The Toronto Maple Leafs were tumbling down the standings, desperately in need of a spark. A coach firing and two games later, they have some life.
There is still plenty to work on — and Sheldon Keefe would be the first to admit it — but for now, let’s take a look at some of the changes that have already taken place.
The first is obvious: line changes. It’s not particularly noteworthy that he bumped Ilya Mikheyev up the lineup so much as what it helped accomplish. Zach Hyman moved to the right wing for really the first time ever as a Leaf. Instead of shoehorning Kasperi Kapanen into the left wing, he stayed on the right and Alexander Kerfoot moved to the left — where he has played a ton — in order to facilitate Jason Spezza playing center (Kerfoot played a fair amount of center regardless, but that’s not the point).
With this, there is more emphasis on putting players in spots where they will succeed – we’ve often said here that Hyman looks better on the right, Kapanen is definitely better on the right, and Spezza is better suited to play with skill, so Kerfoot slides over to accommodate that.
Under Babcock, he was more focused on keeping lines together through injury so that when players return, only one line (or as few as possible) is impacted. A Mitch Marner return would now have an impact on three different lines as players shift down and around. There isn’t a right or wrong here, per se, but it’s a more flexible approach to adjusting the roster and focuses more on individual player strengths.
On defense, this was seen with Tyson Barrie quite clearly as he was moved up to the top power-play unit. They are trying to get the most out of him and put him in the best spot to do it. Conversely, Babcock felt he hadn’t earned it and he wasn’t going to move him up the lineup until he did. Again, it’s not about right or wrong here, but it’s definitely a different approach.
Within the actual gameplay, there were a number of minor adjustments that were already apparent.
In the offensive zone, Keefe appears to emphasize having a forward really high up in the zone as a release valve and as a scoring threat. Matthews was this player when he scored against Colorado. On Tyson’s Barrie’s goal against Arizona, take look at Ilya Mikheyev at the top of the blue line as Jake Muzzin shot this puck, leading to a sequence of events that led to the goal (there was a rebound scramble, a recovery, and the puck was worked around up top before Barrie scored):
There is a bit more of pulling players in different positions to open things up. Compare this to a quote from Matthews earlier this season in October when he discussed Boston’s top line and noted, “They kind of do things differently as far as like offensive zone… For us, they kind of preach a guy in the slot, a guy on the net and then a guy in the corner, but they’re kind of all over the place, their D get active and it’s really hard to defend and they obviously do a good job of finding each other.”
In the neutral zone, there is a lot more regrouping for line changes. Here is an excellent example against Colorado:
Instead of dumping it in, Hyman turns back to help start a breakout. This leads to a great scoring chance for Nylander. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/oIjxmF6mtV
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) November 24, 2019
As far as defensively, it’s a little too early to note any changes in positioning. The Arizona game was handled rather easily, and the Leafs faced an onslaught against Colorado in the third. That said, they were constantly shifting lines and players around. More on this as it develops, but one thing to look for is the Leafs activating the far side defenseman more on breakouts. In general, they were not hesitant to move the puck east-west in order to look for lanes. Here is an extended example:
The Leafs do a great job hanging onto the puck in their own end before waiting for the lane to open up. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/ToQ9TG8gRK
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) November 24, 2019
The power play was too tough to judge on only one real look, but the coaching staff is clearly stressing more player movement. One issue with the Leafs is that they became too static on the power play with players just standing around while moving the puck.
On the penalty kill, the forwards were much more aggressive pressuring defensemen up top the zone and half-wall. It’s still not very coordinated and that led to the Avalanche scoring a power-play goal. Let’s see how both these units adjust as time goes on.
Beyond the strategic changes, the team looked visibly looser. At this point, it’s fair to assume they essentially gave up on the coach. Regardless of the details, the coaching change has breathed some new life into this team and it was something they sorely needed.
- It was interesting to see the Leafs use a timeout in the middle of the third period of a 4-3 game against Colorado. It was during a power play and the broadcast mentioned that they haven’t had much time to work together, but that was not the reason – they wanted to give their top unit a breather so that they could keep them out there. Keefe admitted as much after. They played pretty well the entire power play. That’s a new wrinkle from this staff on a number of fronts. The forward group they came back with after was Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Hyman.
- The Leafs did mix John Tavares and Auston Matthews together a few times — specifically after penalty kills.
- Low key, the big winner so far up front seems to be Ilya Mikheyev. He played 18:32 in game one and 19:22 in game two under Keefe – those are his first and third highest ice times this season. He’s had a clear promotion into the top six. Side note: His point in the Vegas game was his first after a seven-game pointless slump.
- Conversely, Andreas Johnsson didn’t reach his average time on ice in either game so far. For the season, he’s averaging 17:19 per game, but he played 15:49 and 16:12 in the first two games. A notable reason why: He was bumped off the top power-play unit. Right now, he’s averaging 2:52 per night on the power play, which will steadily trend down at this rate.
- We’ve seen it a number of times now but William Nylander’s saucer passes in tight when a defenseman lays down is nearly automatic. He did it again in Colorado, leading to Tyson Barrie’s goal. That said, he needs to mix in a new breakaway move – pulling it backhand every single time is not working. He does have a shot that he can use on breakaways.
- Towards the end of the Vegas game, the Leafs had a power play coming and full control of the puck, and Tyson Barrie walked over center and dumped it in. With just over three minutes left and the goalie comfortably pulled, you should try to gain the zone and get a scoring chance out of it.
