The Toronto Maple Leafs’ victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday evening produced a number of firsts. Struggling defenseman Tyson Barrie scored his first goal of the season; just-called-up Pierre Engvall got the first goal of his nascent NHL career; and, new Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe got his first NHL coaching victory.
By the way, the Maple Leafs also snapped a six-game losing streak with the 3-1 victory over the Coyotes. As the team skates into Colorado to play the Avalanche on Saturday evening, I want to use this post to keep fans up-to-date with some of the news and rumors emerging from the team.
Item One: Keefe’s First Game as Maple Leafs Coach
Obviously, Keefe had a good first game as coach. One thing that really caught my attention was something Keefe said after the game. He noted, in assessing his own work behind the bench, “I was a little behind on making my line changes. I’d like to speed that up a bit. But the players took care of me well there.”
Keefe, who had worked for five seasons as the head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies when he was promoted, certainly has coached before but it must be a bit overwhelming to coach one’s first NHL game. I can see why it might all be happening a bit faster than normal.
However, Keefe’s attitude struck me as refreshing. To be fair, I have not been present for all of former Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock’s pronouncements. However, in the time I have, I can’t recall anything close to an admission of making a mistake. Furthermore, to suggest that the players covered for him must be refreshing to the players.
Finally, it also squarely puts back some onus on the players to accept more responsibility for taking the power to change things during a game. That, to my experience, is empowering for the players.
Obviously, it’s a small number of games to judge a team’s play, but everyone who’s a Maple Leafs fan has to be pleased with the result.
Item Two: Engvall Scores His First NHL Goal
Pierre Engvall scored a shorthanded goal in Thursday’s 3-1 win over the Coyotes. It was his first NHL goal, and it gave the team a 2-0 lead early during the third period. He had just 10 minutes of ice time in his second career game, but he showed enough speed to break free of the Coyotes defense and snap a goal past goalie Darcy Kuemper.
Engvall has been a Keefe project since being drafted in the seventh round (188th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. He has the size (he’s 6-foot-5) and the speed, which is a nice combination. With the Marlies this season he has seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in 15 games. It’s hard to say where he’ll be used, but he contributed.
Item Three: Barrie Breaks Loose to Score His First Goal of the Season
To say that Tyson Barrie has struggled this season after coming to the Maple Leafs in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche that had Nazem Kadri going to the Avalanche would be a bit of an understatement. Barrie was supposed to give the team that highly sought-after right-shot defenseman it needed to help stabilize the Maple Leafs blue line; however, it simply hasn’t worked out that way.
But, Barrie opened the scoring against the Coyotes in his first game under new head coach Keefe. And, that might be a very good sign for the team going forward. It was Barrie’s first goal in 24 games this season. He’s now on a mini, three-game point streak and has eight points so far.
What was interesting to me is that, when I watched Barrie’s goal, it came from a spot on the ice that I hadn’t seen him enter much. As a lane opened up, he skated right in on the goalie and had to be within 12 feet when he shot. He’d seemed to be playing much more conservatively prior to this game.
There have been rumors that Barrie might want to move to a situation where he could put up bigger numbers during his contract year. However, if Keefe’s presence encourages Barrie to be the offensive-minded player he’s been most of his career, the desire might wane.
In fact, Barrie was all smiles when he talked to the media after the game, suggesting that his first goal was a boost to his confidence personally and also a boost to the team. Fortunately, it seems to me, the Maple Leafs’ next game is against the Avalanche — Barrie’s old team — which might energize another strong showing. I can’t see Barrie being moved before Keefe gets a chance to work with him. And, I expect him to be placed into situations where he’ll have greater opportunities to produce more than he did under Babcock.
Item Four: Mikheyev Plays Big Minutes and Scores Two Assists
From what I saw last night, Keefe is like many Maple Leafs fans who believe Ilya Mikheyev is a special player. Mikheyev played most of the game on the John Tavares and Zach Hyman line and had two assists – one on Barrie’s goal and the other on Auston Matthews’ goal that iced the win. He led all Maple Leafs forwards with 18:32 of ice time.
It was a good game for the 25-year-old Russian, who’s now fifth in rookie scoring with 14 points in 24 games. He had a seven-game scoring drought during November but, if he plays regularly with the Tavares line, his scoring should benefit. Might he be a Calder candidate?
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
As noted, the Maple Leafs play Colorado on Saturday evening. It should be a great game, with players on both teams motivated to do well. Ex-Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri will certainly be ramped up, as will Maple Leafs Alex Kerfoot (who’s back from his facial injuries) and Barrie (who just needs to gain more confidence).
Call me overly optimistic, but I can’t wait for the next game. I’m anxious to see how the team responds to Keefe’s more open-style of leadership.