Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

12 hours after his team eliminated the Maple Leafs from the postseason, Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella jumped to Sheldon Keefe’s defense in the media today unprompted at the beginning of his press availability.

Can I start first? Just regarding the series… I don’t know. The bubble is penetrable. People get in here and information gets here from the media. I just can’t get over people ripping Sheldon Keefe and his staff as far as the job they have done with that Toronto Maple Leaf team. They have done a terrific job with that team. This is after the series and all that.

Some of the things I read and some of the things I watched last night… Half the pundits in this city think they really know about the game, but they really don’t.  It just pisses me off. I know it’s Toronto — a great city, a great hockey town, and I love being here — but some of the things that he is criticized for is beyond belief to me. It just shows that people have no clue what is going on in this game.

I just wanted to support him. I am glad we won, but I want to support him because I think he and his staff have done a terrific job with that hockey club. Thank you.

If you’ve listened to Tortorella speak publicly over the years, he regularly argues that hockey fans overrate the coach’s overall impact on the outcome of hockey games — win or lose. That is self-serving to some degree — an NHL coach shielding himself from potential criticism after losses — but I do think there is something to be said for it in general.

Additionally, if John Tavares hits the empty-net in the first period last night or Andreas Johnsson doesn’t get robbed blind by Joonas Korpisalo in the third period, fans and media could be singing an entirely different tune today about Keefe’s masterstrokes in Game 5. Them’s the breaks in hockey.

I do think Sheldon Keefe was guilty of some over-coaching, though. Just as Babcock sometimes under-coached — same lines, tight shifts, roll ‘em, keep the pace up, not changing a damn thing even when a spark is needed — Keefe went into this game playing with fire as far as experimenting with shuffled-up, unproven combinations in a series-deciding game while also potentially playing into Columbus’ hands.

He took away the Leafs’ decided advantage in the matchup game — they have two elite C-RW combinations they can roll at teams, while Columbus has their elite top defense pair (not to discredit David Savard or Vlad Gavrikov — who were excellent all series).  That loaded Leafs top line would make any coach nervous, but I really think Tortorella would’ve taken the option of overlapping Werenski and Jones’ ice time with as much of Marner, Tavares, and Matthews’ as possible knowing there wasn’t much else worth sweating about in the Leafs lineup in this series beyond that.

It would’ve been a decision Keefe could’ve maybe justified from the start of the game if he knew he had a 2C option he could really rely on and additional line combinations he could turn to — but he didn’t, it all looked pretty disjointed/unfamiliar, and he put William Nylander in an unfair spot. This is where the fault extends beyond Keefe, though, too — the depth of the forward group simply isn’t good enough, and the team’s flexibility down the middle of the ice was greatly hampered with the loss of Nazem Kadri.

Keefe then briefly moved away from his gameplan for a while at the start of the third — seemingly a backward approach to how it all should’ve been handled. He would’ve been better off coming out for the third with the nuclear option after he tried two periods of rolling lines properly.

Keefe’s aim wasn’t without its logic, though, and it certainly wasn’t rooted in stubbornness — which is a trait that was highly frustrating about Mike Babcock and made it difficult to defend him or expect him to ever really change his ways at playoff time. The Leafs hadn’t scored an early goal all series. I wrote before Game 5 that I would never bet on the Blue Jackets to cough up a lead again after their collapse in Game 4 — they’ve got too much pride and are too good of a team defensively.

Keefe has always advocated for a strategy of playing aggressive early and emphasized the value of getting out to leads in this league. Against Columbus in the playoffs, it’s even more important than usual. We saw it throughout the series; the Leafs largely could not score, but when they did like in Games 2 and 3, it forced Columbus into a style of game they aren’t necessarily comfortable playing and the Leafs managed to generate additional offense. He bet on that line getting the job done, he had the opportunity to put them in some advantageous positions with last change, and it didn’t work out, but I suppose there are worse gambles to make.

It also really didn’t help that Keefe got less than expected out of Hyman and far less than expected out of Mikheyev in terms of establishing forechecks, creating space, and causing havoc at the net-front for his top-six lines. At 5v5, the Leafs didn’t generate enough high-danger chances at the net via second and third opportunities outside of Matthews and Tavares (high-danger 5v5 scoring chances were just 8-7 last night in a game where the Leafs trailed for much of the night). The Hymans and Mikheyevs should help make those lines go in a series where there is no space off the rush and few east-west plays being completed in the o-zone, but neither was effective enough over the five-game series.

That’s to say nothing of one key injury leaving Keefe with a top-four on the blue line that was three-quarters comprised of Martin Marincin, Cody Ceci, and Justin Holl — there is an offensive dimension to that as well in terms of the number of plays that died on the sticks of that trio. That’s a story for another day, though, with plenty of time for dissection in the long offseason ahead.