Reports out of Toronto say that Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe is preaching defense as he gets his players ready for the Qualifying Round. Say what? Isn’t that why former coach Mike Babcock was fired last November? Wasn’t Keefe hired as his replacement to install a more high-octane, attack-first approach? Reports at the time said Babcock was too defense-oriented.
During the 2019-20 regular season, Keefe’s Maple Leafs were one of the league’s highest-scoring teams. Their 238 goals were only seven fewer than the top-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning. It was just about 1/3 more than their Qualification Round opponent Columbus Blue Jackets. Granted, the Maple Leafs also allowed 227 goals, fifth most in the league and 40 more than the Blue Jackets.
What We’re Writing About Keefe’s Pre-QR Prep at THW
My colleague at The Hockey Writers, Kevin Armstrong quotes Coach Keefe as saying, “We have to be a five-man unit how we defend in each zone and a lot of that work falls on the forwards.” He also said, “We’ve got to push each other to get better in every area of the game, particularly on the defensive side of the puck…”
Another columnist from THW who goes by the handle “The Old Prof” (no, Jim, I won’t reveal your secret identity), recently wrote about Sheldon Keefe’s Up-Tempo, Puck-Control Identity.
The [Maple Leafs’] season was goofy because, although the roster didn’t change much, there were two different teams – one coached by Babcock and the second coached by Keefe – with different identities. In the end, clearly Keefe’s up-tempo, puck-control offense pushed the Maple Leafs over the top into the playoffs.The Old Prof
Armstrong reports that Keefe has organized his training camp scrimmages in an unusual way. Rather than putting his top line on one team and the second line on the other (to balance the teams), he’s loaded up one team with the top-six forwards.
The other team, featuring the third and fourth lines and top defensemen, is tasked with providing a difficult group for the star players to penetrate. (Doesn’t that second team sound like a Blue Jackets wanna-be group?)
What Others Are Saying About Keefe’s Practices
It’s not just my colleagues at The Hockey Writers who are noting Keefe’s focus on defense leading up to the Qualification Round. Reporting in the Toronto Sun, Lance Hornby quotes Keefe as saying the House Divided scrimmages are unconventional. “Our top guys have to get used to playing guys that make it hard on them.” (from ‘Leafs trying to keep it real during scrimmage tourney,’ Toronto Sun, 07/16/2020)
Keefe echoed that sentiment in an article by Dave McCarthy or NHL.com “…our top two lines have to get used to playing against lines that make it hard on them.” “Hard on them” seems to be the theme. Keefe wants his scrimmages to show his top forwards what they can expect to face when playing the Blue Jackets.
Mark Masters of TSN.com titled an article this week “Defence and more defence Keefe’ s main focus in camp.” He quotes Keefe thusly: “I don’t think it’s any secret that we got to be a lot better defensively…”
The Globe and Mail’s Joshua Clipperton quotes Keefe as saying, “There’s no area of our game defensively that we were satisfied with.” (from ‘Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe gets first real chance to teach with Toronto,’ Globe and Mail, 07/14/2020) And Keefe’s not the only Maple Leaf thinking “more defense.” Toronto defenseman Tyson Barrie: “[W]e’ve got to be better defensively.”
And then there’s this article from CBC.ca: “Defensive gains the focus as Leafs coach Keefe uses 1st real teaching opportunity.”
Babcock Fired/Keefe Hired: Reports From the Moment
Babcock was dumped by Toronto last Nov. 20, with the team’s record at 9-10-4 and suffering a six-game winless streak. Remember, too, that at the time he was fired, Babcock still had four years to go on his eight-year, $60 million contract with Toronto.
Generally, the press covering the Maple Leafs was enthusiastic about replacing Babcock with Keefe. And not just the press. Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas and team captain John Tavares sounded very enthusiastic in an ESPN.com article when Keefe was hired.
In a separate article, ESPN’s Emily Kaplan explained that Toronto’s management “thought Babcock’s message had grown stale with the players…”
TSN chimed in, too:
“Keefe said his initial priority after taking over in November was to get the highly skilled Leafs playing to their offensive potential and, sure enough, the team led the league in scoring after the coaching change. But getting a group that has long struggled defensively.”Mark Masters, TSN.com
CTV News, in an article by Katherine DeClerq, reported that Toronto team president Brendan Shanahan said the Maple Leafs under Babcock had not “played up to their expectations this year.” Shanahan cited attention to detail as an element that was missing in the team.
Perhaps James Tanner from Fansided said it most succinctly: “The Leafs were built to play a high octane game, and Babcock preached defense.”
One of Babcock’s former players, defenseman Mike Commodore (a former Blue Jacket), exploded on Twitter praising the firing. Rob Williams of the Daily Hive put together a string of Commodore’s hate-filled tweets. (Warning: Commodore did not hold back – some tweets are explicit.)
Commodore played for Babcock in 2002-03 with the Anaheim Ducks. Babcock sent him to the minors with the claim that Commodore was out of shape coming to training camp. Later, in 2011-12, Commodore signed as a free agent with Detroit, despite the fact that Babcock was the team’s coach. He lasted 17 games wearing the winged wheel before being shipped to Tampa Bay for “future considerations.”
Speaking of players, did you know that Keefe and Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella have a personal history? Keefe played parts of three seasons under Torts in Tampa Bay. (from ‘Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe has history with John Tortorella, some good, some bad, some about to be written,’ The Star, 07/16/2020) Rumor has it that their relationship wasn’t the greatest, but certainly not on a par with Babcock-Commodore.
Can Keefe’s Practices Mimic Blue Jackets?
During an NHL season, there’s not much time for teaching and practices. Between the travel and the number of games, coaches can tweak and make adjustments, but unlike junior, NCAA, and minor league hockey, there isn’t time to really coach the players and run (seemingly endless) drills. But by the time players make it to the NHL. they are generally considered to be beyond that level.
Nonetheless, reports out of Toronto indicate that Keefe is trying to change the basic nature of the way the Maple Leafs played for him during the regular season. And doing it in just a few weeks. Matching his top offensive forwards against his defense-oriented players may sound like good preparation for meeting the Blue Jackets next month, but is it? Can Toronto’s third and fourth lines truly replicate what those star forwards will face in the upcoming best-of-five series?
We’ll see what happens starting Aug. 2, but despite Keefe’s current lesson plan, will his teaching take hold against the Blue Jackets? Or will Toronto revert to that “high-octane” game for which they were built? Regardless of whether they play run-and-gun or defensively responsible hockey, the Maple Leafs are likely to have their hands full with Columbus coming to town.
Pete Bauer is both a hockey fan and player. As a columnist for The Hockey Writers, he covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, NCAA hockey, and NHL trends, statistics, and history. He is also the author of over a dozen books on photography, digital imaging, and graphics, including “Photoshop CC for Dummies.”