- With the game on the line against Colorado in the dying minutes, the full Matthews line was on to protect the lead. It was followed by what they wanted to be the Tavares line, but when Tavares got caught out there because the Leafs couldn’t complete the change, Kerfoot went on to center the next line (with Hyman and Mikheyev). The Leafs got lucky on a number of plays in that sequence. In particular, Ceci made a big save and it bailed out Matthews, who dribbled a puck up the middle for a turnover that Burakovsky pounced on.
“But our game is not really meeting our expectations. We’re mistake-prone on defense. The attention to details isn’t there. Even the explosive offense that our team was known for has been missing for a while now. There is a lot of work for Sheldon to do. There is a lot of work for the players to do, and they understand that. But we really believe in them. We believe in the players we have here. We believe in Sheldon, obviously in making this decision. We are still optimistic that we are going to get this back on track.”
– Brendan Shanahan on what was missing for the Leafs
I thought this was the money quote from Shanahan’s press conference announcing the firing. Simply put, the team was not clicking offensively and they were leaky defensively. I think, in particular, they were not happy with the process of the team. It’s one thing to be in a slump, but they were showing legitimately troubling signs – poor special teams and giving up more high quality scoring chances than they were creating.
“Obviously, you never like to see that. We don’t want to be a team where teams come into our building and they go on the road and they think they can take free runs at our players. I’ve heard that throughout the league that teams feel that way. We want our guys to be tough as a group and as a team. If something happens, they know if the entire group is going to be in there.”
– Kyle Dubas on team toughness and opposing teams feeling they can come in and take runs at Leafs players
The team does need to do a better job of sticking up for each other in these moments, and it was nice to see that acknowledged. Dubas has also noted a number of times that they’d love to add this type of player, but their actions, to be honest, say otherwise. And maybe it doesn’t really matter to them at all — but just say it if so. They’ve rarely added physicality to their team and more often than not have actually went the complete opposite direction by acquiring smaller, skilled players. At this point, I’d just say I’ll believe it when I see it.
“I miss the fans. I miss the city. I miss the guys that were there. I was able to catch up last night & go out for some dinner & hear about all the stories. I miss those guys over there & they’re very easy to get along with …”
– Nazem Kadri on what he misses about Toronto
I miss Kadri, too. While Barrie seems to be in everyone’s good books with his two-game scoring streak, it was telling that he didn’t even play 16 minutes against Colorado, and that was with over two minutes played on the power play. He played over 20 minutes against Arizona, but that game was in control for most of it. Barrie is trending towards filling a third-pairing power-play specialist role at the moment, while Alexander Kerfoot is bouncing between third-line center and third-line left wing.
We said in the summer that Nazem Kadri was the best player in the trade — that’s more than holding true so far. It was frustrating watching him play left wing for Colorado, something the Leafs never tried that was written about here repeatedly. I can’t think of a better left winger for Matthews and Nylander: physical, can cover defensively, great hands, a nose for the net. He is a legitimate top-of-the lineup player overall.
Tweets of the Week
The Leaf: Blueprint Moment presented by @Molson_Canadian. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/xF2QK5TNNg
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 22, 2019
Say whatever you will, but the team genuinely seems to be rallying around the coach getting fired. The onus is on them to be better, and I think they will be.
Leafs should get a new goal song. Hall and Oates leaves with Babcock
— Rob (@robbbbyg) November 22, 2019
This is actually true. I’d love a new song and am still surprised they picked that one to be their goal song for a second straight year.
0 days since last Leafs twitter meltdown
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 25, 2019
Everyone needs to log off and get some fresh air. After reading this article every Monday, of course!
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think the defense pairings make a bit more sense by splitting apart Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie. Holl has looked good and deserves a ton of recognition. I’d keep those pairings together and slide Barrie in alongside Morgan Rielly on the odd offensive zone faceoff. I also think Travis Dermott can slide up with Muzzin when the team is down and needs offense.
- When Alex Kerfoot is suspended, I think it would be interesting to see Pierre Engvall move up the lineup to the third line, with Dmytro Timashov getting back in on a fourth line we’ve seen before. I’m not entirely sure Engvall meant to pass that puck to Shore in Colorado, but he’s made some plays and deserves a longer look. His size on the cycle is noticeable.
- I think I agree with the Leafs giving Andreas Johnsson penalty kill reps. He is fast, tenacious, and will block shots; he was on the penalty kill when he first entered the league and I thought he flashed potential there. While the Leafs have some structural issues, I think they have personnel issues there, too. A player I would be considering removing from the penalty kill — or at least reducing his time there — is Kasperi Kapanen as his reads aren’t particularly strong. A number of times against Colorado, for example, he overcommitted to the point, which left the half-wall options with extra space. He relies on his speed more than thinking.
- I think putting Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly on PP1 is a half-measure and they are going to have to make a real decision at some point. They aren’t running two defensemen on the power play for the rest of the year. I like Barrie’s shot better, but I like Rielly’s breakout ability better. In theory, I thought Barrie could do more to lead a unit on his own because his shot is more of a weapon than Rielly’s, but he really struggled on PP2.
- With a back-to-back happening this week, I think I’d still keep the regular goalie rotation considering it’s Buffalo in both games. Frederik Andersen on the first night and the backup on the second.