Quick Shifts: Why Keefe’s run with Maple Leafs is making history

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe says he hopes to have to make the difficult postseason decision between Freddy Andersen and Jack Campbell when the time comes, because it just shows how great their goaltending depth has improved.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. The Ottawa Senators — 8-2-1 in their last 11 — are the best worst team of all time.

1. On the night Auston Matthews scored 40 in 49 and goaltender Jack Campbell posted the greatest 20-game sample (16-2-2) in Toronto Maple Leafs history, a third member of the club accomplished something for the record books, too.

But we always gab about the work of the star actors before mentioning the director, don’t we?

Sheldon Keefe guided his Maple Leafs to their 61st victory under his watch, giving him more wins through 100 games than any other coach in the franchise’s century-old existence. In his first “full” campaign at the helm, Keefe has produced Ws in this town at a rate legends like Hap Day, Pat Burns and Pat Quinn did not.

Project his success over an 82-game season, and Keefe’s bunch is operating at a 109-point pace.

The lazy retort would be that Keefe is overseeing a stacked lineup, that the Leafs should dominate.

OK, fair. Certainly, timing his NHL arrival with Matthews and Mitch Marner’s prime is fortunate, and boss Kyle Dubas has equipped his handpicked coach with a deep, balanced roster.

But winning your division wire-to-wire requires a craft and a work ethic that’s nearly impossible to spot when you flick on the TV for a couple hours thrice a week.

Keefe, a mid-season AHL call-up in 2019, arrived with a fraction of the hoopla and reputation and payroll as his predecessor, yet he’s motivated and meshed talents young and old, steering Toronto to its best defensive effort in a generation and its first divisional crown in 21 years.

“He’s been great,” beams Morgan Rielly, the longest-serving Leaf. “It’s obviously different circumstances than he would like, when it comes to our training camp and team meetings being altered [due to the pandemic], but I think the whole staff’s done a great job.

“Bringing in older guys, trying to make sure that they’re comfortable and make sure they know the structure and then also just let ’em play. I think he balances that really well. So, kudos to him and kudos to the entire staff.”

Consider some positive developments in Leafland since Keefe grabbed the reins:

• Matthews has 73 goals in 96 regular-season games under the new guy, who has placed premier setup man Marner on his wing and let them run roughshod over Canada.

• Jason Spezza, famously healthy scratched on his first night as a Leaf, has thrived, producing more offence at age than 37 than he has in four years.

• Toronto switched starting goalies for the first time in five years, and it came with minimal controversy.

• William Nylander’s buttons have pushed publicly a couple times, and the winger has responded with a wicked stretch, producing 14 points over his past 11 games.

• Year over year, the Leafs have improved from 26th in goals allowed per game to seventh, despite playing in the most goal-happy division.

• Justin Holl’s ascent from the outhouse to the penthouse.

• The old team used to talk about starting on time; the current one does.

• Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Alex Galchenyuk all look more engaged than they have in years.

Keefe is a line-tinkerer, an opportunity-giver, a data-consumer and a praise-deflector.

Ask him about T.J. Brodie, you might get an answer about Rielly — and vice versa. When he fields his umpteenth question about Matthews, he’ll remind that Marner needs more credit for his 66-point heater.

“I think his greatest strength is his communication, his ability to talk to players based on who the player is,” says Zach Hyman, who’s never looked so multidimensional. “I think he understands what a player needs and, I guess, how to speak to that person and it may be different.”

Adds Zach Bogosian: “I think that has something to do with maybe his age [40]. He’s younger on the coaching end of things. He brings his work boots every day and makes sure we’re feeding off that.”

While the rest of the world tumbled into a Netflix algorithm during quarantine, Keefe memorably confessed he was “binge-watching the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

So, the coach’s answer is fitting when we ask him to single out his greatest challenge this season: Not enough practices.

“You’re trying to build your team up structurally, trying to add different things, trying to keep the team feeling good and confident offensively. Lack of practice really hurts that,” Keefe says.

