We’re getting close to the halfway mark of the COVID-19-altered 2021 season, and so far Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe must be the frontrunner for the Jack Adams Award, no?
Go ahead. Make a case for someone else. I’ll wait.
Joel Quenneville of the Florida Panthers? Chicago Blackhawks bench boss Jeremy Colliton? He certainly has his team overachieving. Paul Maurice of the Winnipeg Jets? I’d listen.
But Keefe’s team is third in points percentage and he has had his hands full, dealing with the absence of a first-line forward – that’s what Joe Thornton is on this team – for a month with a fractured rib; the absence of Wayne Simmonds for the last six weeks; being forced to rely on one goaltender for the first six weeks of the season because his backup was unavailable, then being without his No. 1 and No. 2 goalie. That’s a season's worth of goaltending drama in a week. All that … and having William Nylander, too.
True, he has elite offensive talent around him. He did last season, too, and so did his predecessor, Mike Babcock. Didn’t much matter in the end.
Yet it’s what has happened to the Leafs as a whole under Keefe that is impressive — the transformation from a blissfully unaware defensive group comfortably flitting around the fringes of the ice into a disciplined unit comfortable in some of the messier areas and playing with a purpose beyond simply seeing how neat they can make the next pass or how nifty they can make the next move.
Under Keefe, great players such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have become better and while some of that is likely just maturity, the buck stops with Keefe when things are going poorly, so credit must also be accrued when they’re going well.
And in and around all this has been the continued development of Justin Holl and the sifting and re-jigging that has gone into figuring out the bottom-six forward rotation – a process that will be vital for this team in the playoffs.
True, this has not been a one-man gig. General manager Kyle Dubas and his staff have brought in the players and provided the raw materials, and while it’s tough to separate responsibilities on a staff, it’s clear that the Leafs are better in two areas — power play and faceoffs — that are said to be assistant coach Manny Malhotra’s area.
But the head coach wears success or failure and in this so-far overwhelmingly successful season the credit needs to be directed toward Keefe. He’s also had to share the burden of every other coach: adjusting logistically, tactically and emotionally to the essentially joyless reality of team building and maintenance in a pandemic.
While this has gone on, it’s been good, clean fun watching Babcock stick his head above the trenches after a year in hiding. You’d think a former head coach of the Maple Leafs resurfacing as a network TV analyst – albeit an anodyne one - would be a big deal, but beyond 15 minutes of fawning from his media acolytes, north of the border his redemption tour was pretty much a full-scale and blessedly short-lived flop that saw him reduced to talking in the third person while his former players such as Marner talked about how the Leafs bench was a happy place these days and guys he tried to bury like Jason Spezza turned back the clock.
Keefe not only has the Leafs on a roll playing the kind of hockey that can win in the playoffs, he’s also reminded us all how very, very little we miss ol’ Babs.
• Calgary Flames at Edmonton Oilers, Saturday, 10 p.m. ET : Looking hard for that ‘playoff intensity’ I was promised night in and night out in the Scotia North Division. Darryl Sutter, step forward! You can catch the game on Sportsnet.
• Real Madrid at Atletico Madrid, Saturday, 10:15 a.m. ET: The soccer world needs somebody other than Real or Barca to win La Liga. Five points up on both giants and with a game in hand, Diego Simeone’s Atleti are an interesting case study in how a coach can shape-shift a team into something different without needing a constant infusion of new players.
• Manchester United at Manchester City, Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET: I’ve already stuck a fork in United’s chances of being the only team to stop City from winning the Premier League. Time now to flip it over and roast the other side to a nice, caramelized finish!
• Tampa Bay Lightning at Chicago Blackhawks, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET: I took a lot of grief this week for suggesting I was over the whole Scotia North thing. So I’ll start doing some advanced scouting for that Leafs playoff series against the Lightning and let the folks in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal sort out the other stuff among themselves. Plus … Patrick Kane! M-V-P! You can catch the game on Sportsnet.
• NBA All-Star Game, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET: Ever wondered what it would be like if players absolutely detested the notion of playing in an All-Star Game and really treated it like am unwanted intrusion? Ever wondered what it would be like if the wholesale lack of intensity in an All-Star Game was multiplied by a million? We’ll find out, here. You can catch the game on Sportsnet.
