Sheldon Keefe faces his biggest test since being named the 31st head coach Toronto Maple Leafs franchise history. This is his first three straight regulation losses as an NHL coach. He has an ailing superstar, an underachieving captain and a struggling goalie. His Maple Leafs surged up the standing to start the season but are quickly giving up that lead. Now it’s on Keefe to figure out a way back in the win column.
This is not a knock on Keefe. He has only coached 74 regular-season games, not even a full normal season. He has done so under unprecedented circumstances. He also had nearly half of his roster change since he started behind the bench. Still, he has found a way to get Toronto to the top of the heap. It’s impressive, to say the least, but it hasn’t held back the critics.
Learn from Losing
There’s an old saying that you learn more from losing than winning. There’s no doubt Keefe has learned a lot during this recent slide, and we’ve seen him use losses to his advantage in the past. The last time he lost three games in a row was the California trip right before the NHL shutdown. The trio of California teams was awful, and all missed qualifying for the play-in series. Yet Toronto lost 5-2 to the San Jose Sharks, 1-0 in a shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings and a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Keefe learned from the experience as he then coached the Leafs to one of their best complete-game performances under his watch. Toronto beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1. Of course, Tampa Bay went on to win the Stanley Cup a few months later.
Then the pandemic hit and the league shut down. Keefe binge watched the Maple Leafs; given his reaction when hockey returned, he watched many of the games Toronto lost on replay. His first mission was to make his team defensive. Not only was it to improve his porous defensive unit, but he also wanted to make all of his forwards play defensive first. He wanted them to take away space, crowd the neutral zone, and increase the forecheck. He ran out of time to give his team an overhaul, as the Columbus Blue Jackets bounced Toronto out of the play-in series in five games.
Kyle Dubas helped out his coach in the offseason. The general manager let an offensive-minded defenseman go in Tyson Barrie to spend the money on a much more defensively responsible T.J. Brodie. He brought in gritty leaders and completed the overhaul Keefe was attempting months earlier.
From day one in training camp, Keefe was adamant that this team had to be better at shut down hockey. He believed that a two-goal lead should be more than enough to win any game. In the second game of the season, Toronto was in the lead just to meltdown to a 5-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators. An astonished Keefe went back to the drawing board. The team won six of the next seven games; all of them were fairly low scoring.
Then February 15 happened, and a historic collapse. Toronto blew a 5-1 lead to lose 6-5 in overtime to those same Senators. Keefe learned something as the Maple Leafs won seven of the next eight games, including an impressive three-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers. The stretch also produced a span of 158 minutes of shutout hockey. Keefe’s defence-first approach was winning games.
The problem with this losing streak is there are no glaring issues that can be addressed in practice. Toronto has run into two hot goalies who played very well while having a goalie who is playing average to below average. That’s why this is the biggest test of Keefe’s NHL career. While his team is playing at a satisfactory level, the competition is playing better. He will have to make the not-so-obvious adjustments to snap the losing streak and regain that winning form.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.