Quick Shifts: Why Sheldon Keefe has a shot at Maple Leafs history

Junior hockey insider Sam Cosentino joined Evanka Osmak to discuss Canada’s upcoming semifinals game against Finland at the World Junior Championship.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. This week’s column was written outside in front of 85,630 cowboys.

1. Forbes published a helpful article for improving leadership strategies.

“If everyone isn’t totally aligned, the employees will eventually receive mixed messaging and start to lose faith in the mission,” concludes writer Brent Gleeson.

While the piece is intended for CEOs and middle management, it certainly rings true with the big business of sport, particularly the Toronto Maple Leafs.

General manager Kyle Dubas’s handpicked head coach, Sheldon Keefe, will attempt to do something Saturday night that no coach has accomplished in 102 years of Leafs life: win 15 of his first 20 games.

Heck, an overtime or shootout loss will still give Keefe the best 20-game results of any Leafs coach.

Hall of Famer Hap Day set the benchmark for hot starts behind Toronto’s bench in 1940-41, going 14-5-1 when Bing Crosby was killing the pop charts.

Even with a regulation loss — and an end to his club’s nine-game points streak — to Lou Lamoriello’s New York Islanders on Saturday, Keefe (14-4-1) would tie Day’s record.

The numbers are goofy good and probably unsustainable and surely the Jack Adams chatter is premature… and yet, a 20-game sample isn’t nothing.

Since Keefe took the reins from his more decorated predecessor, the Maple Leafs lead the league in wins, points, points percentage, and goal differential (plus-25).

Under Keefe, the Leafs are clipping along at a 123-point pace. Special teams have improved. They start on time. They finish harder. And they’re happier.

Adams Brooks described his boss as “an extremely caring person” after Keefe started the three-game rookie in his hometown of Winnipeg on Thursday.

Little things matter.

Anecdotally, the injury-necessitated call-ups, starting with Pierre Engvall, have thrived.

Important regulars Tyson Barrie and Jason Spezza have found their niche.

Tier 2(?) superstar William Nylander — 11 goals, 21 points — has leapt to a 90-point pace since the coaching change.

And Michael Hutchinson has won two more games than the zero he won prior to Nov. 20.

All that said, there’s still plenty of season left. Everyone said from the outset of 2019-20 that Toronto would be judged on its post-season.

In the meantime, however, let’s see what else the man who concocted Hyman-Matthews-Marner and Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander can do.

Satisfied is not a good word, and not one that I would spend too much time thinking about it or using,” Keefe says. “I just like to focus on today.”

Well, now the new guy has a chance to make a little history.

2. Upon the conclusion of the Maple Leafs’ Dec. 27 overtime win at the Prudential Center, a cluster of reporters was biding an abnormal amount of time outside the visitors’ dressing room hoping to speak with winning-goal scorer William Nylander (even if it was Damon Severson who actually shot the puck in).

Dubas was a little surprised to see media types lingering so long. So on his way (we’d later learn) to visit injured Ilya Mikheyev at the hospital, Dubas wondered what we were doing.

Waiting for Nylander.

“Ah… I’ve waited for him before too,” Dubas quipped, not missing a beat.

As the exec exited the rink, he made a point to add, “He’s worth it.”

The only thing I love more than Columbus Blue Jackets fans having John Tortorella’s back after the coach got dinged $20,000 for spewing angry truth at a post-game podium is Tortorella’s response.

A GoFundMe page organized by Amanda Myers titled “The whistle was blown at 19.2” has quietly raised more than $9,000 toward paying Tortorella’s fine.

The coach’s response to the grassroots support: “You don’t know how much this touches us. This is going directly to help animals in need. From the bottom of our hearts, you don’t know how much this means… [Columbus] is where we’re supposed to be.”

Incredible.

4. The Nashville Predators‘ fumbling away of a 2-0 lead in an unforgettable Winter Classic was a microcosm of a troubling season.

“I don’t know. We’re in trouble right now,” said Pekka Rinne, the greatest goalie (player?) in franchise history. “This game, it didn’t feel like just a regular-season game. It felt something bigger, and so that just makes it a little bit worse.”

Head coach Peter Laviolette waxed on about how many games the Preds had remaining to get back on track (43, starting tonight in L.A.), but this room is shook.

