The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Sheldon Keefe has been behind the bench for 60 regular-season games. Despite taking over the team way back on November 20, 2019, the 31st head coach in Toronto history hasn’t had a proper training camp, has only had one exhibition game and has been operating the team under entirely unexpected circumstances in this pandemic world. That’s important to remember when things like Monday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks occur.
Due to Wayne Simmonds’ injury, Keefe elected to give defenceman Rasmus Sandin his first game action in well over 300 days. By doing so, he was going back to the seven defencemen and 11 forwards strategy. Given this gameplan’s history – this was a bit of a surprise.
A Brief History of the 7-11 Strategy
Keefe and General Manager Kyle Dubas have been studying the strategy for years. They watched the Tampa Bay Lightning use it and had several conversations with Bolts’ head coach Jon Cooper. They successfully used it with the Marlies. Keefe deployed the strategy for the first time against the Winnipeg Jets on January 18th. Despite winning, Keefe didn’t seem sold on it. “I thought it was fine. At times it felt we were maybe a forward short, you’re feeling the effects of not having a guy, and then there are other times you like it, said Keefe after the game. “There are pros and cons to it, and I think I felt both sides of it here tonight.”
It was an honest assessment, and it made sense that Keefe would give it another try. He did so two nights later, and it produced an underwhelming, disjointed and disconnected performance. Those were the words used by Keefe and Auston Matthews to describe how they played after the Leafs recorded their worst game of the season – a 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. That may have been enough of an answer to end the 7-11 experiment, but it wasn’t.
Keefe Regretted the Decision
After two strong performances against Vancouver, Keefe decided to roll out the 7-11 one more time on Monday – a decision he knew was wrong minutes into the game. “I certainly was regretting my decision once the game got going, but you don’t have those answers before the game begins.”
Some could argue that Keefe did have the answers after the Oilers’ loss. The first two periods looked a lot like the game against Edmonton, disjointed and disconnected. Toronto managed only seven shots in two periods against a team they had easily handled for the last two games. “It’s not a comfortable position to be in with 11 and seven when you’re chasing the game like that. It didn’t take long before the game got going that I just could tell I didn’t like the way the game was going. You could tell Vancouver was playing a much different type of game today and that 11 and seven was going to not be overly good for us. Glad we found our way through that.”
The Maple Leafs scored two goals within 11 seconds in the third to salvage the 3-1 win. Not only was this a bullet dodged, but Keefe’s attempt to get Sandin some ice time failed too. Sandin got an assist but played just five minutes. Although Toronto has a 2-1 record when using seven defencemen, the three games have paled compared to the majority of the games when the Maple Leafs are rolling four lines.
As stated, Keefe is just 60 games into his first NHL coaching job, so kudos for trying something new. During the first lockdown, he said that he binge-watched the Leafs. We know he studies every game, shift and player, as does the statistic-crunching Dubas. That’s why it is improbable the 7-11 strategy will reappear anytime soon.
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.