“If you’re not urgent in this league, you fall behind.” — Morgan Rielly
TORONTO – Honeymoons are blissful blurs that let you float for a week or two on laughter and dreams, but they are only an escape. A freedom blip, not real life.
Honeymoon periods can end as swiftly as they start, and the snow-covered streets in Toronto these days are a cold reminder that the loose-and-fun vibe that marked Sheldon Keefe’s arrival on the Toronto Maple Leafs has morphed into something much more pressing.
The three-game winning streak that hailed Keefe’s arrival has now turned into 4-3 mediocrity, a panicky goaltending decision, some airtight salary-cap restraints, and Auston Matthews’s longest regular-season goal drought (five games and counting) since March.
After a much-needed day off Thursday for Frederik Andersen and the rest, the Maple Leafs will embark on a four-game western swing that features road dates against two divisional leaders (St. Louis and Edmonton), another playoff-positioned squad (Vancouver), and a sleeping threat refreshed by their own honeymoon phase (Calgary).
Absolutely, one could build a case that the Maple Leafs deserved a better fate.
Andersen, who insisted he take the net for the second time in less than 48 hours, played sublimely, and the Leafs won the 5-on-5 battle 1-0. Considering their rested, motivated opponent, this was easily the best effort Toronto has put forth on a back-to-back all season.
When the Leafs try at both ends, they can hang.
Yet one bizarre mistake on the power play by their most veteran skater was the difference, and the Leafs’ self-dug hole hasn’t afforded them the luxury of too many tough-luck losses.
Jason Spezza — who has survived the steady trickle of roster cuts thus far — snapped his stick, then ended up picking his own defenceman, Morgan Rielly, trying to play the puck with his feet at the Colorado blue line. Valeri Nichushkin pounced and steamed down ice for a clean breakaway, beating Andersen and scooping the extra $2,000 teammate Nazem Kadri threw on the board for the game winner.
“We made a push after that, but it’s frustrating. You work to get that power play. It’s a game of inches; you make split-second decisions. I made the wrong one tonight there, and it cost us,” said Spezza, owning it. “I kind of just froze to try to not get in his way and in turn got in his way more. That game falls on me now.”
But this cannot be about the blame game.
The underachieving Maple Leafs are on pace for 82 points, their lowest total since the tank year (2015-16). The barrier to reach the post-season in 2019 was 90 points.
Santa hasn’t even packed his sled, and already the buzz word here is urgency.
“I think it’s high, and I think our play reflected that,” Keefe said.
Moreover, the rookie coach’s actions are reflecting that.
Immediately following Tuesday’s 6-1 surrender in Philadelphia, Keefe tore a strip off his players for the first time, challenging their effort.
“Not good,” Tyson Barrie said. “My experience, every time the coach comes in [post-game], it’s not usually to say, ‘Hey, great job, boys.’ So, I think it was appropriate. It was called for. It’s up to us to respond and show some character.”
A win Wednesday would’ve packed all the makings of a Sheldon Keefe statement.
One of Mike Babcock’s fourth-line staples, Nick Shore, had been scooped off the waiver wire by the Winnipeg Jets. Another, Frederik Gauthier, was dealt his first healthy scratch.
Despite legitimate concerns about Andersen’s workload (he’s now on pace for 63 starts), Keefe deviated from a back-to-back goalie deployment plan that had been in place for years.
Then he jumbled his defence pairs and called out forward lines unthinkable in the Babcock era. If the October Leafs were steady on the rudder, the December Leafs are curious where the rapids will guide them.
Zach Hyman, a third-liner for the first time in years, scored Toronto’s only goal on a new-look checking line (with Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen) that strapped on their work boots and controlled the bulk of the play.
While Matthews and William Nylander were joined on a few even-strength shifts with Mitch Marner (insert eyeballs emoji here), and Matthews and Marner linked with Tavares once winger Andreas Johnsson left the game after taking a painful shot off the leg.
“Anyone can play with anyone on this team,” said Marner, returning to action for the first time in 25 days. “Everyone’s deadly with the puck and everyone can make plays.”
“We’re trying to get a spark and trying to score and trying to move things around,” Keefe explained. “I do intend on moving things around a little bit with those top guys, in particular, but probably not as much as I had to there in the third.”
Keefe’s tinkering with the defence pairs may be even more compelling.
The Rielly–Cody Ceci combination has simply underwhelmed for two months.
So we got a taste of the all-offence unit of Rielly-Barrie, which Keefe wants to unite with Matthews’ line as much as possible, and Ceci dropped to the third pair with Travis Dermott. The vastly improved Justin Holl joined Jake Muzzin to form a shutdown pair.
“We changed not just the pairs but the matchups to just try and get guys different looks, just spread it out a little more and manage minutes a little better,” Keefe said. “We were just trying some different things.”
Certainly, there has been a thirst for experimentation both within the dressing room and outside those walls.
But regardless of how the pieces are arranged, the puzzle needs to start coming into focus.
“[Keefe] makes great decisions between periods, and he carries himself a lot of confidence, so we’re very confident what he’s telling us to do is the right thing,” Spezza said.
“We’re going through growing pains of learning a new system, but also we need results at the same time.”