Sheldon Keefe finally has all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.
But can he put a winning Maple Leafs lineup together again?
The first game of the season with the entire Toronto roster — minus checking winger Trevor Moore — was more disjointed than dominating on Wednesday, up against the rested resources of the Colorado Avalanche. It would be hasty to judge the new defensive pairs on just one outing, but at forward, some lines failed to make it through the first period before being broken up in search of more scoring.
There are likely to be an ongoing experiments on a number of fronts, to get Auston Matthews out of his funk, make the most of Mitch Marner’s return, not take away from John Tavares or Zach Hyman, and get more out of rookie Ilya Mikheyev, who has no goals since Oct. 25.
The good news, unlike a couple of years ago when there were few options, is the Leafs have some intriguing possibilities still to sort through.
“We know anyone can play with anyone on this team, and everyone’s deadly with the puck,” said Marner, who played a team-high 28 shifts in his return, almost 23 minutes. “It doesn’t matter who you’re on the ice with, it’s the amount of chemistry you have with that person. But I think that comes pretty quick on our team. It’s just attention to detail down low in our zone and making sure you do things right.”
Matthews, Marner and William Nylander saw some shifts together Wednesday, the third line of Hyman, Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen has potential, and Keefe can always go back to last season’s top line of Hyman, Tavares and Marner. Andreas Johnsson had to leave the game halfway through because of a shot block injury, though his numbers have slipped lately, too. When Moore does return, he can either move up the chain or at worst, augment Jason Spezza or the Marlie grads on the fourth unit.
“I do intend on moving things around with those top guys,” said Keefe, before the Leafs departed Scotiabank for a day off Thursday. “You lose Johnsson and it changes things a bit, but you’re looking for a spark, trying to score.”
That said, Keefe didn’t fault the overall effort on Wednesday after a shocking end to a 6-1 loss in Philadelphia the night before. The Leafs, now 4-3-0 under the new coach, didn’t lag against the rested Avs, but couldn’t crack their defence despite 39 shots on goal.
“I thought the urgency was fine and some of the adjustments we’ve been working at defensively have been there for us,” Keefe said. “While our attention has gone there, we’ve gotten away from some of the things offensively we need to focus on.”
On the blueline, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl were given the shutdown role against Nathan MacKinnon’s line, while Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie had a chance to expand their offensive games. Again, Keefe said he just wanted different looks and gauge how more ice time affected certain defencemen.
Former Leafs team psychologist Paul Dennis already was busy before the spotlight fell on hockey coaches who allegedly have abused their power to coerce and intimidate players.
Dennis, a retired professor at York University and former coach of the junior Marlies, has been working with OHL commissioner Dave Branch the past three years to create an education program to assist OHL and other Canadian Hockey League coaches with player relations.
“It’s so they can have a better understanding of today’s players, so they’ll be able to create a coaching environment where unwavering trust between players and coaches becomes the norm.,” Dennis said. “The program teaches coaches that there can never be an attack on a player’s self-esteem. In short, coaching by creating a threatening environment based on physical or emotional abuse will never be tolerated. Such behaviour has long-term negative effects on players, such as depression and anxiety.”
As such stories found their way to a mass audience in recent days, Branch conducted a conference call with OHL general managers, reinforcing that teams are required to contact Dennis if they identify an issue, and that the league can initiate contact if it has grounds to believe there is a problem.
“The program was embraced by the (OHL) Board of Governors and we’ve been very pleased with the teams we’ve dealt with so far,” Dennis said.
After a practice on Friday, the Leafs will have four road games spaced out by a day or two — which prompts the question: When will Michael Hutchinson make his next start? Moved aside Wednesday after Frederik Andersen convinced Keefe it was best to let him lead the team for a shot at quick redemption, Hutchinson will play once on the trip, though Keefe just doesn’t know when.
Facing the Stanley Cup champion Blues in St. Louis on Saturday might be too tall an order, as would Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl a week later in Edmonton. So the winless Hutchinson might be looking at the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, or the Calgary Flames on Thursday. Versus the Canucks, the former Winnipeg Jet has a sparkling record of 4-1-0-0 with a .949 save percentage.
A huge confidence boost for the Leafs penalty kill was giving the Avs next to nothing on a four-minute minor to Muzzin in the third period Wednesday after MacKinnon scored easily on the visitors’ first power play. Asked about the Leafs’ power play (19.0%) drawing just two or fewer chances in 10 of the past 11 games, Keefe pointed out the Leafs aren’t being called too often themselves of late. At 94 times short this season, the Leafs rank 12th highest, but have the third-most goals against … Rielly is two assists shy of 214 and tying Bryan McCabe for sixth among Leafs defencemen in franchise history.