There will inevitably be a lull in the winning but for now, fans have much to celebrate as we ease into a new decade. Not the least of which is the Toronto Maple Leafs coach, Sheldon Keefe, setting a Maple Leaf record for the best start in a coach’s first 20 games. Keefe’s 15-4-1 record is one win better than Hap Day‘s record of 14-5-1 from the 1940-1941 season.
Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Sets Record
Day’s Maple Leafs started the 1940-1941 campaign with a 14-5-1 record. There was a bit of a dip after that as Day went 1-5-1 (that other 1 was a tie, not a shootout or overtime loss) in the next seven games. The Maple Leafs also lost in seven games that season to none other than the Boston Bruins. While Maple Leaf fans may be about as happy as they can be with the way this season has gone since the Mike Babcock firing, and rightfully so, there will eventually be rough waters. So far, fans can be confident that when things do get tough, Keefe will be able to right the ship quickly by changing things up. That may be by distributing ice time differently, changing or stacking lines, or even when the backup gets a chance to play.
Under Babcock, the Maple Leafs were 0-5-1 without Frederik Andersen in the net. They’re 3-1-0 under Keefe. A lot of that is the team playing better in front of Michael Hutchinson but some of it is Keefe’s decisions on when to play Hutchinson. While Babcock would only play his backup in the second game of a back-to-back set, Keefe has been more fluid and less restrictive with his decisions. The first game Hutchinson won happened to be the second game in a back-to-back scenario, but Keefe didn’t play him in that game for the same reason Babcock played him. Keefe played him in that game because it was against the Detroit Red Wings.
The first move from Babcock’s norm was starting Hutchinson in the first game of a back-to-back. Again a decision made based on the strength of the opponent, in this case, the New Jersey Devils. Then Keefe made a risky move on the night he was to potentially set the record for the best start of a Maple Leafs’ coach after 20 games. He started Hutchinson on a Saturday night against the New York Islanders with no back-to-back scenario in sight.
Go With The Flow
One of the reasons Keefe has been so successful is his willingness to change things due to how people are playing. His fourth line will get more time if they’re playing well, his top lines will get less time if they’re not playing well. The decision to rest Andersen on Saturday night may not have been an on the fly decision like playing time during a game is, but it was a calculated call based on what appeared to be right at the moment.
The Maple Leafs need Andersen to play well in the spring. A major concern has been Andersen’s workload. The question of him being too tired to perform well in the playoffs has been a common topic. If Andersen does indeed need fewer regular-season games to do well in the playoffs, then the Maple Leafs must get more wins out of their back-up. That’s not going to happen if the team pre-picks every start in the pre-season. How teams are playing has to be a factor.
The Islanders aren’t a top offensive team and they’ve had difficulty winning lately, at least compared to how they started the season. It was an ideal time to catch them, and Keefe thought it was a good time to slip in the back-up. He was right and as a result, he’s the winningest coach after 20 games in Maple Leafs history.
Auston Matthews topped all forwards in ice time against the Islanders Saturday at 21:46. It wasn’t the most he’s played in a game, but he was playing well and was rewarded with more ice time than. He finished the game with a goal and an assist. It’s also noteworthy here to mention that Matthews has 17 points in his last nine games and 24 points since Keefe took over. He’s also had more ice time overall in those 20 games.
If we go back to a game in mid-December against the Edmonton Oilers and check the box score, we’ll find Matthews had only 14:34 ice time. That night, if you remember, was a game the third line with Alexander Kerfoot and the unfortunately injured Ilya Mikheyev were ruling the roost. They ended the game with two goals and three points in a 4-1 win. Keefe identified that line as he best that night and adjusted accordingly. It was Matthews’ lowest ice time of the season. His highest was also under Keefe, a full ten minutes higher at 24:48 against the Buffalo Sabres.
It’s not just Matthews that sees his ice time fluctuate. Any player is subject to it as they play well or poorly.
Keefe’s success comes from a few things. The players like him and they like the game he wants them to play. That’s probably first and foremost. Everyone is better when they’re doing something the way they want to do it. There’s less focus on cycling the puck and getting dirty in the corners and less pressure to play physical. There’s more focus on puck possession, playing keep away, getting creative and allowing the players the freedom to play their style.
It’s still a question if the method of play Toronto has adopted will be successful through four rounds of playoff hockey. Can the Maple Leafs beat the St. Louis Blues that way? Kyle Dubas is betting they can, but for Keefe what’s more important is buying into the plan. A plan can be built to perfection, but if it’s not executed, it will fail miserably. The only way to know if the Maple Leafs can win with Dubas’ model is to try it wholeheartedly. That’s what they’re doing now, that’s what Keefe is allowing them to do and what Babcock could not.
Willingness To Change
The other success factor for Keefe is his ability to make changes based on how players are playing on both his Maple Leafs and the opponent. That willingness to change is monumentally important. It’s not changing the overall plan, but adjusting within it. It’s where ice time increases and decreases come in, it’s why Matthews is playing a lot more with Mitch Marner since Keefe took over.
If the Maple Leafs can’t beat a team like the Blues when it matters, that willingness to change will have to expand beyond the Toronto Maple Leafs coach. Dubas will need to re-think parts of his vision. Considering Keefe was a Dubas hire and that they’re of the same mindset, it will be surprising if Dubas doesn’t consider changing his vision. At least a litter as the Maple Leafs see what this high flying team is capable, or not capable of, in the playoffs.
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