“Coming out of the American League, you come in and coach in the NHL, the major difference is a lack of practice time, and then, in a season like this, it’s even less. That’s probably been the greatest challenge just because it’s such a large shift to what I’m accustomed to in terms of building teams throughout a season.

“Even when we’re on the ice for practices, you’re getting 15 to 20 minutes maximum with the players. That’s been tough.”

Rielly says the Leafs now have “a different mentality” before the puck drops. There is an increased emphasis on striking first, on backchecking, and on defenders making smart pinches in order to prolong possession.

And Toronto’s consistency 5-on-5 has allowed the Leafs to weather some atrocious stretches of special-teams futility.

“Keefer, he lets guys play, but he also has a very strict structure,” Rielly says. “He balances that extremely well, and that’s important.”

2. Here are my unofficial 2021 NHL Awards finalists. (In real life, writers don’t vote on Jack Adams, GM of the Year or Vezina. This is not real life.) What struck me in going through this exercise is how easy the No. 1 picks are for most of the major prizes… and what an incredible season Brad Marchand is having. Whether it’s him or Mark Stone, it might be time for a winger to win the Selke.

Hart Trophy
1. Connor McDavid
2. Auston Matthews
3. Brad Marchand

Norris Trophy
1. Adam Fox
2. Shea Theodore
3. Darnell Nurse

Calder Trophy
1. Kirill Kaprisov
2. Jason Robertson
3. Ty Smith

Frank J. Selke Trophy
1. Mark Stone
2. Brad Marchand
3. Aleksander Barkov

Vezina Trophy
1. Andrei Vasilevsky
2. Marc Andre-Fleury
3. Semyon Varlamov

Lady Byng Trophy
1. Jack Campbell
2. Artemi Panarin
3. Cale Makar

Jack Adams Award
1. Rod Brind’Amour
2. Dean Evason
3. Sheldon Keefe

Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award
1. Kyle Dubas
2. Julien BriseBois
3. Don Waddell

3. There is a commonality shared between McDavid and Matthews’ MVP campaigns aside from the video-game numbers they’ve draped on Canada’s goaltenders.

Both superstars have taken a giant leap when it comes to using their physicality. Yes, it only makes sense that an athlete would feel more comfortable throwing his body around at age 23 or 24 than he would at age 19.

But McDavid and Matthews deserve credit for developing this aspect of their approach, and the increased engagement has led to both taking a step defensively.

McDavid is throwing hits at a rate of 3.08 per 60 minutes, easily a career high. That’s more than double the 1.58 he was registering in 2019-20, which was up from 1.31 in 2018-19. To think, McDavid averaged a paltry 0.84 hits per 60 in his 2015-16 rookie year, the lowest mark of any Oilers centre over the past six years.

After dirtying his shoulders in a recent win over Montreal, a potential Round 1 opponent, McDavid said, “They’re a big team. And if they want to play that way, we’re not afraid to play that way. We can play physical. I thought [Zack Kassian] did a good job of setting the tone as well, doing what he does best. I just tried to follow in his steps and be physical as well.”

Matthews’ trajectory as a body-checker is strikingly similar. Big Papi relied almost exclusively on stick-checks his first two NHL seasons, averaged just 0.85 hits per 60 in 2016-17 and 2017-18 – the two lightest-hitting seasons of any Maple Leafs centre over the past five years.

His hits per 60 increased to 1.33 in 2018-19 and again to 1.63 in 2019-20. As is the case with McDavid, we’re witnessing the biggest jump this season. It’s a conscious effort that can be traced back to Toronto’s tight-checking series versus Columbus.

“In my head, I think when we went back into the bubble, it was definitely a lot more physical, and I think it worked to my advantage,” Matthews said. “I’m not there searching for big hits. It’s just here and there, when I have an opportunity to finish a check or be physical on the puck, I’m doing that.”

Matthews is now throwing the body at a career-high rate of 3.10 hits per 60. You love to see it.

Captain John Tavares says Matthews’ ability to use his big frame to detach opponents from the puck and create his own space is an underrated aspect of his arsenal.

