In the first five games of Sheldon Keefe’s tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs, we have seen considerable changes. The Leafs are off to a 3-1-1 start under Keefe and look like a revitalized group. It is evident that a few systematic changes to the teams’ style of play have paid immediate dividends.
What we do know, is that general manager Kyle Dubas now has a guy that shares a similar hockey-mind, and coaching philosophies. Keefe has the Maple Leafs playing to their strengths now, and has implemented a system that truly brings out the incredible talent the roster possesses.
What has made Keefe’s transition from the American Hockey League to the NHL so seamless, is his familiarity with the players. He has coached several of the Maple Leafs during his time with the Toronto Marlies over the past couple of years. Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore, Frederik Gauthier, Dmytro Timashov, Pierre Engvall, Justin Holl, and Travis Dermott were all on the Marlies in 2018 when they won the Calder Cup.
It is the transition to a familiar system focused on puck-possession, skill, and speed that has re-energized the Maple Leafs. Under Mike Babcock, the Leafs were asked to do some things that did not play to their strengths. He wanted more control over their play, and asked players to do things they were not comfortable with.
As soon as Keefe stepped in as the bench boss, the players noticed a difference in his preferred style of play immediately. When Auston Matthews was asked how he would describe Keefe as a coach, he gave an interesting answer.
Increased Playing Time for Stars
In the short time period as coach of the Maple Leafs, we have seen Keefe increase the playing time for studs Matthews and John Tavares. They have both set season-highs in ice time since Keefe took over coaching duties.
This past Friday versus the Buffalo Sabres, Matthews played a career-high 24:48. He relishes the opportunity, saying after the game Friday “I want to be out there, I feel like I can be a difference out there. We had our chances, couldn’t capitalize on them”. While Keefe was quick to point out after the game that he perhaps did give Matthews too much ice time, it shows that he is committed to giving his best players the most ice time (something we did not see with Babcock).
Last season, we saw many experts and fans of Leafs nation questioning Babcock’s management of ice time. He was known as a stubborn coach, who was often hard on his players and asked a lot out of them.
There were incidents during his time ranging from Mitch Marner playing on the fourth line, to Babcock himself flying to Scottsdale, Arizona to patch things up with Matthews. Even in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins last year, he played 39-year-old Patrick Marleau in crucial moments leaving Leaf fans outraged.
Tyson Barrie Finding His Game
One of the biggest storylines earlier this season centered around Tyson Barrie and his struggles under Babcock. Since Keefe took over on Nov. 21, Barrie has looked like a completely different player. He scored in three consecutive games, and was immediately inserted onto the first power play.
This is a prime example of Keefe utilizing a talented player, and putting him into the best possible situation to succeed. Barrie was a total stud for the Colorado Avalanche last season, putting up a career-high 59 points in 78 games. He has adapted well to Keefe’s new offensive systems, and is already seeing high-quality scoring chances right away. The new brand of hockey the Leafs are showcasing is not only exciting for the fans, but for players like Barrie, it’s a huge relief.
Marner on the Mend
What’s even more exciting for the Maple Leafs, is the imminent return of Marner to action. Marner has been out of the lineup for the last four weeks, nursing a high-ankle sprain. He has since returned to practice, and could suit up Wednesday night against the Avalanche.
It will be thrilling to watch how Marner works his magic under Keefe’s new puck-possessive style of hockey. He is arguably Toronto’s most talented player with puck, and possesses vision that very few have. Getting a player of Marner’s calibre back into the lineup will be huge for the Maple Leafs, and help inject more life into an already rejuvenated squad.