Maple Leafs to Be Played as Designed Under Sheldon Keefe

The Toronto Maple Leafs have relieved Mike Babcock of his head coaching duties. The writing had been on the wall for Babcock who had failed to coach the Maple Leafs beyond the first round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. The Maple Leafs only had two regulation wins in their previous 16 games, and in case you were wondering, that would be considered bad. It was clear a change needed to be made, and Toronto’s loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday was the final straw.

Enter Sheldon Keefe. The Toronto Marlies head coach was promoted to the Maple Leafs’ head coach position and now has the opportunity to right the ship that appeared to be quickly sinking. Keefe is by no means walking into an easy situation, as the team currently finds themselves on the outside looking in on the playoffs. The blame for the Maple Leafs’ struggles cannot be placed solely at Babcock’s feet as the players must shoulder a good portion of the blame. While Keefe will be deploying the same team as Babcock, he will be doing it as it was designed to be played.

Buying Into the Game Plan

Keefe has always been general manager Kyle Dubas’ guy. They have a long history of success together, with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds and Marlies, including winning the Calder Cup together at the latter. A large portion of that success is a result of the two sharing a similar mindset. Dubas has been driven by analytics throughout his career and he implemented his game plan with his past teams. Keefe has been there to coach those teams the way they were designed to be played. Dubas has been the architect creating the blueprints for his past teams, and Keefe has been the engineer who executed the plans. This is something the two must now apply to the Maple Leafs.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

The Maple Leafs have been built and maintained under the philosophy that speed and skill win games. Not long after Dubas was promoted to the position of GM, it became clear that there was a disconnect between he and Babcock. Babcock stubbornly refused to change the way he coached despite the Maple Leafs being a vastly different team compared to his former Detroit Red Wings.

Brad Pitt portrayed Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball. The film surprisingly mirrors the Maple Leafs situation quite well as Beane restructures his baseball team using analytics but faces pushback from the team’s manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In one of the movie’s key scenes, Beane tells Howe, “it doesn’t matter what moves I make if you don’t play the team the way they’re designed to be played”. Howe may not have been fired like Babcock but the situations do seem eerily similar. With Keefe and Dubas working together again, it is time for Moneypuck to take form.

During a sports analytics conference in 2015, Dubas told his listeners, “If your president, general manager, coach, scouts, everybody buys in to using what you can gain from using statistics and analytics you’ll have a lot more success than if you have one person on your staff alone saying this is important”. For a while, it appeared that he was the one guy in the Maple Leafs organization who had that mindset. Then he became general manager and it became clear that his way was how the team was going to be built going forward. At that point it became an issue with how Babcock deployed the team. Now with Keefe replacing him, we will finally see the reality Dubas was talking about with an organization united behind a single game plan.

A Square Piece in a Round Hole

Babcock coaching a Dubas team has been compared to trying to fit a square block in a round hole. Try as you might, it just was not a fit. Babcock had his way of doing things and was very stubborn when it came to change. Finally, it was time to try and find a better fit.

Mike Babcock Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Babcock’s inability to change shone through multiple times over the last year. His refusal to play Josh Leivo, Justin Holl and Nic Petan led to a very rigid and overtired lineup in the previous two seasons. All three have proven themselves to be adequate NHL players this season and should have been able to crack the Maple Leafs lineup last season. Babcock also seemed unwilling to play his star players big minutes. This was perhaps best illustrated in the seventh game of the Leafs playoff series against the Boston Bruins where John Tavares led all Maple Leafs forwards in ice time with just 17:40. Auston Matthews played just 15:18. Keep in mind that the team was trailing for the entire game and Babcock instead elected to ride a struggling Patrick Marleau in the third period.

This is not meant to be an attack on Babcock. Rather this is simply a look at a number of the flaws that kept the Maple Leafs from being utilized to the best of their ability. More importantly, these are just some of the problems that can be addressed with Keefe at the helm.

It is no secret that the Maple Leafs were not seeing the results they wanted given how they were playing. Keefe showed up and immediately looked to make changes to Toronto’s lineup and the way they were playing. His first game against the Arizona Coyotes saw him switch up the lineup, moving Ilya Mikheyev to Tavares’ line and switching Zach Hyman to the right wing. This shows that Keefe is ready and willing to shake things up, something that was missing under Babcock.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keefe was also shown tightening up the defence during practice. Defence has been one of the Maple Leafs’ greatest weaknesses in recent years and it had grown stale like much of the team’s play. One of the biggest problems with Babcock’s team is that he seemed committed to his way of playing even when it was not working. Time will tell if Keefe is more open to adapting on the fly, but at the very least he was able to identify a part of the Maple Leafs game that was not working and began working to change it.

The Maple Leafs are designed to be played with an emphasis on speed and skill. For a long time they were being forced to play a game that did not play to their strengths, but under Keefe that should change. The Maple Leafs finally have a unified mindset in their organization, and while it would be unrealistic to expect no speed bumps, it would appear that Keefe could be the round piece that fits the Maple Leafs’ round hole.