What's mattered for the Maple Leafs a year after Mike Babcock's dismissal
February 22, 2020; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe during the post-game press conference against the Carolina Hurricanes at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
With losses increasing, generalized dysfunction peaking, and clues falling a few months earlier, Maple Leafs fans rightly felt the time was drawing near for Mike Babcock. Still, on the late afternoon of November 20, 2019, when the press release fell while the Maple Leafs were on a road trip through the southwest between stops, it was still a jaw-dropping moment of still time for the franchise and its fans.
This was one of the most famous coaches in the game's recent history and one who promised to survive his eight-year mega-contract in the world's largest hockey market because the Maple Leafs just were going to be "that good". And he was not wrong to be so brazen because it has been that way for a few seasons and the Leafs have made significant improvements year after year.
But when that progress stalled in a very poorly managed and second straight loss to the Boston Bruins in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the club underperformed heavily in the comeback season - Babcock's fifth - GM Kyle Dubas played the card He who apparently burned a hole in his pocket, replacing the incumbent with his preferred choice from behind until even before making minor decisions with the Maple Leafs.
It's hard to believe we've reached the year-long firing anniversary that isolated the biggest name in hockey training months before the rest of us were forced to join him. That's partly because it's been a year, but also because so many major Leafs things have happened since Sheldon Keefe stepped into the spotlight.
Let's take a look back.
Keefe applies the immaturity tag
In the days and weeks immediately after Babcock's departure, some incredible things happened for the Leafs. Freddie Andersen turned a corner in his season. John Tavares began to shift into gear himself. It seemed like Tyson Barrie had been reborn. Jason Spezza didn't have to look over his shoulder. They finally got a victory from the substitute goalkeeper. All of these things combined contributed to the Leafs taking 15 wins in 20 games to start Keefe's tenure, and the chests of Leaf fans everywhere have been pushed out again.
But about six weeks later, things seemed to change - starting with a performance of the Eternal on January 6th by Connor McDavid. The Oilers captain collected four points and scored one of the most brilliant goals in the game's history in his best performance to date against his home club. Keefe had already - perhaps prematurely - picked up Andersen before McDavid's wonder goal, which infuriated the Leafs starter. What had plagued the Leafs before suddenly became clear again: They couldn't keep the puck out of their own net.
What followed was a 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, an 8-4 loss to the Florida Panthers, a sloppy win against the New Jersey Devils and subsequent home defeats to the Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks in Bye Week and All-star break. As the players prepared to go on vacation after losing five of their last six, Keefe, allegedly feeling what Babcock had felt, sent them off with a stark media look back, referring to their recent performances as the work of an "immature" association.
That criticism and the word itself stuck with the Maple Leafs for what was left of the season. The coach occasionally doubled them up, critics used them in their analysis, and the general manager worked to address them once the off-season was over.
Kapanen sat on the bench
For example, while there was a slightly cozy atmosphere in the Leafs room when Babcock's decision was made, we quickly learned that Keefe would not be responsible for any country club.
His recap of the team's declining performance was one thing, but his no-nonsense, unemotional decision to play Kasperi Kapanen for a game in early February after the winger fell asleep and missed the start of training was one of the first examples of the new one Trainer who takes responsibility and sets his example for the franchise.
It sparked some debate over the relationship between Keefe and Kapanen, who had previously worked with the AHL's Toronto Marlies. It could also have been a starting point for discussions about closing trade in Kapans. It wouldn't have an impact on the future in either a positive or a negative light, however, but it could have had an impact on decisions made at the end of the season when Kapanen was the first player to be shipped in a mini-off-season makeover.
Leaves bring in the soup
Michael Hutchinson's failure to perform adequately from the backup position was one of the main reasons the Maple Leafs were on the chase in the Atlantic Division by mid-season. However, since the inception of Keefe, Hutchinson has had reasonably effective results on its launches. The problem was when Hutchinson was forced to remove his ball cap and tighten the straps when Andersen had to be spelled in the game.
This was most evident in one of the pivotal games throughout the Leafs season, when they cut off oxygen to the Panthers - or the team they were directly competing with for a postseason spot - for an entire second period and practically for protection Hutchinson who was poked in the crease when Andersen left with an injury. The Leafs' “best defensive game” in their head coach's mind wasn't enough to win, however, as Hutchinson allowed three goals in just 13 shots in 38 minutes.
