In our past criticisms of Sheldon Keefe’s playoff coaching performance in this space, we’ve talked a lot about consistently timid starts to games, slow adjustments as series wear on, the elevated minutes of the stars (especially when they’re not rolling in the game whatsoever), among other issues. Today, I want to shift the focus a little bit to the team’s pace/style of play under their current head coach.
While we’re definitely not here to relitigate the Mike Babcock era (it was a failure in the playoffs as well), there is value in comparing/contrasting the styles of play over the years under the current core of players. Babcock vehemently emphasized “playing fast” — it was one of his favourite buzz phrases in the media and was literally the motto painted on the wall of the dressing room. It was a constant point of emphasis to advance the puck quickly – more stretching of the ice, forcing back of defenders, and enabling of quick transitions. He also fastidiously monitored shift length and kept the stars’ shift count in check in order to stay fresh with this goal in mind. He wanted to roll his lines (his star players’ TOI was topping out in 19-20 minute range vs. 24-25).
Sheldon Keefe definitely isn’t completely the opposite of all of those things mentioned, but there is generally more of a hold-onto-the-puck emphasis under his leadership. Rather than potentially relinquishing possession, there is much more of the regrouping and D-to-D activity, even if it necessarily means slowing the pace of the game down. Additionally, one place where Keefe has clearly distinguished himself from Babcock is on the point of the stars’ ice time; 25 minutes for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews is quite commonplace under Keefe when trailing in a playoff game. There were signs – especially this past regular season and at times in the playoffs – of Keefe wanting to roll his lines more, but when push comes to shove in the playoffs, he defaults to the same old formula.
This Keefe recipe overall has proven to be an iffy one in the playoffs. At times, the Leafs have looked slower than their collective skating ability and also seemingly more big-error-prone as they’ve been caught taking poorly-calculated risks in dangerous areas of the ice (we all remember the calamitous start of the second period of Game 2 vs. Florida, which was a huge turning point in the series/season, or many of Marner’s shifts this past postseason, or the Travis Dermott play vs. MTL in Game 6 OT, or we could even point to the Timothy Liljegren giveaway vs. FLA for the 2-0 goal in Game 5; they’ve been burned a lot when attempting to force plays — passes through the middle, drop passes, turnbacks, etc — in bad spots on the rink in the playoffs).
If the approach was leading to clear evidence of outscoring opponents at playoff time, it’d be one thing, but we have a lot of evidence now of the Leafs’ offense completely drying up when it matters most to the tune of two or fewer goals in elimination game after elimination game (the most successful playoff teams in the previous three years were Tampa and Colorado – the latter scored 4.07 (!) goals per game, respectively, over their three playoffs between ‘19-20 and ‘21-22; Tampa scored 3.12).
Against Tampa, we also saw the team possess the puck less than it ever has before in any playoff series in the Sheldon Keefe era. They became more passive in their play through the neutral zone and more concentrated on falling back and defending with numbers. The Leafs lost the territorial battle notably, so they weren’t tilting the ice to their advantage and making their own breaks in the one series victory this core has accomplished to date. Following a flipped script compared to the previous series against Tampa or Montreal, the Leafs won because they got some breaks, timely scoring, and clutch goaltending — not because they dictated the pace of the series or imposed their style of puck-possession hockey.
You could certainly argue the team finally won a series this way, but it required multiple rabbit-from-the-hat comebacks and three OT victories on the road; no one who watched the series could honestly disagree with Steven Stamkos’ assessment that Tampa played a far better series than the spring before (and probably deserved to win). We can’t be the organization/fan base that took some degree of solace in the positives of the team’s strong process last year against Tampa and then not be honest in the postmortems about their mostly poor one this time around. The Leafs should’ve overwhelmed the Tampa defense more than what we saw in the series, but they allowed Tampa’s young defensemen to settle into the series and actually grow in confidence as the six games wore on (they should’ve burned the likes of Marc Staal and Radko Gudas more frequently in the Florida series, too, although there are some different nuances to that story).
In general, the Leafs were breaking out too deliberately and predictably this past playoff run — as the opposition sent two in deep on the forecheck and activated their D, it jammed Toronto up on their zone exits, and the Leafs struggled to adjust, particularly in the Tampa series. They had their one flurry of rush chances at the start of Game 3 vs. Florida when Keefe made an adjustment — and it was certainly a more open series vs. the Panthers than the Tampa series in general, with more success exiting the zone efficiently and playing quicker for Toronto — but they don’t generate a ton of transition opportunity broadly speaking in the playoffs, and they have a hard time breaking down committed five-man defenses inside their offensive-zone possessions.
