The Toronto Maple Leafs’ season didn’t end as it was supposed to. That leaves a lot of questions about the team’s future. Outside of the small group of very expensive players who carried most of the offense during the regular season, but who seemed snake-bit around the net during their play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets (save for one sweet burst in five minutes at the end of Game 4), is the team’s talent sub-par? Is it time to blow up the roster?
There’s a list of questions to ask and during the offseason, many will want them answered. In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll spend some time reviewing the postseason and begin to speculate about what might happen going forward. I’ll particularly focus on the critique of Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe and some of his supporters.
Of All People, John Tortorella Jumps to Sheldon Keefe’s Defence
A soliloquy is the perfect definition of a John Tortorella media event. It is a moment during a play when a character speaks to themself but shares their thoughts and feelings with the audience. If other characters are present, they simply keep silent or are disregarded by the speaker. Perfect, right?
In an unprompted speech – perhaps the most we’ve heard Tortorella speak throughout the postseason – the Columbus Blue Jackets head coach showed that, like his team, he too can play defence. Not even a day after his team eliminated the Maple Leafs from playoff competition, Tortorella came to Keefe’s defence at the start of his press conference.
In its entirety, Tortorella said: “Can I start first? Just regarding the series … The bubble is penetrable. People get in here and information gets here from the media. I just can’t get over people ripping Sheldon Keefe and his staff as far as the job they have done with that Toronto Maple Leaf team. They have done a terrific job with that team. This is after the series and all that.
Some of the things I read and some of the things I watched last night… Half the pundits in this city think they really know about the game, but they really don’t. It just pisses me off. I know it’s Toronto — a great city, a great hockey town, and I love being here — but some of the things that he is criticized for is beyond belief to me. It just shows that people have no clue what is going on in this game.
I just wanted to support him. I am glad we won, but I want to support him because I think he and his staff have done a terrific job with that hockey club. Thank you.”
It’s hard to know what to make of his speech. Perhaps we can simply take it at face value and leave it at that.
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston Believes Change Is Coming
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reviewed the fate of the Maple Leafs the day after the team’s loss to the Blue Jackets. He began by looking at the “Shanaplan,” which essentially believes success will come for the Maple Leafs if the organization accumulates and retains as much offensive talent as possible and shifts to a style of play that prizes controlling the puck above all else.
On paper, Johnston admitted, the idea made sense and he bought into it. However, he now believes that plan comes at a cost. He specifically called the team’s defence “second rate,” which is far from a new criticism. He also noted that the defence took a huge blow when Jake Muzzin was injured late in Game 2. That’s true.
He also mentioned that Toronto didn’t get good bang for their buck from the team, which “forced” Keefe to unite John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner for Sunday’s 3-0 series-clinching loss. Then, Keefe couldn’t trust the rest of his forward depth to answer the call when he spread that talent across different lines. He offered no thoughts about Keefe’s decisions.
He quotes Keefe as saying, “Well we’ve obviously found it difficult through this series to generate offence and get chances. I thought that our best opportunity to do so would be to have those guys playing together.”
I may fall into Tortorella’s group of “not knowing what’s going on,” but what I’ve learned from other aspects of my work suggests there might be another way to look at Keefe’s Game 4 coaching.
First, why did Keefe only dress Andreas Johnsson for Game 4? At the time, it seemed desperate. Given the funny puck bounces and goal posts hit by Tavares, the series could have gone either way, so why make changes? Why, for example, mess with young Nick Robertson who – by the way – scored one your team’s few goals and played with energy each game?
Second, I wondered why Zach Hyman was put with different linemates, which altered what had been successful throughout the regular season. Hyman had a great season and, generally, plays well when he’s digging out the puck for his shooters, but the lineup changes placed him in a situation where, given the new line combinations, I wondered whether he was able to do what he does best.
Third, I understand that someday William Nylander should become a strong center. However, why force him into that role in the deciding game of a postseason series? Like him or not, he thinks like a winger. Was it fair to put him in that spot? In general, was the series-deciding game the best time to experiment with shuffled, unproven line combinations and positions. Nylander looked out of synch all game long.
Finally, given that the Blue Jackets have two shutdown defencemen in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, was it wise to load up the team’s offense? Didn’t that play right into the Blue Jackets’ strength?
I don’t presume to know hockey as much as the coaches – they’re in graduate school and I’m a third-grader. Still, Keefe (who I support by the way) made a number of coaching decisions that seemed odd.
Should the Maple Leafs Change Plans Based Upon this Series?
It’s trite for the Maple Leafs to tell fans it was a season of learning. Still, I can’t see the plan created by president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Kyle Dubas, and head coach Keefe being tossed into the garbage because of a single lost game – as frustrating as that game was. This should not be a defining moment for the organization.
As an academic researcher, I know that an “N of 1” is too small a sample for crucial decisions. I also believe theory and practice are complementary. If a theory has been studied fully and looks good on paper, unless an obvious reason exists to change it, it probably remains useful. We’ll soon see if the Maple Leafs brain trust agrees, or if they will they change their destination.