Maple Leafs win offers glimpse of what to expect from Sheldon Keefe

Auston Matthews scored and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Arizona Coyotes in Sheldon Keefe’s debut.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was almost as if Sheldon Keefe flipped a light switch.

Not even 30 hours after replacing Mike Babcock — and after no practices, one morning skate, one morning meeting and only modest instruction — Keefe stepped behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench and watched the team deliver its most complete performance of this roller-coast season.

If this was a preview of what’s to come, we may soon be asking Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas what took so long.

It’s only one game, of course, and there’s some obvious danger in reading too much into Thursday’s 3-1 victory over the Arizona Coyotes. But this was a feeling as much as a result. The Leafs were told by Keefe to be bold with the puck and they responded by putting the Coyotes in chase mode for most of the night.

"I just think a little bit more freedom," said Auston Matthews, when asked why they looked so much better. "We weren’t really just giving up the puck. I thought if something wasn’t there, we’d just kind of come back and hang on to it and we’d all come up and support each other and we didn’t have guys all over the place.

"So I think that’s something that kind of opens up stuff for us because we’ve got a lot of guys that can skate and that are skilled with the puck and can skate through the neutral zone.

"I mean we have guys that are just using each other and if we support each other all around the ice, we tend to have the puck on our tape for a majority of the game like we did tonight."

This was much closer to how Dubas envisioned this team playing when he remade a huge swath of the roster over the summer. At 5-on-5 the Leafs had 74 per cent of the high-danger chances and 60 per cent of the shot attempts.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, the heat map from Thursday’s game might be worth 1,000,000. A team that has failed to meet expectations and had dropped six in a row suddenly started generating from the parts of the ice where goals come from:

The Coyotes are no pushover, either. They’d won four of five coming in and boast the NHL’s eighth-best points percentage. Through a quarter of the season, they are the stingiest team in the league.

But they didn’t offer very much resistance for the rejuvenated Maple Leafs — "We were just really out to lunch tonight," said Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet — who found shots of confidence everywhere they looked.

Tyson Barrie scored his first goal as a member of the organization, sending the bench into a delirious celebration. Pierre Engvall cashed in on a short-handed breakaway to get the first goal of his NHL career. And the hometown boy Matthews added one for insurance with a huge group of family and friends in attendance.

"More importantly than how we played, I just thought we had really good energy on the bench. I was really impressed," said Keefe. "Just the interactions with the players on the bench, the energy, the vibe, the reaction of the players on Barrie’s goal — you just see that they really care for him as a teammate and really feel good for him."

Then there was Keefe himself.

He’d barely slept in the last 48 hours and got a win in his first game coaching at this level. He was presented with the game puck by captain John Tavares in the visiting dressing room at Gila River Arena and the boisterous whooping, hollering and clapping of his players could be heard clearly from the hallway outside.

"He came in with a really fresh attitude and we all know that we haven’t met expectations and it wasn’t good enough and we needed to be better," said Barrie. "We kind of felt excited. It was almost like a fresh start. He was really positive and made a couple changes that I think helped us big time."

Barrie stands to be one of the main beneficiaries and saw some time on the top pairing beside Morgan Rielly against the Coyotes. Expect to see more of that duo going forward. The coach wants his team to make plays — moving the puck from low to high in the offensive zone, rather than settling for shots from the point.

He’ll also let his top talents show off their creativity and be given the freedom to make mistakes.

"He wants us to utilize our skillsets, he wants us to play free," said Matthews. "Not that it’s just a free-for-all for everybody, but he wants us to compete and utilize the God-given talents that we have. And we go out there and compete and hang on to the puck.

"When we have the puck, it’s tough [on opponents]. When we have the puck in their zone it makes defence a little bit easier for us on the way back."

The grinding, tight-checking style that made Babcock one of the top coaches of his generation is no more. Keefe is throwing open the doors and telling his horses to run.

There’s no guarantee it’ll take hold in time to fully reverse course on a 10-10-4 start even with the uplifting win in Arizona. In fact, there’s no guarantee it’ll work at all when the games tighten up down the stretch and into the playoffs.

But this is the vision Dubas had for his team and Shanahan endorsed. They’re both betting their careers on it.

By replacing Babcock with Keefe, the Leafs finally have complete alignment from top to bottom and they’re going to lean into their speed, skill and depth.

"That style that we played tonight, you’ll see a lot more of it," said Barrie. "You know what, we’re going to make some mistakes and we’re going to look silly sometimes, but we’re going to be rewarded for it a lot more than I think we won’t be.

"That was a lot of fun out there tonight."

It had been way too long since a member of the Leafs could say that.

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