Mike Babcock is out. Sheldon Keefe is in. Things move fast in this wacky world we call hockey. Try to keep up.
The Keefes Nation aha
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) November 21, 2019
The aftermath of Babcock’s dismissal will be filled mostly with eulogies, the majority of which seek to tie a neat little bow around his tenure in Toronto. And that’s entirely warranted. Babcock led the Leafs out of what was perhaps the most cavernous hole in franchise history upon taking over in 2015 and turned them into a perennial 100-point outfit. That can never be taken away from him.
But times change. And when Babcock didn’t, the other shoe was bound to drop.
Sheldon Keefe is the man of the hour now. And after biding his time in the Leafs organization for nearly the past half-decade, the former Marlies bench boss holds the opportunity to put his definitive stamp on an NHL roster.
Which begs the question: What does that look like?
In covering the Marlies for the past three years, I’ve been able to observe a number of Keefe’s coaching habits applied within a system largely reflective of the level above. Here are a few aspects I foresee him bringing to a Leafs roster that, at the moment, could use just about anything.
Willingness to Experiment
Sheldon Keefe hates being stagnant. When something clearly isn’t working, his preference is to switch things up in search of a different (read: better) result — even if doing so means venturing well outside the proverbial box.
Pierre Engvall is a prime example of this.
Around mid-February of last season, the Marlies were absolutely devastated by injuries, reeling from a six-day period in which they lost their top two centres, Chris Mueller and Sam Gagner, to a hamstring ailment and a trade, respectively.
Where does a coach go from there? Some would head straight to their GM’s office and barter for outside reinforcements. Others would request call-ups from whichever minor league affiliate was at their disposal and try to make them work.
Keefe, on the other hand, saw an opportunity.
Recognizing the speed and reach Engvall brought could potentially translate to centre, Keefe made the choice to shift the lanky Swede down the middle, all to essentially see what he had. Turns out, he had a lot.
Engvall flourished at centre, a position he himself admitted to not having played since the age of 10. In Engvall’s 18 games as a pivot, stretching from mid-February through to the end of the season, he chipped in 11 points all while sparking offensive resurgences from his two most common linemates, Dmytro Timashov and Michael Carcone.
Timashov put up 14 points alongside Engvall; Carcone 15.
The importance of this is illustrated best on a macro level. By simply trying something different — something largely unconventional and yet, startlingly, backed by logic — Keefe not only succeeded in saving his season and bridging a glaring roster hole, but he also gave the Maple Leafs an intriguing new prospect at one of their most dire positions of need.
Not every Keefe experiment produces Engvall-level success. Plenty have gone nowhere (Jordan Subban as PP quarterback comes to mind). But that’s not really the point.
Keefe is willing to try. And given that he’ll now be tinkering with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in lieu of minor league reclamation projects, the sky’s the limit.
Contrary to popular belief, coaching in the American League does have its benefits — most of which boil down to outside scrutiny.
The shadow of your NHL parent club, particularly in a market like Toronto, can often act as a buffer, shielding you from the day-to-day heat felt at the level above. AHL line rushes can be tweeted out without fervour; scratches can be swept under the rug. And, as we touched upon above, experiments can be conducted without the threat of death by think piece.
Keefe has certainly benefited from the relative anonymity afforded to him by the Marlies. But that buffer is now gone, and I wonder if the increased spotlight will sway some of his more aggressive tendencies.
Namely, Keefe likes to test his players. Sensing an opportunity for growth, his approach can at times reflect that of the dad whose idea of swimming lessons is tossing his kid into the deep end, forcing them to fend for their life in the hope that they’ll exit the pool a better swimmer than when they (involuntarily) entered it.
Keefe’s trials by fire can last one period, one game, one week, even longer. Some become permanent; others are merely a means to an end. That’s the beauty of it, though; circumstances factor in.
I’ll give you an example of the latter.
The 2017-18 regular season was not kind to Adam Brooks. Facing grown men for the first time in his young career, the kid they call Prarie Jesus went without a goal until New Year’s Eve, and, deep into the schedule’s later months, was barely keeping his head above water in the AHL’s pool.
Something clearly needed to be done, and Keefe faced two options: keep Brooks relegated to the fourth-line and wait for a miraculous breakthrough or, well, not that.
