Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe Must See the Big Picture and Stay the Course

Yesterday, I learned a new word when I was reading a review of Mitch Marner’s play. That word was doomscroll. The author was using it to describe the tendency of Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans to move from a problem to lamenting that “the sky is falling.”

That writer and I share the same experience. Perhaps for understandable reasons, Maple Leafs’ fans seem to spend a great deal of time and energy on social media moving immediately to the worst possible scenario when something goes wrong. 

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The start of the 2021-22 regular season has fueled this doomscrolling yet again. I get it. In fact, I can only imagine that the Maple Leafs, as players and as a team, are frustrated with the results of the season. Still, it’s not as if the Maple Leafs are the Montreal Canadiens, who have started their season with an 0-4-0 record and have only scored three goals in four games and have given up 15 to the opposition.

This Isn’t That Bad a Start, Given the Circumstances

All that said, given that the team played its first three games of the season without Auston Matthews, that its second goalie Petr Mrazek was injured during the first game he played, and the team is trying to fit in a half a dozen new players, that the team started with a 2-1-1 record isn’t that bad.

They’ve also hit some hot goalies. I get that frustration. It was evident on the players’ faces and in their actions. For me, one iconic moment during the New York Rangers’ game expressed the frustration almost perfectly. The Maple Leafs were “goalied” by Igor Shesterkin, who stood on his head all game to save 40 of the 41 shots he faced.

Matthews, who had come back strong in his first game after rehabbing his wrist, was roaring offensively. Yet, he was stoned time and time again. After one frustrating save by Shesterkin on a high-danger chance, Matthews returned to the bench, looked skyward to roll his eyes, then leaned completely over the boards and just stayed there for five seconds or so. He was clearly frustrated and at his wit’s end.

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When I transfer my own experience and feelings onto the team and specifically onto Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe, it struck me that it would be hard not to be frustrated. That’s especially true given the experiences of the last round of the 2020-21 playoffs where the team was tossed by these same now-winless Canadiens. 

It’s clear that, as hard as it might be to hold the line despite the frustrating start to the season, there’s no reason for panic with this team. I believe coach Keefe should hold the line and stay the course. He’s right when he suggests that one has to only worry about what one can control, not what one cannot control.

But that’s theory; in practice, it’s tougher.

What’s Working with This Team?

Even with the frustrating start, a number of things are working well. Here I’ll share what I believe is working well and what should give Maple Leafs’ fans plenty of reasons for hope.

Reason One: Auston Matthews Wrist Is Strong

In his first game back, despite being stoned by the goalie, Matthews was generating multiple quality chances. The Maple Leafs played well and deserved to win the Rangers’ game. Furthermore, Matthews deserved to score. Neither happened. But then, hockey isn’t NBA basketball where the better team wins most of the time.

Matthews was on his game. Every puck he picked up moved towards the Rangers’ end of the ice. He attacked the net. He got open without the puck and it found him. He set up his office in his usual spot at the top of the circle and his one-timer looked strong. He almost scored a few times, especially in the three-on-three overtime. Matthews even won 13 of 15 faceoffs. His wrist is strong and he’s back.

Reason Two: William Nylander Has Never Played Better

William Nylander is playing the best hockey of his career during the 2021-22 season. And, coach Keefe is giving him more time on the ice. During the 2020-21 season, Nylander scored 42 points in 51 games; and, during both 2016-17 and 2017-18, he scored 61 points. He’ll top those numbers this season. 

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keefe seems to know when to play the hot hand, and Nylander is the hot hand. Nylander’s getting extra shifts at the end of periods and after timeouts, and he’s playing more with Matthews and Marner. More interestingly, Nylander is showing that he doesn’t even need to play with the best players to generate offense. He can carry the offense himself.

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If it’s possible, Nylander’s growing in confidence. How often have we seen him circle back, wind up, use his puck-handling skills to move through and around opponents, enter the offensive zone, and generate a scoring chance for himself or create chaos for the opposition?

Nylander is coming into his own, and the team will benefit this season.

Reason Three: The Newcomers Are Playing Quite Well

David Kampf comes as described. He helps his team control the puck; he wins 65 percent of the faceoffs he takes; he starts almost every shift in the defensive zone; and, he plays solid defense all game. He’s no-frills value. I can see why any coach would love his play.

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Michael Bunting is as good as anyone had hoped. He’s a pest. He drives to the net. He can shoot. He’s gets knocked down and gets up again – and again – and again. He’s fast becoming a fan favorite and helping us all forget about the departed one – Zach Hyman – (who’s playing well with the Edmonton Oilers). 

Ondrej Kase was injured blocking a shot, which tells fans something. Although Kase has been quieter offensively than we might have expected given his preseason and NHL history, he’s consistent. He moves the puck towards the opponent’s goal. He’s a capable NHL player. He might be a hit away from an injury, but that can be said about most players I suppose. He’s playing well despite not scoring. But then, no one’s been scoring much this season – so far. 

Petr Mrazek played really well before his injury and is about a week from returning. He had a great second period against the Ottawa Senators’ loss and the goals the Senators scored were – mostly – flukey. 

The only player who’s had a tough time getting untracked is Nick Ritchie. Ritchie’s had a slow start in the four games he’s played. The jury’s out on his ability to keep up with Matthews and Marner. Still, he hasn’t yet had much of a chance to claim space in front of the net with Matthews firing away. I’d still like to see what he can do.

It Isn’t the Time to Doomscroll

Even in the midst of the frustrating start, the Maple Leafs are only a single point out of the top spot in the Atlantic Conference. It’s not time to lament. There are 78 games remaining and time to move from successful playing to successful scoring. 

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I’m trusting Keefe stays the course and keeps the big picture in his mind. I have hope for this team. The sky is not falling.

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