It’s almost been a split season for the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. For about a third of the season, the team was led by iconic head coach Mike Babcock. But Babcock was dismissed and former-Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe was instituted in his place. Certainly, that change has made a huge difference in the team. In terms of this post, I have listed it as one of my five biggest surprises for the season.
However, there have been other surprises. In this post, I want to share the five biggest I have seen this season.
Surprise #1: A Coaching Change Can Make a Huge Difference
What a difference a coaching change makes in the way players respond. The Maple Leafs are playing much better under new head coach Keefe than they played with Babcock as their head coach.
Not that I really had a dog in this fight, but I have to admit that I was never a big Babcock supporter. I thought he was probably a good coach, although I believed his record was sometimes a bit over-stated. For example, I believe almost any peewee hockey coach in the greater-Toronto area could have coached the uber-talented Canadian Olympic team to the 2010 Gold Medal.
Still, when Babcock was dismissed and Keefe came to be the new head coach, I couldn’t believe how much things improved. It felt different – very different. The players seemed to have a weight lifted off them. They played more free. They still made on-ice errors, but they actually seemed to try hard every night (with the exception of the ill-fated Philadelphia Flyers game).
In fact, just prior to the coaching change and with no knowledge of what was coming, I had written a frustrated post titled “Why Aren’t the Toronto Maple Leafs Trying Harder?” To me, they seemed dispirited and didn’t care. I think Keefe has them caring.
The attribute I have come to appreciate about Keefe is his consideration for his players. For example, he scratched Nic Petan to play Nick Shore in his hometown of Colorado against the Avalanche – Shore scored, which contrasts with Babcock scratching Toronto-native Jason Spezza for the Maple Leafs home opener. He’s embraced logic by putting Tyson Barrie back as the power-play quarterback where he had led the Colorado Avalanche for several seasons. And, he’s tried new things by pairing Barrie with Morgan Rielly to create, at least on paper, an elite defensive first-pairing.
Keefe is helping Matthews work on a 200-foot game, and I see progress. Marner’s back to being the elite play-making player of last season. During the first part of the season, I felt Marner might be seeking more to score himself than set up teammates.
These things don’t make the team perfect. There are things to improve, to work out, and to tweak. However, I’m excited to see what general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Keefe have in mind about the way they believe this young team should play. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a work making progress.
Surprise #2: Andersen Is an Elite Goalie and a Good Teammate
I believed Frederik Andersen was a great goalie, but even with my positive bias I have come to appreciate him more this season.
In my mind, Andersen’s an elite goalie in terms of skill. In fact, last season I wrote a post naming him the Maple Leafs’ MVP. However, I have also learned that he’s also an elite player in terms of his dedication to his team and his fellow teammates.
Specifically, after his team bailed on him, allowing five unanswered goals against the Flyers on Dec. 3, on the flight back to Toronto he pleaded with the coaches to allow him into the next game so he could go to battle with his team.
He had to know that they had deserted him. Everyone else was aware of it, and Matthews had said it publically after the game. (Interestingly, when watching the Toronto Raptors basketball game nights later, the camera panned to the crowd where Matthews was sitting with Andersen.) Andersen won my admiration by sticking with his team – regardless of whether he won the game or not.
Surprise #3: Mikheyev Is a Really Good Player
We had to think Babcock believed Mikheyev was a good player when he took particular interest in recruiting the young Russian from the Kontinental Hockey League. Photos of Babcock and Mikheyev together showed the ever-taciturn Babcock as almost giddy. You would think he was talking about Zach Hyman’s forechecking, he looked so happy.
When Mikheyev showed up in camp, obviously the jury was out. Most fans knew little about him. However, it didn’t take long for fans to learn. Mikheyev quickly showed himself to be skilled enough on the ice, intelligent enough to think the game, and speedy enough to make things happen. To my eyes, he was especially able to anticipate opponents’ thinking and make plays that put him where the puck would be going.
Not that Mikheyev’s close to elite yet, but he shows the kind of mental skills the best players demonstrate – and Wayne Gretzky was perhaps the best all-time – that lift them above other strong NHL players. Mikheyev isn’t there, but I believe he has the talent to become a regular top-six Maple Leafs player.
Surprise #4: Matthews Is Becoming a 200-Foot Player
I’m watching Matthews grow as a player. Few players have Matthews’ skill as a sniper, and that’s been the case since he was a rookie. However, I’ve also seen him play hard defense to catch up to an on-ice mistake (not always his) and make a deft stick-lift or puck strip before an opponent can finish a play.
I also have come to appreciate that he’s stepped up as a leader. His comments about the team deserting Andersen put pressure on the team, but mostly on himself, to be better. That kind of growth will push him to embrace the best version of himself as the hockey player he could become.
Surprise #5: How Young This Team Can Act
What has surprised me, and not in a good way, is how “young” the team can act – childishly self-centered almost. On two occasions, the players became discouraged and quit playing hard.
One was against the Pittsburgh Penguins when Marlies goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo was making his NHL debut. Simple pride and respect for a teammate demanded more than the team gave. The second was when the team let Andersen hang out to dry against the Flyers.
Perhaps that incident was just a rare example of that great Keanu Reeves scene from The Replacements, where Shane Falco talked about how a team could get stuck in the quicksand of error and lose control when things start going badly. Whatever the reason, that kind of play simply must stop.
Where the Maple Leafs Stand
The Maple Leafs seem to have escaped the quicksand of the past and are playing for the future. Let’s hope the future includes a long Stanley Cup playoff run this season. I think there’s a good chance.