Since Andersen was still injured, Hutchinson had to create the start two nights later in New York, where he again failed to win. Even before the Leafs left Madison Square Garden that evening, it was announced that Jack Campbell had been acquired by the Los Angeles Kings in a package that included Kyle Clifford.
For reasons that were obvious at the time and now look further into the future, the Campbell acquisition was enormous for the Leafs. After the Leafs suffered sacrificing a third stringer trying to stand up as a backup at Hutchinson, they now had a legitimate plus in that role. In addition, as a beacon of certainty, he was of tremendous help to a team that was beginning to buckle under pressure for the second time this season.
Of all the moves the Leafs have made in the past 12 months, the Campbell supplement was possibly their best.
The David Ayres game
There could be 10 games from the past 12 months that will stay on the minds of Maple Leafs fans and management, many of which have already been mentioned. But two games against the Carolina Hurricanes are probably the most noticeable. The brilliant and exciting comeback win a few days before Christmas is overshadowed by the humiliating loss that followed a few months later.
Losing their own netminder for emergencies, whose main task in the organization is to keep the ice in their practice facility when they are not waiting for the possibility of multiple goalkeepers from the same team being injured, was the turning point of the training season. Not only was it more than embarrassing, but it seemed to confirm the claim that Keefe would come back to the Leafs as an immature team. In fact, it was a litmus test - an assessment of a team's ability to professionally approach a situation that favors them but still requires adjustment. That night, the Leafs simply did not respond adequately to the changes the hurricanes had made in survival mode when a 42-year-old netminder was at the height of the profession in the moonlight.
The loss should surely have been something the Leafs should have been working on to erase their memories from their memories as soon as possible. The loss to the backup goalkeeper and seeing a team member touring the nighttime television circuit at his own expense completely impacted the further process of the franchise. It was reported that after the defeat, Kyle Dubas canceled a call to defender Zach Bogosian, who found his club didn't deserve the reinforcement until close of trading.
No encore for an epic comeback
What's really wild about the 2019-20 Leafs season is that all of the detailed details discussed and debated ad nauseam over the course of the abbreviated schedule were actually pretty trivial. Because in the end it wasn't about the race with the Panthers for last place in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs just don't have to be terrible to qualify for the postseason reboot of the NHL pandemic, and they obviously achieved that.
After months out of the rink and midsummer training camp, the Leafs entered a postseason streak as the seed of choice for the first time in a long time, clashing with the tenth seed in the official game with the Columbus Blue Jackets -in round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though circumstances were different, the Leafs found themselves in a familiar position after losing two of their first three games and being three goals down by the end of the third half.
The Leafs really needed a miracle to survive and somehow made one. In less than four minutes, they scored three goals to force overtime. Auston Matthews won it in the power game to force a fifth and decisive game.
Incredibly, no hint of magic or dynamism was imparted to the Leafs in the pivotal game that they may never really belong to. Toronto was excluded for the second time in the series in Game 5 and lost an opening round game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth consecutive time.
Cut off the fat
With way too much money tied up in the top performers and the defensive pairings showing a serious imbalance, the Leafs already had to make a lot of money to get closer to an optimized line-up for the coming season. However, when the pandemic stopped the wage cap from running, it essentially forced the Leafs to scrap all of the surplus from the roster to keep the core on track. That meant Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson were treated and Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and Frederik Gauthier were fired as free agents to bolster the defensive core with talent and depth.
While less money is being spent on the forward position, the intent is that the issues Keefe has spoken about publicly are included in the measures to fill the positions vacated by Kapanen and Johnsson. But for the Leafs to be successful, freelance agents Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton, as well as returning Jason Spezza, need to be more than just high-profile cast members and locker room presences. Much of the Maple Leafs' success depends on these inexpensive additions that move the needle around on the ice as well, as contributions from beyond the top 6 were a big topic for this team before it brought an ax into the middle class.
Within 12 months, Keefe identified the underlying problems, tried to solve them on the fly, and has now taken his opinion into account by revising a duty roster.
What he inherited is really his, a year after Babcock was fired.
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