On a team with a lot of high-octane skill, shouldn’t it be a goal to devise a system that creates some more quick-break opportunities, creates more space for the skill to operate, and puts the opposition D more on its heels / in positions to defend in space versus elite scoring talent? Allowing the other team to set itself in the neutral zone as you deliberate with regroups and D-to-D plays also makes it more difficult to establish a fast and effective forecheck; the other team can set up with the numbers in place to slow you down with their checking as well as the bumps and rub-outs away from the puck that become legal interference in the playoffs.
Inside the offensive zone, it’s true the Leafs’ star talent has repeatedly struggled to generate enough shots in the critical areas, and a lot of that does fall on the individual scorers in question. But there is also the matter of the team’s inability to generate enough from the point at a time of year when pucks on net with traffic is the name of the game. There was a flurry of this type of goal in the Tampa series, but the Leafs really struggled to generate much in this area before or after the Tampa series. It’s actually remarkable to review the Leafs’ D production over the years under Keefe and take stock of the total dearth of it outside of Rielly (and Muzzin, who isn’t available to them anymore).
There is a personnel component to it, but almost certainly a coaching aspect to this as well in terms of an aversion to point shots. Between 2019-20 and 2022-23, the Leafs received 51 points and 241 shots on goal in 184 man games from their defense in the playoffs. This isn’t good in general (1.3 shots per game on average and a .27 points per game), but the numbers are stunning when we remove Rielly – 154 games played, 29 total points, and 166 shots on goal collectively from the 15 other Toronto defensemen who have dressed over the last four playoff runs. The average Leafs defenseman not named Rielly produced one point every 5.4 playoff games over these past four postseasons while barely averaging one shot on goal per game (for context, the average Avalanche defenseman not named Makar managed a point every 2.7 games and 1.6 shots/game).
On this note, from a player personnel perspective, I would be remiss not to mention that the Leafs need more drivers of offense on their backend through no direct fault of Keefe’s (this falls on Dubas). They have also probably slowed down a little bit in terms of the foot speed compared to the days when their young core was first breaking into the league, a younger John Tavares then joined the fold, and the fresh-faced likes of Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Trevor Moore were in the team’s supporting cast. Maybe there is a point to be made in this regard when looking ahead to the offseason player personnel changes – i.e. adding a little more foot speed in the ranks – but I think the Leafs as constituted had the capacity to play faster than they’ve shown recently under Keefe. Tampa is not a lightning-quick team, and yet the Leafs were never able to consistently exploit fast play against them and make them uncomfortable with the pace of the series.
To be clear, this is not advocacy for pucks off the glass all the time or taking the dump out/dump in rates to an extreme, but it’s more about going north quicker, deploying little chip and flip plays into space, and getting onto loose/contested pucks with speed as opposed to allowing the opposition to set themselves inside their structure. It’s about creating more fast break opportunities that also help take some of the sting out of an opposing forecheck and make the opponent think twice about sending their D aggressively down the wall over and over again.
There is also the matter of coach-player accountability. It’s true that the Leafs should want a talent like Mitch Marner to be creative — to embrace some freedom to dance around and make plays when the plays are available — but if he’s slowing up and making bad decisions with the puck he has often been making in the playoffs, the coach should be able to sit him down for a few shifts (God forbid!) and say, “This is the clear standard we’ve set here, and you’re not meeting it.”
Instead, under Keefe, it’s always been a case of running Marner (to pick on one player) right back out there to turn it over some more, hoping the talent will win out when rewarded with enough opportunity and puck touches (frankly, Keefe’s framing that the team “didn’t play long enough for the [stars] to find their way through it” rubbed me the wrong way; the more accountable take is that the stars didn’t find their way through it quickly enough to play for longer… They’re the ones paid a combined $40+ million to score more than once on 67 shots).
The other question mark for me: It’s quite possible, even probable, that Dubas is strongly philosophically aligned with the Keefe approach on a lot of the items we’ve discussed, from the style of play nuances to ice time allocation. I like a lot of what Dubas has done in the trade and free agent markets — and see promising signs in some of his recent draft picks, in particular — but I have a reservation about him on the matter of his loyalty to his head coach specifically. Not that we needed any more evidence than the clear shared history between the two — Keefe followed Dubas to the Soo, the Marlies, and the Leafs — but from the outside looking in, they seem as though they have a strong alignment on hockey philosophy and make a lot of decisions with each other’s input.
Is Dubas the right GM to fire Keefe and bring in the new coach, then? Or is this Dubas hockey we’re watching just as much as it is Keefe hockey? The idea of a Keefe-Dubas divorce — with Dubas continuing on as manager — seems more plausible than ever right now, but it’s for these reasons that they always felt (to me) kind of inextricably married to one another (I kind of felt in years past that they’d either win or go down with the ship together).
Hopefully, we’ll have more certainty around these big question marks at the highest levels of the organization in the next few days to come.