Maple Leafs Finding Success Under Keefe

When Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, many wondered if he could turn the team around. Because of his shared vision with general manager Kyle Dubas, we knew that the Maple Leafs would be in good hands going forward. What we didn’t expect was the turn around to happen so quickly.

The team needed a change. From player usage, to the Jason Spezza issue and the now infamous “Mitch Marner work ethic list”, the players seemed to have had enough of Babcock.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Keefe is only four games into his tenure, but he has three wins against the Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings. The Maple Leafs look rejuvenated and proved to bewere the better team in three of the four games (the only loss was to the Buffalo Sabres). What’s noticeable in their success under Keefe, are the things that he is doing that Babcock didn’t.

Personal Level, One-on One’s

If there’s one thing that makes Keefe different from his predecessor, it’s his relationship with the players on a personal level. The respect between player and coach goes both ways. Jeremy Bracco, who played under Keefe with the Toronto Marlies, said, “You go through a wall for a guy like that.” It’s not just Bracco, many Marlies players have shown their enthusiasm and respect for the new head coach.

Maple Leafs Bracco Canadiens Lehkonen
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco has high praise for former Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

The fact that the players have spoken so highly of their new coach implies their willingness to fight hard each game. That motivation didn’t exist with Babcock. If there’s one thing that brings a team together, it’s a solid rapport between player and coach.

The fact that the majority of the players on the roster have played and/ or won a championship under Keefe with the Marlies is a bonus in terms of familiarity. This bond is what makes individuals grow and what turns teams into champions.

Utilizing Player’s Talents

The one thing that jumps out about the on-ice production under Keefe is that they have found their offensive game again. Against the Avalanche, the Maple Leafs pulled it together after allowing a goal from Nathan MacKinnon 31 seconds in. They responded with four straight goals and won the game. While their positioning and defense played a key role in that win, the team’s creativity and skill are being utilized properly.

Toronto Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

That wasn’t the case with Babcock. He didn’t adjust to his team’s abilities. He wanted more structure in a “grind it out” kind of game. The problem is that it won’t work when your team is built on speed and skill. Keefe is making sure that he is playing everyone to their skillset. The offensive numbers speak for themselves. Here’s a comparison of both coaches at 5-on-5.

Category Maple Leafs Under Babcock Maple Leafs Under Keefe
Point % .478 .750
xGF/60 2.19 3.18
xGA/60 2.3 2.11
GF 47 13
GA 52 8
HDGF 28 6
HDGA 37 3

Even though it is a small sample size, the numbers are completely different from Babcock’s. With this offensive outburst, the Leafs are generating more chances in front of the net and in the slot. To support that, here are two heat maps from the Maple Leafs’ last two wins.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Offensive Zone Heat Map vs. Colorado Avalanche. Visual from Natural Stat Trick.
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Offensive Zone Heat Map vs. Detroit Red Wings. Visual from Natural Stat Trick.

The problem the team faced before was that they weren’t getting to the high danger areas enough. A lot of shots were coming from the point and from the outside. Keefe addressed that issue and the team has embraced the change.

He has also made it evident that the top players will be leaned on more given the team’s talent. Even the defense jumping into the play is becoming more of a strategy than before. The more they have the puck, the less time they have to spend in their own end and the defense is doing a better job defensively of providing coverage in their own end and initiating better breakouts.

The offense is starting to get going again and that’s a great sign where a team with so much talent was being stifled.

Skill Development Continues

Keefe has made it a point to grow and develop the team’s talent. Like any coach, he wants to get the most out of his players:

“I come from a background where development is a priority,” Keefe said in an article by TSN’s Mark Masters. “And while performance is the priority here, continuing to develop the players is important. I’m trying to start at stage one for what ‘d like to do and what I’d like to incorporate and I’ve had a lot of success with the Marlies in utilizing the resources that we have around us, in particular, with the player development staff. They do a terrific job. They know what my expectations are in terms of working the skills within the structure and I thought it was a great way to introduce some of the concepts we want our players to focus on offensively.”

Sheldon Keefe
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Even at the highest level of, there is nothing wrong with developing one’s skills and introducing new tactics for offense. It will go a long way for a team looking to keep up the positive results.

Making It Enjoyable

While all players need to take their job seriously, there’s also a point when they need to enjoy themselves. Before the change, the Maple Leafs were not enjoying the game. With Keefe running the show, this team seems more invested in their work.

Keefe has developed a relationship with his team. Babcock’s system was all about work ethic, but it was just that – how hard you worked and how hard you competed. While those factors are important, so is fun. Keefe has adopted the idea of playing music during practice to help loosen up his players and create a positive energy.

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

When you abide by a strict schedule, players tend to forget to enjoy the moment. The positive energy they now feel will help them become more motivated and focused. No one is benefiting from this change more than Tyson Barrie who has three goals and five points since Babcock was let go.

When the players are engaged and are enjoying themselves, it creates a positive atmosphere for everyone.

There are a lot of positive signs for the Maple Leafs under Keefe. They are turning a new page and learning to play in a system that is better suited for their skill level. As a result, they are on track to turn their season around.

Statistics and visuals from Natural Stat Trick.

Statistics and information are accurate before game time on Nov. 30.