Sheldon Keefe will make his debut behind the bench for the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight in Arizona as they look to snap their six-game losing slide against the 13-7-2 Coyotes, who have posted shutouts in two consecutive games (9 p.m. ET, SN).
With Kyle Dubas’ statements that the systems and style of play is going to transform under Keefe, there is going to be a natural desire to sort through every little detail of tonight’s game with a fine-tooth comb and try to identify the differences in systems already, but really, it’s going to take a significant sample size of games and practices before we can make meaningful conclusions about the new changes and wrinkles under Keefe. Expect a healthy amount of, “X defenseman pinched there — that never would’ve happened under Babcock,” but it’s going to take a good body of data and evidence before we can jump to conclusions.
Most interesting will be how the team responds emotionally — if the so-called “dead cat bounce” effect takes place here — and how Keefe’s new line composition ideas come together. He’s moved Hyman to his strong side (RW), Ilya Mikheyev up next to Tavares, Kasperi Kapanen down next to Jason Spezza, Nick Shore out of the lineup, kept Nic Petan in, and placed the returning Alex Kerfoot onto the wing with Spezza in the middle. He’s also left together the pairings that Mike Babcock and Dave Hakstol were running out (at least to start the game) vs. Vegas, with Barrie next to Dermott, Holl next to Muzzin, and Ceci next to Rielly.
We should also get an early idea of how his deployment might play out. The Leafs have been zone-matching hard so far this season with their fourth line starting in the defensive zone for faceoffs, but with Petan and Engvall on Gauthier’s wings, that may well change tonight. We’ll also see how Tyson Barrie looks with what he today called a “new lease” on life including placement on the right half-wall of the top power-play unit. Time on ice will also be monitored closely, particularly that of Matthews and Tavares.
It is by no means the ideal time to undergo a coaching switch and systems revamp in the middle of a road trip 23 games into the season — something Dubas freely acknowledged today and has been questioned by the fan base as to why it wasn’t done sooner — but it’s going to make for a fascinating storyline over the next few weeks and months. It is a particularly difficult initial start for Keefe knowing the Leafs have Arizona and Colorado on the docket this week, who present two different but significant challenges.
The Coyotes, in particular, have proven a very difficult team to break down and are backed by a solid goaltending duo led by Darcy Kuemper this season. They have posted two straight shutouts coming into tonight and lead the league in goals against per game (2.23). Under head coach Rick Tocchet, the Coyotes are keeping it tight through the neutral and defensive zones and are counterpunching teams in transition pretty effectively, but it’s early days and we’ll see if the team can sustain winning low-scoring games with timely by-committee offense and consistently great goaltending over 82 games.
Game Day Quotes
Rick Tocchet on the Coyotes’ identity:
I think you have to coach your personnel. A strong part of our team is the defense. Raanta and Kuemper are really good goaltenders, and we have to look for timely goals. That doesn’t mean we sit back. We have some good, young, fast players who transition well. But we really have to pay attention to details on the defensive side because we don’t have a pure goal scorer per se right now. We have to think of other ways to score goals — by committee.
John Tavares on the team’s objectives under Sheldon Keefe:
We want to be better defensively and we want to have the puck more — to generate quality chances and kind of be able to come at teams with a lot of momentum and simplify some of those areas a little bit. For us, we’ll just try to play to our strengths the best we can with the skill sets we have in here.
No question, the skill sets and the type of talent we have is there. It’s competing on a high level and executing what we want to do out there. It’s trying to attack in a few different ways with some ideas that Sheldon is going to bring to give us a different look and a different feel to the group that I think will lead to some really positive results and enhance and amplify the type of team we have.
Morgan Rielly on the onus shifting to the players:
As players, we have to answer the bell. We have to dig in more. I know that’s been said in the past, but changes have been made and now it’s time to start playing a bit better.
Rielly on the departure of Mike Babock:
Mike came in at a time when the team really wasn’t in the position it is now. I think that speaks volumes about what he was able to accomplish. I have a very high opinion of Mike. I think he did a great job here. I think he is a great person. It is tough to see someone go. Whether it is a teammate or a coach — anything. An all-around tough day but it is important as a group that we rebound and come to the rink tonight prepared to answer.
Auston Matthews on the changes coming under Keefe:
Just activating our D. There are going to be changes and little things about the way we play. No coaches are ever the exact same. Gradually, over the next couple of weeks, we’ll work on those things.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #11 Zach Hyman
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#47 Pierre Engvall – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #61 Nic Petan
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#50 Kasimir Kaskisuo
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Dmytro Timashov, Nick Shore
Injured: Mitch Marner, Alexander Kerfoot, Trevor Moore
Matthews – Johnsson – Nylander
Kapanen – Petan – Spezza
Arizona Coyotes Projected Lines
#18 Christian Dvorak – #8 Nick Schmaltz – #83 Connor Garland
#9 Clayton Keller – #21 Derek Stepan – #13 Vinnie Hinostroza
#67 Lawson Crouse – #32 Carl Soderberg – #81 Phil Kessel
#40 Micheal Grabner – #15 Brad Richardson – #36 Christian Fischer
#23 Oliver Ekman-Larsson – #55 Jason Demers
#6 Jakob Chychrun – #33 Alex Goligoski
#42 Aaron Ness – #82 Jordan Oesterle
#35 Darcy Kuemper (starter)
#32 Antti Raanta
Injured: Niklas Hjalmarsson