One game into the Sheldon Keefe era in Toronto, the Maple Leafs faithful have reason for optimism.
After a disappointing start to the 2019-20 campaign, team president Brendan Shanahan and GM Kyle Dubas pulled the trigger on a coaching change that saw Mike Babcock exit after four seasons with the club and Keefe move up from the AHL.
But the graduation of Keefe represents more than a shot in the arm for a lackadaisical Maple Leafs squad — it is, rather, a philosophical shift in thinking and player deployment, one that aligns far more seamlessly with Dubas’s understanding of how the team he built should operate.
Game 1 of this new play style was on display Thursday as the Maple Leafs earned a 3-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes. Sportsnet’s Hockey Central panel broke down some of the details of this shift during the first intermission of the tilt.
A few noteworthy changes in tactics:
Activating the defence to help out the cycle game
“As a forward, when you’re cycling the puck at the end, sometimes there’s not options from low to high like the Leafs have done in the past,” said Todd Warriner, who logged nine years and 453 games in the NHL (six years of which came as a Maple Leaf).
“You want defence who are jumping into seams, getting available, and just opening up plays in the middle of the ice. And this is going to help their possession time, which Sheldon Keefe has talked about.”
Defenders Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin showed the value of this approach, cutting down the wing at times to open up passing lanes or get attempts on net. Barrie’s first goal with the club came in similar fashion, with the former Avs blue-liner cutting to the cage to score the type of goal he potted more than a few times for Colorado.
Defending as a five-man unit
The panel also pointed out the club’s new inclination to collapse towards their net, defending as a pack.
“Look how low the wingers and forwards are — they’re not worried about the points,” Elliotte Friedman noted, after pointing out that Keefe was shown pre-game instructing his players to pack in tighter towards the cage.
“Look how tight this group gets in — you’re going to see at a point when the puck goes back behind the net and [all five players collapse towards the netminder]. That’s a bit of a new look for the Maple Leafs.”
Friedman also pointed out that Keefe’s Leafs tended to work a triangle as they rotated their defensive scheme against the cycle.
“It’s called swarming the puck,” Warriner explained. “It’s another way to get the puck back and that’s part of what Keefe wants to do — win the puck back so you can go on offence. So, if they collapse that far, it stands to reason they’ll get it back earlier.”
Being unafraid to hold onto the puck
Warriner also pointed out the difference in the club’s overall demeanour in their first game under Keefe.
“The team just looked much more relaxed and composed tonight,” he said after the game. “I thought they weren’t in a rush. This team’s been encouraged to play fast and play quick and move the puck as quickly away from their net as they can, for quite some time.
“Tonight, they just held onto the puck — the whole mantra was possession. How can we keep it longer, and then not have to defend quite so much.”
“They just looked like they weren’t expending unnecessary energy at times,” Warriner said. “It wasn’t the frenetic pace we’ve come to know from the Leafs. Just having composure with the puck, taking it back, keeping control of it, having the D jumping through the neutral zone.
“…It’s good to see them that relaxed in the first game with their new coach.”