“What really impresses me is when he doesn’t have the puck, his ability to get it back with the way he strips guys, and then the way he just uses his body to separate the man from the puck,” Tavares observes.

“He’s probably just getting stronger and stronger and more confident, and maybe being a little bit more forceful at times, instead of just relying on how strong he is on his stick.”

4. Gabriel Landeskog has chosen a fine time to embark on the second point-per-game campaign of his career.

Arguably the least heralded member of the best line in the West, Landeskog has racked up a tidy 49 points through 49 games and is on track for his eighth 20-goal season.

Heckuva contract year for the Colorado Avalanche captain, who will be in line for a nice raise.

Landeskog told Spittin’ Chiclets this week that although there were some preliminary extension discussions with management in the off-season, “we haven’t talked much lately.”

Both sides decided to focus on winning a Cup and deal with business afterward.

“I feel pretty comfortable with the position we’re at. Denver’s my home. It has been my home for 10 years. I love the city. I love the fans. I love the organization. I’ve been pretty upfront with that ever since I came to the team,” said Landeskog.

“We’ll see how things go, but I’m excited for the possibility of staying in Denver.”

Landeskog reminded the podcast that even when was at the centre of trade rumours in 2016-17, he’s remained adamant that he wants to stay in Colorado.

What if he was offered an eight-year deal with a $9-million AAV? Would he still want to wait till the summer?

“At that point we can discuss it,” Landeskog said. “Joe and I can sit down and have a coffee.”

5. The way Kyle Dubas has been spending draft picks, it’s a good thing the Maple Leafs’ late-round prospects have shown so much promise.

Take 2020 fourth-rounder Artur Akhtyamov, for example.

This season, the 19-year-old Russian netminder hung silly numbers in the MHL (Russia’s CHL equivalent) — a 1.66 GAA and .935 save percentage for Irbis Kazan. That earned him a promotion to Kazan’s VHL squad (Russia’s AHL equivalent), where he put up a 1.90 and .927. That earned him another promotion, to the KHL’s AK Bars Kazan, where he post a .904 in three appearances.

Size may be a concern. Akhtyamov is six-foot-one and 157 pounds. But the kid is rising fast.

Axel Rindell is an even deeper cut. The 2020 sixth-rounder was selected by the Leafs in his third year of eligibility.

Small and skilled, the 21-year-old right-shot defenceman scored seven goals and 26 points in 47 games in the Finnish Elite League. Kid’s got wheels.

As Sportsnet’s prospect guru Sam Cosentino pointed out, Dubas and his staff made a concerted effort to draft players who would see plenty of game action in 2020-21 and thus would not have their development stalled by the pandemic.

Toronto bet heavily on Russian and Finnish pros, plus some NCAA studs in 2020, and the (very) early signs of growth are promising for the Class of ’20.

6. “You bet your ass, he is going to remember this.”

Those were the tearful, joyous words of T.J. Oshie on the ice in 2018 celebrating his Stanley Cup victory with his dad, Tim, better known as “Coach.”

Coach’s battle with Alzheimer’s had robbed much of his memory, but T.J. helped give his father a whopper to hang onto.

All the Capitals wore black, circular “COACH” decals on their helmets Wednesday to honour Tim’s life.

Something beautiful was woven into the ugliest hockey game of 2021.

Oshie, persevering through a heavy heart, scored a hat trick for his dad on his first night back.

It’s a shame that his story was relegated to sidebar status in the 141-penalty-minute clown show.

“I saw he got emotional there at the end, which was understandable. I felt like he needed a hug,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “I told him, ‘You are the strongest person I know.’

“It’s impressive that he actually played today, I think, and how he led the way. We are a family. We are in this together. His loss is everyone’s loss.”

(P.S. I love T.J. Oshie more than I hate Tom Wilson.)

7. Another reminder that David Pastrnak is an international treasure:

8. Understanding that the last thing the world needs is another opinion on Tom Wilson and the New York Rangers, there’s an angle to this story getting overlooked.

