I admit, I’m optimistic about the Toronto Maple Leafs remainder of the season. I wasn’t really certain how Sheldon Keefe’s presence as the new head coach might change things; and, perhaps over the long haul, it won’t much. However, after two games the team is playing much better. There is a Keefe effect on the players.
After two straight wins by the team in hard-to-win locales (Arizona and Denver), the Maple Leafs face the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday evening in what – on paper – seems to be an easier test for the team.
The Red Wings have the NHL’s worst record, the NHL’s worst offense, and score fewer goals than any other team. Additionally, their leading scorer Anthony Mantha (who has 12 goals and 23 points) is out of the lineup with a lower-body injury. They are free-falling and now have a six-game winless streak.
I can’t imagine Keefe allowing the team to take Detroit lightly, but one never knows these days with the Maple Leafs. Two games is not a huge body of work to see how the team will respond. Here’s the latest as they prepare for the Red Wings.
Item One: One More Look at the Team Hitting the Bottom
Looking backward from today, it seems clear that the players had quit working for former head coach Mike Babcock for the week before he was fired. The team hit the bottom during the Nov. 16 drubbing by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Although this is old news, it’s easy now to see how that game was the moment the depth of the problems became the most obvious.
However, Babcock was not the only person who suffered during the team’s nadir. The other person most impacted was Kasimir Kaskisuo, who was making his first NHL start in goal.
Sadly for Kaskisuo, who probably had waited several seasons for his first NHL start, he was completely abandoned by the team in front of him. Time after time, the Penguins skated through wide-open lanes in the neutral and offensive zones. Kaskisuo faced five-games worth of odd-man rushes, forwards skating through the middle of the ice uncontested, and good chance after good chance. In fact, although it seems odd when a goalie gives up six goals, only Kaskisuo’s play was the reason the Penguins didn’t score ten goals.
However, since Keefe began as the coach, Maple Leafs fans have caught a small glimpse of general manager – and long-time Keefe supporter – Kyle Dubas’ vision for the team. He wants an open game, with fast offensive players who overwhelm an opponent with speed, skill, and heart. If it works, Maple Leafs fans might be viewing some fun hockey over the next while.
Item Two: Kaskisuo Loaned to the Toronto Marlies
Speaking of Kaskisuo, he was loaned to the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies on Nov. 25. As noted, Kaskisuo gave up six goals on 38 shots to Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 in his NHL debut; however, he’s been strong and steady in the AHL this season. He’s compiled a record of 6-1-1, with a 2.13 goals-against average (GAA) and .928 save percentage with the Marlies. Considering his progress, it makes more sense to have him engaging a regular workload in the AHL than sitting on the bench in the NHL.
Item Three: Hutchinson Re-called by the Maple Leafs
Funny thing about Michael Hutchinson’s season. Reading comments made by the fans, many had come to believe that Hutchinson was a poor goalie and that the team would surely lose with him in goal. And, to be honest, that’s the way it worked out this season. He had not won a game with the big club and was 0-4-1 with a 4.44 GAA and a .879 save percentage.
The mitigating factors of Hutchinson’s lack of success seemed more evident when Kaskisuo was overwhelmed by the Penguins. That game also seemed to point out that starting goalie Frederik Andersen must have been playing amazingly well for the team to have the record it had.
After Hutchinson was demoted to the Marlies on Nov. 12, he seemed to regain his mojo. His record with the Marlies was 3-0-0 record with a .942 save percentage and 1.95 GAA.
It will be interesting to see in what situations Keefe deploys Hutchinson in his second chance with the Maple Leafs. Even if Keefe follows the same pattern of using Hutchinson in the second game of back-to-backs, the team seems to have amped up its energy level and Hutchinson might watch a team in front of him engage a stronger puck-possession game. We’ll see.
Item Four: Marner Back on the Ice Skating and Shooting
Mitch Marner’s ankle injury was sufficiently healed to allow him to skate and shoot during this week’s practices. Marner noted: “I feel good. … It’s been a little bit so it was nice to get out there and get some shots in. Most of it felt pretty good. Didn’t test [the ankle] really too much, but turning and crossing over and everything like that feels pretty good.”
I watched a video taken of Marner skating and shooting at practice and he looked smooth; however, there’s been no change to the four-week timetable for his return. Because his injury happened on Nov. 9, that would put Marner’s return somewhere in early December at the soonest.
Item Five: Kerfoot Suspended 2 Games for Boarding
After his hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety on Monday Alex Kerfoot received supplemental discipline and was suspended for two games as a result of a boarding incident against his old Colorado Avalanche teammate Erik Johnson.
From my view of the game, it looked as if Kerfoot only realized how dangerous the hit was after he made it – and then almost immediately checked Johnson to see if he was okay. Kerfoot will be eligible to return on Saturday versus Buffalo.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
When the Maple Leafs face the Red Wings, the team will be coming off a three-day break. That break has served two purposes for the team. First, it allows rest and organized practice. Second, in the case of new coach Keefe, it allows him to get to know and build closer relationships with the players on the roster.
Keefe certainly has an advantage because he’s coached much of the roster when he was with the Marlies, the time off between games allows him to get to know more of the players.
Keefe noted that “Things will settle down for me. We’ll work on some things and continue to grow the group. I’ll get a chance to grow my relationships with individual players and to me, that’s a priority right now. The other stuff will come together in time.”
I have a feeling that Keefe has a radically different philosophy in building relationships with his players than former coach Babcock had. How that translates into wins and losses remains to be seen, and the game against the Red Wings will be game three of the experiment.