Maple Leafs’ Coaching Change Completely Alters the 2019-20 Season

When the Maple Leafs began their season, they were coached by the legendary Mike Babcock. Babcock was signed in 2015 after success with the Detroit Red Wings and on the international stage. Arguably one of the best coaches in NHL history, the Maple Leafs signed him to an eight-year, $50 million deal prior to the 2015-16 season. 

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The team had regular-season success under Babcock but never seemed to be able to beat the dreaded Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, during the 2018-19 Playoffs, the Maple Leafs were playing well and led their first-round series against the Bruins. Still, they were eliminated in Game 7 in Boston.

At the season-ending press conference, Dubas surprisingly didn’t confirm that Babcock would return as head coach in 2019-20. At the time, it seemed odd and generated rumors that Dubas might wish to make a coaching change.

Mike Babcock Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Furthermore, Babcock’s former Red Wings boss Ken Holland had recently been hired as the Edmonton Oilers’ general manager, which prompted speculation that Holland might want to bring Babcock to Edmonton. In May, Dubas announced Babcock would return.

Still, the real offseason buzz wasn’t Babcock. It was the more pressing business of signing restricted free agent Mitch Marner and concern about how difficult that might be. Fans will recall it was just that – difficult.

2019-20 Maple Leafs Season Begins

During the 2018-19 season, the Maple Leafs finished third in the Atlantic Division with a 46-28-8 record. However, their 2019-20 season didn’t begin well. Frankly, the team seemed unmotivated and didn’t play well under Babcock’s leadership. After 23 games, a 9-10-4 record, and a six-game losing streak, Dubas fired Babcock.

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Although he had been the team’s coach for almost five seasons and the organization still owed him more than $20 million over the remainder of his contract, losing in Toronto is never good. That’s what spelled Babcock’s demise.

Dubas then hired Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. It wasn’t a surprise because he had been the coach-in-waiting for several seasons. Dubas and Keefe were known to be joined at the hip because they had worked together for so long.

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Specifically, they grew their skillset together with two organizations. Between 2012-15, when Dubas was the general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Keefe coached the team. In 2015, when Dubas became the Marlies’ general manager, he hired Keefe to coach that team. In Nov. 2019, Keefe’s wait was over – he was promoted to the NHL.

Keefe’s Maple Leafs Got Off to a Record-Breaking Start

It didn’t take long for anyone to see the difference under Keefe. The Maple Leafs’ play immediately improved. In fact, the first game under new head coach Keefe was their best of the season.

Specifically, during that Nov. 21 game, the Maple Leafs skated into Phoenix and beat a strong Arizona Coyotes team 3-1. It was a statement game for the players, and when captain John Tavares presented Keefe with the puck after the game, that might have been the biggest statement of all. The Maple Leafs were, literally overnight, a different team.

Different players showed up in that first game. Defenseman Tyson Barrie, who was known as an offensive defenseman with the Colorado Avalanche, scored his first goal in 24 games. He was a disappearing act under Babcock. When the Maple Leafs’ defense went down to injuries towards the end of the season, Barrie led a makeshift young squad that kept his team in games.

Tyson Barrie Toronto Maple Leafs
Tyson Barrie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Keefe carried Pierre Engvall, a young Marlies player, in his suitcase to Arizona and Engvall scored a shorthanded goal. He became a regular over the remainder of the season.

Finally, Auston Matthews – whose ice time had been limited under Babcock – scored the team’s 3-0 goal in the third period. Over the remainder of the 2019-20 season, he began an assault on the Rocket Richard Trophy and seemed able to reach 60 goals. He improved as a two-way player as well.

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The team’s six-game losing streak, that ended Babcock’s coaching tenure in Toronto, was over. Yet, the record-breaking best was yet to come, and Maple Leafs fans didn’t have to wait long. In Keefe’s first 20 games as head coach, the team had a 15-4-1 record. It was the best start under any new head coach in the franchise’s 102-season history, (from “By The Numbers: Sheldon Keefe’s Historic Start With Maple Leafs,” Jordan Horrobin, Forbes Magazine, 01/06/20).

The Maple Leafs in the New Year

By the New Year, the Maple Leafs had overcome their early deficit under Babcock and had suddenly gone from a below-.5oo team to a team on pace to reach 100 points. Under Babcock, the Maple Leafs would have landed around 78 points, and they would have – oddly, with the league’s suspension – been sitting out during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

However, after such a strong start with Keefe, injuries eventually brought them down. With the season now suspended because of COVID-19, the Maple Leafs finished the 39-year-old Keefe’s first coaching season with a 27-15-5 record in 47 games.

The injury bug hit the Maple Leafs hard during the second half of the season. Andreas Johnsson missed most of December and in February the 25-year-old had surgery on his right knee. He’s still out. Russian rookie Ilya Mikheyev suffered a lacerated wrist and has been out since December.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The defense was decimated. Jake Muzzin missed most of January with his first injury then missed most of February. Cody Ceci went down to an ankle injury and missed 14 games. Star Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly broke his foot in January and was out for almost two months. He played a single game before the season was suspended.

The rest is history.

Babcock Out, Keefe In; Where’s the Team Now?

When Keefe first took over as coach, the team beat everyone. Of the team’s first 15 wins, 10 were on the road, and eight were against teams in a playoff position.

Keefe did at least two things differently than his predecessor: First, he increased his best players’ time on the ice. Matthews, for example, now averages more than 20 minutes a game. Second, he plays a more up-tempo game that’s suited for the players Dubas likes to sign – smaller, intelligent, driven Nick Robertson-types who might not be on other teams’ radar.

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Although there’s no news yet about what will happen over the remainder of the 2019-20 season, where that puts the Maple Leafs going forward will probably be best answered in 2020-21.

I’ve enjoyed Keefe’s version of the team, and I’m looking forward to the Maple Leafs’ future – whenever that might unfold.