Wilson was fined $5,000 for roughing up Pavel Buchnevich. This is the maximum allowable under the collective bargaining agreement, a document signed off on by the owners and the players.

Based on Wilson’s $4.1 million (U.S.) salary this season, his fine is equivalent to the average full-time Canadian employee getting dinged for $66.62.

Or, as multimillionaires call it, cushion change.

George Parros and the league could’ve found a way to suspend Wilson if they wished, absolutely. But they could not have fined him any more than the $5,000.

The maximum fines are laughable and hardly a deterrent.

But it’s important to remember that the players — whose greatest thorn whenever CBA time rolls around is escrow — are complicit in keeping these fines low.

Gary Bettman doesn’t need the players’ permission to fine the New York Rangers $250,000.

No doubt the league’s blind eye invited Thursday’s less-than-royal rumble.

But if they really wanted to eliminate some of the nonsense, the players themselves could exert more power in their role and call for harsher punishments when one of their union crosses the line.

9. More money is being bet the Maple Leafs than any other team.

According to OddsChecker, 27.9 per cent of all last week’s Stanley Cup wagers were placed on Toronto to win it all.

Makes sense when you consider the widespread popularity of the club and its favourable North Division bracket.

But the Leafs are not the favourite. Betting sites give them a 11.1 per cent chance.

The Colorado Avalanche lead the pack with an 18.2 per cent shot to go the distance, yet only seven per cent of bets were placed on the Avs last week.

10. Yes, Nick Foligno saw former teammate Elvis Merzlikins’ funny/sad ghost hug following the goaltender’s first victory since the Columbus Blue Jackets traded away their captain.

Tradition would’ve had Foligno wrapped up in the embrace, but Merzlikins — a unique cat — kept the routine going solo.

“I was laughing more at the jump hug that he did to himself,” Foligno said this week, smiling wide. “It was pretty funny. I had to text him after.”

Foligno also watched from across the border as Merzlikins gave his candid assessment of what it’s like to plow through the end of a lost campaign.

“I know how much those guys care in that room, and I know how much they care about and take pride in playing the right way,” Foligno said. “It didn’t go our way while I was there, and you feel for that. You know the preparation we put in and the work that goes into a season, so I’m sure no guy is happy in that room and is taking anything lightly.

“The hard part of losing in the NHL is the realization that things change. You have to find a way to be better, and I have no doubt that the core group in there will do that.

“I’m a Toronto Maple Leaf now. And my focus and my attention needs to be on this team out of respect to my teammates and what we’re trying to do. But absolutely I’ve kept in touch with those guys and feel for them. They’re going to be OK. They’re the right mix. They understand the right way to play, and I’m sure they’ll bounce back.”

11. The Arizona Coyotes have not only been eliminated, they hold a negative-27 goal differential.

Missing the playoffs is fine. Expectations weren’t high in Arizona, and the club is rebuilding.

Problem is, the Coyotes have 12 roster players on expiring contracts, seven of them impending UFAs that were retained as “own rentals” in a bid to make the postseason.

Seeing the assets rebuilding GMs like Jarmo Kekalainen, Tom Fitzgerald and Steve Yzerman recouped for players bound to walk, we can’t help but think Bill Armstrong might’ve missed an opportunity to make up for some lost draft picks.

Hey, if Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers and Antti Raanta all re-sign, great. But it feels like a couple of those proven veterans could’ve been managed into an asset or two for the future.

I mean, David Savard yielded a first-rounder.

12. Shout out to comedian Matt Wright, whose album Existing Is Exhausting has been nominated for a Juno. The awards take place May 16.

In addition to being hilarious, Wright is also a huge hockey fan.

I’ve consumed a ton of standup in my life, and I can never recall a comedian making extended, laugh-out-loud hockey bits work.

Do yourself a favour. Check out “No Shared Joy,” “You’ve Been Traded” and “Mike Dad Bab Clock” on Wright’s record.

Go win a trophy, pal.

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