FAIR OR FOUL
• Fair: Wondering whether Nate Pearson’s groin strain isn’t a timely reminder that relying on the Toronto Blue Jays' top pitching prospect to be a mainstay in 2021 is a bit of a reach. Let’s be clear: given the predominant philosophies surrounding pitching development, there is no way that Pearson will get the type of innings boost this season that will allow him to be pencilled in for five or six frames every start.
The Blue Jays have told us they will need to be creative, perhaps ‘piggy-backing’ Pearson or developing some sort of system that couples shorter stints with slightly longer stints. But the fact that Pearson appears to have once again sustained an injury pitching in a game as opposed to a bullpen session or drill suggests a slower approach is the more proper approach.
That’s why so many of us were surprised when the Blue Jays seemed to draw back in their pursuit of free agent pitching, and why it would be surprising if this front office does not make an early in-season move to bring in a more established arm.
Nate Pearson’s arrival is a moment to be looked forward to. Whether that jibes with the 2021 season remains to be seen.
• Foul: Hammering on The Athletic’s Shams Charania for reporting that “sources” told him that the Raptors' COVID-19 outbreak was being blamed on poor adherence to mask protocol by some members of the coaching staff. My goodness but Raptors Twitter has become… I don’t know… a little too precious.
This isn’t some sort of anti-Raptors agenda on the part of U.S. media. Indeed, the big movers and shakers south of the border not only are overwhelmingly fawning when it comes to the Raptors, their fans and their front office, they are – how to put this delicately? – favourably treated by the organization. Don’t tell me the Raptors “don’t leak.” They leak to Woj and Shams and all those guys, which is fine, just don’t come whining when you’re the subject of leaks yourself.
The NBA and its teams are within their rights to not give us the details of COVID-19 issues. The NFL did it, too, and that didn’t prevent reporters from digging up stories that blamed Denver Broncos quarterbacks for lousy mask protocol or the Baltimore Ravens' strength and conditioning coach for improper mask wearing and social distancing leading to an outbreak on that team. The fact that the Raptors haven’t shot down Charania’s reporting is good enough for me. Suck it up – or at least mask up.
• Fair: Unless he clearly requests a trade, wanting the Raptors to forget about dealing Kyle Lowry, even if it means getting nothing in return if he leaves as a free agent. Unless somebody is silly enough to part with a first-round pick, I’d rather see this core group (Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet) continue their post-Kawhi growth for the rest of the season with Lowry at the point. I’d like to see how they build on their recovery from that 2-8 start, see how far they go in the post-season, then pivot off that in the off-season.
I’m not interested in dealing Lowry for a big, because this team is going to go as far as its small lineup takes it. The difference-making big that carries this team to the Eastern Conference title isn’t out there. Adding a depth wing would be just fine, and the Raptors shouldn’t need to move Lowry to get that commodity.
This was the week the Mickey Callaway story washed up on the shores of Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins, who were GM and director of player personnel, respectively, when Callaway was beginning his ascent through the Cleveland Indians organization and sexually harassing women in a manner that was a “badly-kept secret,” according to The Athletic.
Callaway is under suspension from his job as Los Angeles Angels pitching coach while Major League Baseball investigates incidents that allegedly occurred while he was with the Indians and later as manager of the New York Mets. Atkins has said in the past that he considered Callaway a friend and on Thursday apologized for not knowing about the stories that started when Callaway was with the Indians as a minor-league coach and then when he was promoted to major-league pitching coach, as well as not ensuring the proper channels were in place to allow for effective reporting of Callaway’s actions. Shapiro, for his part, addressed Blue Jays staff on Wednesday.
Truth is, we’ll never know who knew what and when they knew it; the bigger concern ought to be how two other organizations – the Mets and Angels – failed to do the requisite due diligence in hiring Callaway. Understand this: there will always be a chance that an organization hires someone in the minors who slips through the vetting process, especially at the lower level, because the younger or less well-known the person, the greater the likelihood that there will be a lack of information. What cannot happen is that those individuals are allowed to remain in and progress through the organization, or get passed on to another club where they can hurt more people.
Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.