It has been a busy couple of weeks for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Sheldon Keefe Era has begun and the team has changed both big and small things about the way it plays. Until the team ran into the hot Philadelphia Flyers‘ goalie Carter Hart on Dec. 3 and lost 6-1, it was so far, so good.
The team has won four of six games under the new head coach and has looked competitive in every game so far. Although that seems like an odd thing to say about a team that has so much talent, the team had not been playing that way under former head coach Mike Babcock.
Even in the Flyers game, it was tied 1-1 until the middle of the third period. Then the bottom dropped out and the Flyers scored five straight goals to cement the win.
I didn’t think Keefe could make such a difference, but he has. In this post, I want to offer some of the news that surrounding the team – both explicating some of the changes made under the new leadership and bringing back some old “stuff” that is coming to the surface.
Item One: Tavares Has Improved Under Keefe’s Coaching
One of the biggest improvements since Keefe has become the new coach has been the improved play of Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. Last season, playing on a line with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, Tavares seemed almost unstoppable in even-strength situations. This season has not been as successful.
Obviously, part of the reduced production has been that all three members of last season’s power line have been injured. Hyman has only really played a few games, Tavares broke his finger, and Marner has been gone for a chunk of games. Obviously, all that matters, and the result is that the line that once flourished hasn’t done nearly as well in Tavares’ second season with the team. Last season was Tavares’ career-best as a player.
When Babcock was still the Maple Leafs coach and during the 16 games Tavares played before Dec. 3, Toronto was outscored 14-6. Tavares had just two goals and two assists at 5-on-5. Now, in five games with Keefe as the coach, Hyman back from his injury, and Ilya Mikheyev playing on his left-wing, Tavares has already matched his even-strength goal total under Babcock. That change has helped Tavares achieve success and he seems back as a full contributor to the team’s success.
Item Two: Keefe Changes the Power-Play Units
When Keefe became the head coach, he made a number of both small and significant changes. One big change he made was that he’s utilized defenseman Tyson Barrie more in areas where he had achieved success for the last several seasons while he was with the Colorado Avalanche. That change has been to give Barrie a more relevant role on the power-play unit. Indeed, the results have followed and the Maple Leafs power play has looked better under Keefe.
Now, it’s reported that Keefe will make further alterations on the power-play units. Perhaps these changes are in anticipation of Mitch Marner’s return, which is close but still a few days away. The report is that Marner will be rejoining the first unit, which will now include Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Barrie. Since Keefe decided to use Barrie more as the quarterback to the first power-play unit, his scoring has seen a revival.
With Barrie now quarterbacking the top unit, that flips Morgan Rielly to head up the second unit that will likely include Jason Spezza, Zach Hyman, Nic Petan and Alex Kerfoot as potential partners.
Rielly, who in my mind is ever the team-person, noted that he understood why new head coach Keefe wanted to make the change and supported it. Barrie was obviously enthused about the switch, and Rielly understood that Keefe wanted to save him for 5-on-5 or other duties.
As Rielly noted, “I talked to Keefer this morning. Barrie’s outstanding on the power play and has a great shot and has been doing it for a long time. I think it’s a good opportunity to change things up.” (from Leafs’ Rielly on side with power-play change, Lance Hornby, The Toronto Sun, 12/02/19).
I understand that there are a number of Maple Leafs fans who simply don’t want to hear any more bad news about former head coach Babcock, however given the report on Dec. 3 from Akim Aliu’s meeting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about the promise of change coming in the NHL, it seems ill-advised not to report the latest news about alleged verbal abuse by coaches to players.
Specifically, on Dec. 2, former Detroit Red Wings forward Johan Franzen told the Swedish publication Expressen that ex-Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was “the worst person I have ever met.”
On a recent episode of the Spittin’ Chicklets podcast Chris Chelios, during a long interview, said Babcock “verbally assaulted” Franzen during the 2012 playoffs when he was the coach in Detroit, which caused Franzen to have a “nervous breakdown.” At the time, Chelios noted that Franzen was suffering from the effects of a concussion.
Franzen, himself, said “I get the shivers when I think about it. That incident occurred against Nashville in the playoffs. It was coarse, nasty, and shocking. But that was just one out of a hundred things he did. The tip of the iceberg.”
Franzen also noted, “He would lay into a couple of the … nice team players; the guys who don’t say very much. When they left the team he went on to focus on me. It was verbal attacks, he said horrible things.”
Although Franzen did admit that Babcock was a “meticulous and well-prepared” coach, the bottom line was that “he’s a terrible person, the worst I’ve ever met. He’s a bully who was attacking people.”
How did that impact Franzen? According to the Swedish winger, “it got so bad he struggled to get out of bed” and he “was terrified of being at the rink.” Finally, Franzen noted, “Last year I could sleep naturally for the first time since then.”
If all this is true, and it was clearly supported by Chelios, the story tells us much about the pressure on the players and the impact that coaches can have on players.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Perhaps the most crucial upcoming event for the team is that Mitch Marner seems ready to return to the ice soon. According to a report from Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Mitch Marner engaged in a full practice on Monday. Marner has been out with a high-ankle sprain injury. If he is ready to return, however, the earliest Marner will be eligible to be activated from LTIR is Wednesday. Keefe noted that, based on “his performance today, it doesn’t look like he’s too far away.”
Marner’s return is good news for Maple Leafs who are experiencing successful results since Keefe replaced Babcock. Certainly, Marner’s return will give the team yet another boost mentally and, certainly, talent-wise. To me, Marner’s return seems to be potential momentum that will move the team up the Eastern Conference standings.