He chose the latter.
Prior to a meeting with the Manitoba Moose on March 30th, 2018, Brooks was unexpectedly bumped up to the first line alongside veteran point-getters, Chris Mueller and Ben Smith. The click was instant. Thrown into the deep end against a formidable opponent, Brooks’ two-point effort played an integral part in the Marlies’ 3-2 victory, proving, at least to him, that he belonged at that level.
This top-line stint was a temporary one — Brooks returned to normal duty the following game — but the momentum he built that night carried well into the playoffs and laid the foundation for the revered Marchment-Moore-Brooks fourth line that helped guide those Marlies to a Calder Cup.
“When you get opportunities like that, opportunities to play in different roles, your confidence grows,” Brooks told me shortly after his one-game lineup bump.
“Now you have that locked in and wherever you play in the lineup, you’ll be ready to go.”
The Leafs seem to have their fair share of 2017-18 Era Adam Brookses right now. Most of their young core aches for a challenge, and, for better or worse, Keefe could be the one to give it to them.
Keefe wasn’t always the “players coach” his reputation touts him as today. Similar to the players he guides, Keefe’s NHL ascent required growth. The open-door policy put in place to bridge himself and his roster came gradually over time and was cultivated by Keefe’s inherent willingness to evolve — both as a tactician and as a leader.
By all accounts, Keefe still isn’t perfect. No coach is.
For one, the list of players who have experienced the Josh Leivo treatment under Keefe — Michael Paliotta, Morgan Klimchuk, Ryan Johnston, Adam Cracknell, to name a few — might not carry the flash that Babcock’s did, but it still exists. And while the unique circumstances of the AHL — threat of call-ups, three-in-threes, uncapped rosters, etc — foster natural cases of press box purgatory, painting Keefe as the anti-Babcock in this area would be simply untrue.
The key difference, though, is communication.
Keefe’s “Josh Leivos” are actually told why they are “Josh Leivos”. That aforementioned open-door policy applies to all players, those both in the lineup and outside of it. These are professionals, after all. Their livelihoods are at stake, and the worst thing a coach can do at that moment is leave their player twisting in the wind.
Keefe makes an effort to prevent that from happening. And regardless of how said player feels about their current role, being treated with a sense of transparency means something. It may not foster pleasant emotions — no one takes a healthy scratch with a smile — but it tends to defuse resentment, too.
What Keefe’s openness ultimately creates is a culture built on tangible accountability. Everyone knows where they stand, and, throughout the many levels of the organization, expectations are clearly set for each individual. But the process doesn’t stop there. Those expectations require results. And when they don’t come, players can expect Keefe to follow-up.
Using another Brooks-centric example, the young centre’s first two games of the Marlies’ opening-round series with the Rochester Americans last season left much to be desired. Brooks had more to give, and Keefe knew it. So, ahead of game three, Keefe called Brooks into his office for a sit-down — an honest discussion between player and coach.
The Marlies went on to sweep the series the following night with a 3-1 victory. Brooks scored all three goals.
“He [Brooks] had a very calm…calm but focused approach when I spoke with him,” Keefe told reporters post-game.
“I think he knew he needed to be better and he wanted to be better. And when I left my discussion with him, it was pretty remarkable, frankly. I’ve never really seen him like that; the level of focus that he had.”
It’s one thing to hold players accountable for the performance. It’s another to credit them when that accountability is rewarded. Keefe understands this, appearing to recognize how intrinsic it is to reaching hockey’s new generation of player, a group currently littered throughout the Leafs’ roster.
Brooks said it best himself: “With the amount of ice time I got, and the situations Keefer has put me in over the last two years, you’re able to develop confidence, especially when you’re playing for a coach like that,”
“So, it’s a lot of fun”
Fun is a word the Leafs could probably stand to hear more these days.
Given the midseason nature of Keefe’s appointment, this aspect is arguably the most important.
With any coaching change comes a feeling-out process, held between the roster and its newly-appointed figurehead, which naturally leads to a number of questions.
What does the new coach like? What does he hate? How do I get on his good side? When is the best time to approach him about an issue?
In the chaos of transition, those questions don’t have immediate answers, only discoverable over time.
