Mike Babcock was right. “If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” he warned upon his introduction as the Maple Leafs’ head coach in May 2015. The problem is that he made sure of it. Over the course of his four seasons and change behind the bench, Babcock imposed a grind-it-out philosophy on a young club begging for the training wheels to come off. Three straight first-round exits suggested there was room for improvement, but it never arrived. There were no wrinkles, no adjustments. Babcock was seemingly willing to lose games so long as it meant the club was playing his way. With endless stretch passes, a total aversion to risk and star players seeing neither enough minutes nor time with the puck, he devoted all his attention to trying to force square pegs into round holes.
By the quarter mark of the 2019-20 season, the 9-10-4 Leafs (20th) were the single biggest disappointment in the NHL. They ranked 25th in points percentage and looked as disengaged as any cellar-dweller in the league. This wasn’t some sudden tailspin either. Since the end of last December, Toronto had mustered a pitiful 29-28-10 record (22nd) under Babcock.
General manager Kyle Dubas and the higher-ups had seen enough of this sinking ship. They fired Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Toronto Marlies head coach and longtime Dubas associate Sheldon Keefe. The contrast between his opening remarks and his predecessor’s was stark: “I’m not focused on what this team isn’t. I’m focused on what this team is.” Here is a coach determined to play to his roster’s strengths. That new approach quickly translated to success on the ice too, as our first glimpse of Keefe hockey produced a 3-1 win against the much-improved Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night. Beyond the result, the Leafs were downright unrecognizable in play style. There was energy, enthusiasm, creativity. They were no longer trying to scrape out victories by the skin of their teeth. They were taking flight.
Toronto’s cohesion and considerable skill allowed it to control 60.5% of the shot attempts, 71.1% of the scoring chances and 75.0% of the high-danger bids at 5-on-5. That last figure is vital because Babcock’s Leafs (48.3 HDCF%) were regularly kept to the outside and forced into harmless point shots or unscreened wristers. On Thursday, the Leafs generated chance after chance by buzzing around the offensive zone and attacking in five-man waves. The heat map speaks volumes: Toronto utterly dominated the slot.
Of course, this was just one contest. Nevertheless, the foundation is there for a serious turnaround.
While Keefe’s system will likely require a few weeks — if not months — to fully implement, the most noticeable difference against the Coyotes was the team’s level of support all over the ice. Players were no longer stranded on an island. On the breakout, Toronto’s forwards sagged much deeper into their end to provide the defensemen with shorter and better passing options up the ice. They transitioned into offense as a team rather than rocketing up long bombs as everyone watched from a standstill. This new tactic plays directly into the skill set of someone like Tyson Barrie (8 points in 24 games), a clever puck-moving defenseman who struggled mightily in Babcock’s meat-and-potatoes scheme. In his first contest under Keefe, he was announced as the starting RHD. That vote of confidence went straight to his legs, as the 28-year-old rediscovered his poise and game-breaking ability, ending the game with a 93.3 SCF% and 100.0 HDCF% over 20 minutes of play. In his previous 23 outings, he floundered near the bottom of the club’s barrel in those metrics.
Toronto’s emphasis on support was also evident in the offensive zone, where the forwards stood much closer to each other in order to win battles and exchange quick passes. No more relying on muffins from the blue line. Speaking of the blue line, Keefe activated his defensemen in a major way. Barrie, Justin Holl (6 points in 22 games) and Jake Muzzin (12 points in 23 games) appeared especially fond of this wrinkle, as they jumped into the play all night to extend time on attack and create opportunities. It shouldn’t be long before Morgan Rielly (17 points in 24 games) and Travis Dermott (2 points in 11 games) get in on the action as well.
Seemingly overnight, the Leafs transformed from a group that was perpetually on its heels to one that was looking for the kill. They didn’t stop moving, probing, constantly giving the opposition different looks in order to find a weak spot. That’s how you apply pressure.
Barrie was an obvious beneficiary of the new designs on Thursday, but the entire roster seemed rejuvenated — perhaps no one more so than Auston Matthews (28 points in 24 games). The 22-year-old superstar clearly wasn’t on the same page as Babcock, what with that highly publicized offseason meeting, the ill-fitting linemates and a system seemingly built to suppress his impact. In just one game, Keefe offered immediate reassurance that he understands how to deploy star talent: Play them. A lot. Matthews was on pace for over 20 minutes after two periods and he rewarded Keefe’s faith with a remarkable three-zone showing reminiscent of his rookie campaign. His line owned 78.9% of the scoring chances and 87.5% of the high-danger opportunities as he, William Nylander (18 points in 24 games) and Andreas Johnsson (12 points in 24 games) thrived in a freewheeling setting.
If this is a sign of things to come…look out. And let’s not forget Toronto was without brilliant playmaker Mitch Marner (18 points in 18 games) and miniature Tasmanian devil Trevor Moore (5 points in 21 games). Marner should rekindle his rapport with John Tavares (14 points in 17 games) in this more fluid system, whereas Moore’s tremendous work rate should play nicely with a team now focused on hounding the puck.
Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Johnsson, Barrie, Rielly, Dermott, Moore, Kasperi Kapanen (12 points in 24 games), Alexander Kerfoot (8 points in 21 games), Ilya Mikheyev (14 points in 24 games). This team was born to run and it’s finally been granted the permission to do so.
Was Babcock the only problem in Toronto? No, but he was certainly right at the top of the list. For the past three years, we’ve known exactly what the Leafs were and yet he wouldn’t budge an inch. His assistant coaches were fired, new faces were brought in and the team still looked the same. Keefe, for his part, is too green to already be set in his ways. He’s always adapting, always learning. As such, Toronto is turning the corner from great pretender to great unknown. The Leafs have barely scratched the surface of their potential, and for a club that’s been resigned to the same fate over the past few years, that’s undeniably exciting.