Around winning teams there’s a certain culture – a mentality that drive each and every individual in the room to go out there and lay everything on the line for one another. That was something that was missing to some extent in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing and it showed in their play on the ice throughout the first 23 games of their 2019-20 season.
It wasn’t immediate, but over time it looked as though the team gave up on head coach Mike Babcock. Players weren’t buying into the system he had in place and it was almost as if he lost the ears of the team one player at a time until they went on an a six-game losing streak that would eventually lead to his demise.
Since then, Sheldon Keefe has come in and made some significant changes both in the lineup and with the mentality of the team. Stories have surfaced on Babcock’s treatment of the team and Keefe is in a position to turn that around given the opportunity. But where it starts is confidence and culture.
The team needs to believe they can get it done and they need to play for each other rather that just individually – something Alexander Ovechkin alluded to prior to playing the Maple Leafs earlier in the season.
Looking for a Culture Shift
Under Babcock, there were a number of questions early in the season. What was wrong with Tyson Barrie? Why wasn’t Jason Spezza getting the respect he deserved? And, if nothing else, why in the world were the Maple Leafs under achieving this season?
Details of Babcock’s mistreatment of Marner earlier in his career came to light shortly after the Maple Leafs canned their once-heralded head coach. While it surely wasn’t the only reason behind the Maple Leafs’ dismissal of Babcock, it certainly didn’t hurt their case when it came to firing him.
On top of that, we’ve seen the shift in coaching and what is deemed acceptable of NHL head coaches. Babcock is out. Bill Peters is out. And the list is continuing to grow with every passing day. So, what the Maple Leafs needed was a culture shift – the same as what is driving coaching changes across the league.
Enter Keefe. He’s a coach that caters more to the new generation of players – the young, high-flying talent that is feeding the pipeline of the NHL today. It’s exactly what the Maple Leafs are made up of – Barrie, Marner, William Nylander, Auston Matthews. And Keefe brings more of a fatherly tough love to the organization’s young stars that the demanding lack of ownership that came from Babcock’s reign in Toronto.
It’s pretty simple to see the change on the faces of the Maple Leafs’ players. Smiles litter the team’s bench on any given night now and the excitement that they’ve had for players like Barrie and Pierre Engvall to score their first goals – whether it be first with the Maple Leafs or first in the NHL – the team is bonding in a way that is more visible to the outside eye.
It’s pretty simple. Toronto is a fishbowl city when it comes to the NHL and it can get tiresome at times playing or coaching under that kind of microscope. For a guy like Barrie, it may have been as simple as finding that shift in style of play and regaining the trust of his coach – even if it meant starting with fresh guy behind the bench.
“It’s been a crazy week, but a fun one, nonetheless,” said Barrie following the coaching change a couple weeks ago, according to Mark Masters. “I think all the boys are in good spirits and looking forward to a fresh start.”
But along with a culture shift, comes new found confidence. It’s something the team seemed to be lacking early in the season.
Finding Confidence in Coaching Change
Barrie wasn’t the only one that found support in the coaching change. Guys like Ilya Mikheyev, Spezza and even Nylander have dazzled under the team’s new leader.
Mikheyev has seen increased ice-time since the Keefe takeover and has been awarded the opportunity to play on the team’s rotating top line with Tavares and Zach Hyman – who could be replaced by Marner when he returns from injury.
Nylander is another player that has seemingly played more driven with Keefe behind the bench. The 23-year-old, who struggled last season, has three goals and give points in his last five games and has only been held scoreless in one contest since Keefe took over.
On top of that, Nylander has seen increased ice-time under Keefe, including a season-high 23:10 on Nov. 29 in Buffalo against the Sabres. Because of the opportunities, Nylander has 11 goals and 22 points through the team’s first 28 games and is on pace for a career-high 32 goals and 64 points assuming he plays a full 82-game season.
One of the other many criticisms of Babcock was his lack of interest in playing his top players for extended minutes even when the team was down, and especially in their last two playoff series against the Bruins.
However, early on in Keefe’s coaching career, he’s shown no sign of giving his top players time off. Like Nylander, Matthews has seen increased playing time under the new head coach. In Buffalo, on Nov. 29, Matthews also played a season-high 24:48 with the team playing from behind most of the game.
While he did finish a minus-three, his usage throughout the game showed Maple Leafs’ fans that they were going to be seeing a lot more of Matthews as the season goes on.
Keefe’s confidence in his players has also translated into their confidence in him. From what it seems early on, the players have bought into his system and it’s one that has activated the defensemen in ways that they haven’t been in past years – with forwards understanding the importance of getting back to support their teammates.
Even Michael Hutchinson has seen confidence renewed in him under Keefe – even if he does remain winless this season. Following the coaching change, he was recalled and got himself another start – the loss on Nov. 29 in Buffalo. And while he lost, general manager Kyle Dubas shared his thoughts on Hutchinson hammering home that the team still has confidence in their back-up.
“We’re always looking at the trade market every day for every position,” said Dubas, according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “What I would really like more than anything is for us to put together a good game in front of Michael [Hutchinson] here in the coming stretch and give him opportunity as well.”
While it’s a small sample size, the Babcock-for-Keefe move has made an immediate difference with the Maple Leafs. A team still on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, it may have been the beginning of a major cultural shift in NHL coaching and one that could continue to benefit the young Maple Leafs squad.
Either way, call it a bandaid fix or the ultimate cure to a bleeding squad, the Maple Leafs have changed the way they’ve played over the past couple of weeks. Should they continue to push towards the playoffs, they will look back on this change – this shift in culture and confidence – as a turning point to their season.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.