The Toronto Maple Leafs are not good, and Sheldon Keefe knows it. The head coach, who usually defends his players, is done trying to deflect responsibility. Instead, he is pointing reporters in the direction of the problem. After a 5-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks, there are no shortages of issues. It’s no longer acceptable to blame the bounces that didn’t go your way, a hot opposition goalie, or team chemistry. No, there are significant concerns. Are they worthy of throwing jerseys on the ice? No. But there are problems.
An easy out would be blaming Toronto’s third-string goalie. Michael Hutchinson was called up from the Marlies and allowed some soft ones. However, Keefe wasn’t placing blame there, “there is a lot more going on than just the goaltender here today. We have to score a lot more than we are.”
Nick Ritchie was Benched
Nick Ritchie was benched for part of the first and second period, so you could blame him. But Keefe isn’t, “I can just tell by the line of questioning I have been getting over the last number of days that we want to pile on Nick Ritchie here, but let’s not narrow the focus too much.” If that wasn’t clear, Keefe said, “You should be asking as many questions about Matthews and Marner today as you should be Ritch.”
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Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were a combined minus five. Marner was minus three, Matthews was minus two. Although Matthews took responsibility, “a couple of those goals definitely fall on me. I’ve got to be better in the zone and take care of the puck.” However, the reigning Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy winner was playing in just his second game. Admittedly, he is not in sync, “there is a lot we can look back on. For myself, personally, it wasn’t really my best performance. For me, I’m trying to find my way and to get in a rhythm again.”
Despite the struggles, Keefe plans on keeping the Ritchie-Matthews-Marner line together, “I think so. Today, we are trying to get things moving around. I have already watched back parts of the video of that line and some of the different shifts.” The line has only had two games together. Still, they might not get many more opportunities, “it was hard today to get going. It was an issue getting going and getting on the inside. We were trying different things to get things moving,” said Keefe.
Powerplay Problems are Back
The powerplay only got two opportunities and failed both times to connect. “Special teams, or at least our power play, couldn’t be the difference that we needed it to be, especially early in the game. As a result, we are chasing it all the way through, said Keefe, who went on to say something a bit more concerning, “Just not on the same page, fighting it, not executing. A lot of the same stuff we saw last season, to be honest. Not nearly good enough.”
While Keefe was pointing out the faults, there was plenty he was responsible for, as well. Straight out the gate, you have to wonder why he elected to play his third-string goalie against a very good-looking San Jose Sharks team. A few days ago, this may have made sense to have Jack Campbell play the second game in a back-to-back against the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, the Pens are without Tristan Jarry and Jeff Carter, who are in COVID-19 protocol. In addition, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust will all miss the game as well.
Also, Keefe started changing lines around in the first period. He benched Ritchie and put started playing musical chairs with the line combinations. William Nylander was getting top-line minutes, but the move meant the second line was scrambled. Even Pierre Engvall was on the top line. When a player is benched, the entire team pays. Keefe’s comments show that he didn’t blame Ritchie, yet the whole team was shorthanded. Luckily, the Maple Leafs play again just 21 hours after taking this loss, a win could alleviate some concerns.
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.