A projected Cup contender, Nashville ranks 20th in points percentage (.538) and participates in hockey’s toughest division. Three teams ahead of them have already made coaching changes.

Laviolette was asked post-Classic to comment on the pressure he personally is feeling as his club endures another three-game skid.

“I won’t get into that right now,” he said.

We’ll take that as a red flag.

Captain Roman Josi admitted that the Preds have allowed problems to snowball in-game.

“We have to stay to our plan,” Josi said. “We can’t let it happen over and over again.

“We gotta find a way to make it one or two [bad] shifts and then we gotta push back and get back to our game.”

Laviolette noted how the brutal loss of Viktor Arvidsson impacted the group: “Everybody knows how important he is to our team. He’s one of our top goal scorers for the past couple of years, so to lose him the way we did, I think we felt that.”

In speaking with several within or close to the organization, there is a hope that a dismal save percentage (.887!) corrects itself, but Nashville is actually one of the sharper-shooting clubs in the league (10 per cent) and not completely unlucky.

Prior to getting concussed by Corey Perry, Ryan Ellis pointed to inconsistency as the issue, saying point-blank the team “doesn’t show up some nights.”

Then there are the elephants in the room. Like how the transition from Rinne to undersized incumbent Jusse Saros isn’t going nearly as smooth as it looked on paper. Or that not one Predator ranks among the top 55 NHL forwards in goals scored.

Kyle Turris hasn’t fit. Mikael Granlund has underwhelmed. Matt Duchene is no longer posting contract-year numbers. Ryan Johansen tops the team in paycheque weight but ranks sixth in club scoring.

The sum feels less than the parts. Something is off.

What is it, Filip Forsberg?

“Tough question. First of all, there’s a lot of good teams in this league, especially in our division, that are making it hard on us,” Forsberg replies. “We obviously know our capability and we’ve showed it at games and at times in games, and we just got to try to find that consistency.”

Forsberg leads the forwards with 28 points in 33 games.

“You’re never too happy,” he says. “It could always be better, and that’s certainly the case this year.”

Mattias Ekholm is trying to see the upside.

“We got half a season here to do good things and to turn the ship around,” the defenceman says. “Everyone in here feels the same way — that we’re a better team than we’ve showed.”

5. Dallas’s Blake Comeau, rightly, got a ton of credit from his mates for returning to the Classic and scoring the rally-starting goal after getting thwacked by Austin Watson and cracking his head on the ice.

A much more low-key UFA forward acquisition of Jim Nill’s than familiar names like Alexander Radulov, Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, Comeau is one of those quiet heart-and-soul role players integral to the room.

“Listen, we signed him for a reason. He was a great signing for this franchise last year. This is a character guy who shows up every day,” says interim coach Rick Bowness, just warming up. “He is a tremendous competitor. He’s a tremendous teammate. He leads by example. He’s vocal in the room when he needs to be. He’s a great asset, and he plays hard. The other players feed off that.

“He’s part of the chemistry of the team, a huge part of the character of our team, and the leadership of this team, so I’m very happy for him.”

6. Bowness was in a reflective mood at New Year’s. When asked about the bouncy ice that comes part and parcel with these outdoor events, the 64-year-old gave perspective by calling upon his days as a visitor to the ThunderDome (now Tropicana Field) for a regular-season disaster.

“Listen: 28 years ago when I coached the Boston Bruins, we went into Tampa, at that ballpark. We had to cancel a game because the blades were going right through the ice and they were hitting the Freon. So all a sudden there’s blue streak all over the ice, all over of the building,” Bowness said.

“So, this is much better.”

The invasion of more than 20,000 visiting Predators fans to the Cotton Bowl had Bowness thinking of his assistant-coaching days with the Canucks under Alain Vigneault and travelling to Nashville in the post-season.

“I remember on the bench telling Alain, ‘This is the loudest rink I’ve been in in a long, long time.’ It’s incredible, the passion and the noise they bring, so I’m not surprised that they’re here [en masse in Dallas],” Bowness said.

“It’s fantastic that they’re here, but from Day One that’s been a great franchise with a fantastic following and lots of passionate fans, and we love that.”

7. All-stars are dropping like flies.

Alex Ovechkin, a vote-in captain, backed out almost immediately and for the second consecutive January will take a one-game suspension.

