One week ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were putting the finishing touches on a six-game losing streak, their tumultuous 2019-20 season in a full-on spiral.
Seven days later, Sheldon Keefe’s entered the fray to reinvigorate the young club. The six-game slide’s been swapped for two straight wins, with Keefe’s Leafs posting eight goals during that pair of W’s after managing just nine over the previous four games.
Though far from fully redeemed, it seems the club’s taken to Keefe’s myriad roster and tactical shake-ups, and looks hungry to go on a run up the standings.
That being the case, let’s take a quick look at who on the roster has benefitted most from the team’s coaching swap thus far:
Obviously. If there’s one player whose two-game stretch has best encapsulated the Maple Leafs’ shift in thinking under Keefe, it’s Barrie.
Stumbling through a brutal opening quarter of the season that saw him put up just seven points — zero of which were goals — over the first 23 games, the skilful defender now has a goal in each of Keefe’s games behind the bench, adding an assist during the club’s latest win as well.
Barrie’s sudden success can be linked pretty clearly to the changes Keefe has implemented already. First off, the directive to Leafs defenders to push deep into the offensive zone and help facilitate the cycle game has given Barrie a much-needed green light to make the type of dashes to the cage we used to see from him in Colorado.
His first goal for Toronto came as a direct result of that strategic shift, with Barrie catching the opposition off-guard and cutting to the net:
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 22, 2019
A few other changes have helped the 28-year-old rediscover his offensive game as well — most notably getting some shifts with No. 1 defender Morgan Rielly at 5-on-5, and earning that long-awaited promotion to the top power-play unit.
The last note is key, as it’s shfited Barrie into the role in which he’s best-suited to contribute in Toronto — the former Avalanche defender posted the third-most power-play points among all NHL blue-liners over the past two seasons, yet got little opportunity to contribute in that role under head coach Mike Babcock.
He’ll get every chance to contribute there under Keefe, who’s intent on getting Barrie back into a role similar to the one he thrived in with Colorado.
It’s been a wild rookie campaign already for 25-year-old Ilya Mikheyev.
While the young soup lover found some success within Babcock’s system as well — posting 12 points through 23 games while averaging 15:43 minutes per night — he’s seen his role increase exponentially under Keefe. One of the new coach’s most intriguing early moves, in fact, was the decision to bump Mikheyev up to John Tavares’ left wing, shifting longtime left-side staple Zach Hyman to No. 91’s right side.
Mikheyev’s responded, posting two assists and leading the club in shots (with seven) over the past two games as his ice-time his risen from that 15:43 average to 18:57 under Keefe.
Though the top-six assignment appears to be temporary, given the Hyman-Tavares-Mitch Marner trio established itself as a fairly dominant one in 2018-19, looking at the current setup, it’s Hyman, not Mikheyev, who currently occupies Marner’s spot on Tavares’ right wing.
With the new coach pushing a more skilful brand of Leafs hockey, and Hyman long being seen as the poster boy for Babcock’s preferred blue-collar style of play, it’s not inconceivable that the rookie could stick on that line with Tavares and Marner once the $10.893-million man returns to the lineup.
Even if he doesn’t, for the time being Mikheyev’s getting as good an opportunity as any to showcase his potential.
Spezza’s struggles to establish himself during Babcock’s reign in Toronto are well-documented.
The 17-year NHL veteran made it into just 13 games over the Maple Leafs’ first 23 tilts, scratched 10 times by Babcock after coming to the club as a veteran on the roster’s fringe. Injuries to centremen Tavares and Alex Kerfoot bumped Spezza into the third-line pivot role, seemingly only as a stopgap until the younger options got healthy. But Keefe’s elected to keep him there even with Kerfoot’s return, shifting the former Avs forward to the wing.
The biggest strategic shift from Keefe that should benefit Spezza is the decision to move away from emphasizing breakneck speed at all times, with the club now opting for a more patient, measured approach.
As seen in both of Toronto’s games under the new bench boss, Keefe has encouraged his players to hold onto the puck, utilize their skill, and focus on possession rather than simply pushing a frenetic pace — all of which would seem to mesh better with what Spezza brings to the table at this point in his career.
As is the case whenever an AHL coach is promoted to the big club, the hidden gems from the minor-league level are dusted off and pushed into bigger roles.
Keefe’s greatest advantage in taking over this Leafs squad is the number of players on the roster he’s worked with previously during their Marlies tenures. Holl could be one such player who could see his role increase given Keefe’s familiarity with him — the 27-year-old spent three seasons working under the coach at AHL Toronto, and was given little opportunity to become an everyday NHLer during Babcock’s Toronto tenure.
Through two games back with Keefe, however, Holl’s been eating up a significant number of blue-line shifts — he’s earned 25 shifts at 5-on-5 in each of the past two games (per NaturalStatTrick.com), that total ranking as the second-most on the team in Game 1 with Keefe at the helm, and the most on the team in Game 2. In the last five games of Babcock’s tenure, Holl’s place among the top shift-getters on the roster each night read like so: fifth, third, 11th, fifth, and 14th.
All in all, the blue-liner has led the Leafs in shifts per game over this brief two-game stretch, getting plenty of ice alongside veteran defensive partner Jake Muzzin.
Engvall is another prime candidate to see his role increase due to his former AHL coach getting a promotion to the bigs.
The 23-year-old spent the past two seasons with Keefe in Marlies colours, and had 16 points through 15 games for him this season before both were brought up to the NHL at nearly the same time.
He’s already impressing as he gets a shot on the fourth-line with the Maple Leafs, posting a goal in Keefe’s debut against the Coyotes and an assist on Toronto’s first goal of the game vs. the Avalanche.
More importantly, he’s being thrown into the mix by Keefe in key situations — the Ljungby, Sweden, native has earned an opportunity on the penalty kill, and was sent over the boards in the final minutes against Colorado as Toronto tried to hold off a tying goal.
With a number of capable forwards fighting for ice-time and a consistent spot in the lineup, the faith Keefe is showing in Engvall’s defensive game should serve the young winger well.
If anyone on the Marlies roster was in need of a second chance, it’s Hutchinson.
The embattled backup netminder earned six games with the big club this season, and came up with wins in exactly zero of them, posting an .879 save percentage and a 4.44 goals-against average along the way.
All in all, little was made clear about Hutchinson in 2019-20 other than his seeming inability to survive as the Maple Leafs’ backup this season.
Through a few appearances in the AHL, however, Hutchinson’s offered a glimmer of hope — he put up a .942 save percentage and a 1.95 goals-against average in three games with AHL Toronto, earning wins in all three.
With Keefe moving from the Coca-Cola Coliseum to Scotiabank Arena, Hutchinson’s been called up once again. When exactly he’ll get back in the Maple Leafs’ net is unclear, but getting another shot at all is benefit enough for the 29-year-old.