Maple Leafs Need a New Plan: Too Much Wasted Effort, No Reward At All

Well, back to the drawing board. What we know after last night’s game is that, should the Toronto Maple Leafs move past the Columbus Blue Jackets into the playoff round, it won’t be because they swept their opponent. Last night, in what must have been totally frustrating, the Maple Leafs dumped Game 1 to the defensive-minded Blue Jackets 2-0.

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Fredrik Andersen made a single mistake and a goal got past him and the Blue Jackets added an empty-netter to double their scoring. That was it.

Will This Series Test Sheldon Keefe’s Coaching Style?

Part of the Maple Leafs’ trouble last night was that their offensive plan didn’t work and they couldn’t adapt to the Blue Jackets’ game. There’s no reason to believe that, should the Maple Leafs play the same way in Game 2, the result would be any different. That leaves Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe to design a new plan for attacking a smotheringly successful Columbus defensive. How will the team respond?

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

As I noted in a recent post, when Blue Jackets’ head coach John Tortorella coached Keefe as a player he called him “one of the most competitive players I’ve coached. I didn’t coach him a lot of games. But when he played, he knew one way, and that was to play hard.”

If that’s so, and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t, a frustrating Game 1 loss like the team experienced on Sunday must make Keefe’s blood boil. Will this series become a litmus test of his coaching style?

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As the pressure of playoff hockey engulfs the entire team, it will be interesting to see how Keefe reacts to this new “grind” as a coach. How will he balance the drivenness Tortorella believes he has and the openness he’s worked to foster?

Keefe seems to be, as a coach, a blend of both driven-ness and open-ness. From a hockey coach’s standpoint, he isn’t as detail-oriented as former coach Mike Babcock was. Keefe believes details are important because they help a team win, but he’s not hung up on them.

In an article written just after he took over the head coaching job from Babcock, Keefe noted, “there’s a high level of randomness that happens in this sport. The game is very unpredictable and very dynamic. You need to have dynamic thinkers. So there has to be a certain level of freedom and trust that the players are going to be able to adjust on the fly.” (from “Hockey’s moment of reckoning is personal for Sheldon Keefe. A survivor of abuse, he opts to lead with positivity, empathy, Rosie DiManno, The Star, 22/12/19).

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Former Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

I’m a Keefe fan, and I buy into the Keefe and Kyle Dubas philosophy of how a team should be built. Still, I’m curious to see how he’ll balance the structure the team needs to win and his belief that skilled players should be free to respond to the randomness of the game.

Matthews Has 6 Shots, But No Goals

As I noted in my title to this post, one can’t fault the Maple Leafs’ work ethic. However, they seemed to their waste efforts by trying the same thing without success. On the other side of the puck, the Blue Jackets seemed effectively efficient. Auston Matthews’ night was a case in point.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Matthews was covered like a blanket all game long by opposing center Pierre-Luc Dubois but still managed six shots. It wasn’t for Matthews’ lack of hard work, but Dubois simply did his job well. Matthews had one great scoring chance, but the flying puck was snagged by goalie Joonas Korpisalo’s glove.

Dubois is now the Blue Jackets top center, and he was a key reason the Blue Jackets won Game 1 of this qualifying series. He used his size, great skating, and smothering skills to help neutralize the player (Matthews) who, in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, had been chosen two spots ahead of him.

For those who recall, the Maple Leafs chose Matthews with their first pick in the draft; Patrik Laine was chosen second by the Winnipeg Jets; but, the Blue Jackets surprised their fans by choosing Dubois third instead of favorite Jesse Puljujarvi. (Puljujavri was picked fourth by the Edmonton Oilers). Obviously, history suggests that Columbus choose wisely.  

Related: Auston Matthews: Ready to Lead His Maple Leafs into the Postseason

Matthews, who logged 24:38 of ice time, simply couldn’t get free to create the kind of sustained offense or the open space that’s been his trademark all season. His effort was there, but it simply seemed wasted.

Where Do the Maple Leafs Go From Here?

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella, in speaking about his goalie, noted: “He was a big part of the win.” Tortorella added, “Not a lot of wasted motion.”

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That phrase “not a lot of wasted motion” seemed to be a key to the success the Blue Jackets had against the Maple Leafs in Game 1. Columbus simply didn’t waste motion. On the other side of the ice, the Maple Leafs seemed to expend a lot of energy without getting much done. The team worked hard but had absolutely nothing on the score sheet to show for it.

One game review noted that goalie Korpisalo got lots of help from a “smothering” Blue Jackets defense, which blocked 18 shots and didn’t allow a shot during the last seven minutes of the game. Perhaps it’s accurate to say that the Blue Jackets defense “didn’t allow a shot;” however, it also seemed to me that the Maple Leafs didn’t take shots they had and tried to set up for the shots that weren’t there.

Joonas Korpisalo Columbus Blue Jackets
Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I’m sure that Keefe will watch plenty of film to come up with a plan to overcome the Blue Jackets defense, but can it be successful? For one game, last season’s giant killers once again played true to script.