to concern yourself with what’s going on. That’s not just for Auston, that’s for our whole team.”

In short, creating a space where Matthews can flourish as both a scorer and a leader who exudes attitude, passion, and energy is one of Keefe’s difficult realities.

Hitting the Road with the Maple Leafs

Perhaps a long road trip is a good thing for the team. If so, the Maple Leafs have one coming. After two nights off, they play the St. Louis Blues on Saturday, the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, the Calgary Flames on Thursday, and end the road trip a week after it started against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.

Related: Barrie, Engvall Lead Maple Leafs to 3-1 Win over Coyotes

Fortunately, there are no back-to-back games in that mix. Given that Keefe started his tenure as Maple Leafs coach with three-straight road victories, it might be good to hit the road again.