Injuries robbed Jake Guentzel and Joonas Korpisalo of their first appearances.

And Friday night Marc-Andre Fleury begged out for rest, giving way to Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom, a deserving replacement.

Dylan Larkin, who we would’ve loved to see take on Connor McDavid in the fastest skater race, has publicly pleaded not to win an all-expenses-paid trip to St. Louis.

More dropouts or injuries could still be coming. The $1 million purse isn’t tempting enough for everyone, apparently. It’s a rough look, made rougher by the fact that the proposed 2021 World Cup got scrapped.

So, kudos to wily vets like Patrick Kane (ninth all-star game) and Shea Weber (seventh) who keep coming out.

We’ve enjoyed the switch to the 3-on-3 tournament, but there will be pressure to come up with another fresh twist next winter.

An entirely unique host city? A new format? A fresh composition of teams that ditches the divisional squads?

Please tell me I’m not the only one dreaming of a Righties vs. Lefties showdown. (Go, Righties!)

8. The more I think about it, the Canucks need to be all-in on re-signing Markstrom.

Among the impending UFA goaltenders, only one has more wins, and Vancouver is in no position to dive into a Braden Holtby bidding war. Most of the other options are backups, will be aged 35-plus, or will be backups aged 35-plus.

Chicago’s Robin Lehner, 28, and Colorado’s Pavel Francouz, 30, could be intriguing options if they don’t re-up where they are, but why fool around?

Lock Markstrom up sooner rather than later, and take the pressure off Thatcher Demko.

9. Dude Perfect went back to the well with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to film a second trick-shot compilation (watch below).

“They’re all on the first try, obviously,” Seguin snaps.

“We’ve got pretty lethal shots,” Benn deadpans.

“I guess the cool thing about these trick shots is, we usually are both doing them at the same time, and whoever gets it, gets the trick shot [in the video]. So, that’s the secret,” Seguin says. “But don’t tell anyone.”

10. Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “Let the speculation begin,” as to who the Minnesota Wild will host in the 2021 Winter Classic.

Sources say the Blackhawks (again), Blues (again) and Jets are among the contenders.

“We’re focused on a few teams, and we’re under no immediate pressure to make a decision. My guess is it’s something we’ll do in the next few months. But we have plenty of really good candidates for this game,” Bettman said.

Rivalries, who’s playing well, geography, and the willingness of the visiting fan base to travel all factor into that decision.

Wild owner Craig Leipold has been a squeaky wheel when it comes to landing the event.

“To say [he’s been] persistent would be a gross understatement over the last few years,” Bettman said, smiling.

The Predators have been eager to host an outdoor game themselves (likely at Nissan Stadium) and hoped their strong fan support in Dallas, 10 hours away, could carry some currency with the league

“We’ve been focused on trying to do an outdoor game in Nashville, and I’m not going to point fingers at anybody, but it’s been difficult logistically in terms of our ability to schedule when we might want to schedule,” Bettman said.

“That’s something we continue to work on. But I would like to see an outdoor game in Nashville in the future.”

11. Coach David Quinn explained how the New York Rangers decide whom to call up from Hartford.

“It’s a simple phone call: ‘Who’s playing the best?’,” Quinn said.

“From an organization standpoint, it really is that simple. You call down, you find out who’s playing the best. I think that sends a message throughout your organization, about a meritocracy.

“Chris Drury’s done a good job putting the team together down there. They’ve had a good season, guys have had good years. So it’s been a really good situation for us as an organization.”

12. On the heels of the hilarious response to Anthony Beauvillier hitting on Anna Kendrick via Twitter, comes Jordan Binnington challenging Justin Bieber to a breakaway contest.

“10 breakaways me vs you. You score one on me I’ll dye my hair platinum blonde,” Binnington said as a challenge to Auston Matthews’ favourite form of Stratford entertainment.

The Biebs accepted the dare, sharing a screenshot of Binnington’s comment on Instagram, with this response: “How bout 10 thousand dollars to charity I score and you donate to a charity of my choice and we film it.”

Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

View this post on Instagram

How bout 10 thousand dollars to charity I score and you donate to a charity of my choice and we film it. @binniner

A post shared by Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) on

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