Maple Leafs make Sheldon Keefe a winner in NHL debut

Sheldon Keefe couldn't have asked for more. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
Sheldon Keefe couldn't have asked for more. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

If fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t dealing with conditioned pessimism following the horrendous first seven weeks of the season, it would have been all-too predictable.

With Tyson Barrie, Pierre Engvall and Auston Matthews scoring the goals in a 3-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night, the Maple Leafs’ offense in a successful NHL coaching debut from Sheldon Keefe came from:

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  • the player most representative of the irreparable divide between previous coach and management

  • the most recent graduate from his talent pipeline with the Marlies

  • the superstar player who never seemed to have the rosiest relationship with his predecessor

It wasn’t perfect, which Kyle Dubas promised when he explained his rationale for firing Mike Babcock yesterday, but Frederik Andersen was until the final minute. The Toronto netminder made 30 saves to secure his first victory in nearly two weeks, and missed his first shutout of the season by only 17 seconds.

Toronto has one more stop on its west coast trip against Nazem Kadri’s Colorado Avalanche on Saturday, before a brief return home to really dig into the Keefe playbook.

Until then, four points:

Positive vibes

At a very basic level, it was most encouraging to see the Maple Leafs simply expending energy in a uniformly positive manner for the first time in several weeks. Despite all the pressure on snapping a six-game drought and finally banking some points, it became clear from the moment the puck was dropped that the Leafs were just playing, not thinking.

Empowered, it seemed, by the new voice behind the bench, the Maple Leafs’ new lease on life didn’t immediately translate to meaningful offense. But as they pieced together a series of positive shifts in the first period, an opportunity in the form of space in the attacking zone opened up for the player who seemed to need it the most.

Barrie said the goal felt “about as good as any one I've scored,” in the first intermission interview with Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie, and likely for reasons beyond his 23-game slump to begin his tenure with the Leafs.

Asked to reinvent his game under Babcock, the immensely talented defenseman Dubas was waiting to see unleashed in many ways came to represent the philosophical divide that to this point undermined the Maple Leafs’ season.

That’s why the celebrations and smiles after Barrie’s first appeared to be more than just the satisfaction of taking a lead for the first time in eight games.

Support, support, support

Arriving in Arizona only after the Leafs had fired Babcock on Wednesday, Keefe had only a morning skate and a series of meetings to introduce his systems and preferred playing style before the Leafs had to test it out in live action. It’s for that reason that Dubas worked to check expectations in the short term, and why making too many determinations after one game would be misguided.

And yet, despite that, the Keefe influence was pretty apparent.

And it all seemed to centre around puck support.

From an attacking perspective, the biggest difference was the activation from the defense. Members of Toronto’s backend jumped up at almost every opportunity, which created more opportunities to achieve offensive zone possession and pressure. To arrive at that point, the forwards repaid the blue line with a more active role through the process of moving the puck out of the zone, as the Leafs seemed to commit more bodies within their breakout scheme.

Defensively, the Maple Leafs collapse down toward the net and below the hashmarks when the Coyotes had control below the goal line. Tight and compact with support from the wingers, the Leafs did a better job insulating Andersen, and Arizona’s opportunities were largely limited to the perimeter.

Fluidity

I’m not sure what issue irked Maple Leafs fans most, but Mike Babcock’s inflexibility when it comes to his lines and pairing was certainly among them.

Of course, despite all the changes he made to the lineup, it’s hard to say if Keefe will show the same stubbornness, but first impressions suggest that he will allow, or maybe prefers, that the situation dictate personnel.

There was the decision to have Barrie with No. 1 defender Morgan Rielly for the first shift of the game, which was almost like a demonstration for the previous regime. But while he appears unafraid to mix things up at any time, it almost seems like his preferred playing style mandates that combinations remain interchangeable.

We saw tons of different lines and pairings for no other reason than his puck control style demands a certain fluidity.

‘The boys wanna play for him’

It’s possible Travis Dermott has never meant malice in his life, but he raised a few eyebrows in the pregame interview on the broadcast when asked about the mood around the team, and for a description of Keefe’s coaching style.

“The boys want to play for him. He lets us play to our skill, and that’s exactly what we need,” he said.

However much you want to read into the possible subtext, he certainly didn’t appear to be wrong.

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