But these Leafs don’t have the luxury of time. They need results and they need them now. In that case, it’s probably a good thing that 13 of the 23 players on Toronto’s active roster have played under Keefe in the past. Seven of them were a part of the Marlies squad that captured the Calder Cup in 2018. Three were Marlies this year.
Frankly, for over 50% of the team, swapping out Babcock for Keefe is barely a transition at all, with a good chunk likely even viewing it as a return to their normal.
Keefe was Pierre Engvall’s coach last weekend, for Pete’s sake. This learning curve isn’t perilously steep.
From a relationship standpoint, what this familiarity does is put every player in a position to succeed right away. There are no ambiguities here. If Tyson Barrie, for instance, wants to know how to avoid another Babcock-ian shunning, all he needs to do is turn to Travis Dermott, who happens to be his defence partner, and ask.
It’s that simple. And after last night’s announcement, you better believe those conversations were being had by just about every active Leaf.
It goes both ways, too. If Keefe wants to know how to best reach new subjects like Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner, he can simply go to one of his former disciples for the Cole’s Notes version and fill in the blanks from there.
The transition won’t be entirely seamless; Babcock is all some of these players have ever known at the NHL level. But for a midseason coaching change, Keefe seems to strike a balance of stability and change that this Leafs team desperately needs.
Welcome to “2 Guys and a Goalie,” starring Dustin Nielson, Joaquin Gage, and Matt Kassian and presented by Odds Shark, Popeye’s Louisiana Chicken, and Sports Clips Haircuts. The show focuses on stories, notes, transactions, and everything else happening all around the NHL and the world of hockey.
Kass gets the show started telling some fight stories from his NHL days.
They discuss the Mike Babcock firing what it means for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They also read out the Mike Commodore tweets and discuss how far dislike of head coaches can go for players.
Scott Hastings from Odds Shark calls in to give his thoughts on the Babcock firing and what the odds are for where he’ll end up coaching next, and other betting trends around the NHL.
They give their thoughts on the Garnet Hathaway 3-game suspension for spitting on Erik Gudbranson.
They get into the Popeyes Poll Questions: Who Will Be the Next Head Coach Fired?
- John Hynes
- Bill Peters
- Bruce Boudreau
Keep It or Clip It:
- Dustin Byfuglien will never play another game for the Winnipeg Jets.
- It’s on Johnny Gaudreau to get the Calgary Flames back on track.
- The Oilers need one more top-6 forward to be considered a true Cup contender.
- Sheldon Keefe will get the Leafs into the playoffs without any other big roster moves.
- Peanut butter is the best spread to put on a sandwich.
- Craig MacTavish will really enjoy the holidays with Dusty (in Switzerland).
- Shea Weber can sustain his current 63-point pace for the Montreal Canadiens.
- Licking is just as gross as spitting.
Watch Today’s Episode Below!
Watch 2 Guys and a Goalie every Monday and Thursday on Facebook Live starting at Noon MST.
And make sure to tune in live and comment during the show and have the guys read your questions!
Folks, the Calgary Flames are making more roster moves. The Flames have placed Sam Bennett on the long-term injury reserve and recalled forward Tobias Rieder and defenseman Alexander Yelesin from the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat.
Bill Peters just told us #Flames have recalled Tobias Rieder and there will likely be more transactions to come today. Stay tuned…
— Derek Wills (@Fan960Wills) November 20, 2019
#Flames injury update: Sam Bennett has been put on LTIR and won’t play on road trip. T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic won’t travel to St. Louis but could join team on road.
— Derek Wills (@Fan960Wills) November 20, 2019
For Tuesday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, the Flames dressed the only 20 healthy bodies they had around: two goalies, six defensemen and 12 forwards. They were without Juuso Valimaki (LTIR), Austin Czarnik (LTIR), TJ Brodie (active roster), Travis Hamonic (active roster) and Bennett (active roster). That gave them literally zero wiggle room in case of accident, injury or illness. Headed out for a four game road trip – one that will begin without Brodie, Hamonic or Bennett – this was basically their only available move to open up a roster spot to bring up a healthy extra player while fitting under the cap.
Bennett was injured in Saturday’s game against Arizona, so his tenure on the LTIR must last 10 games and 24 days retroactive to that date. (He’s eligible to return on Dec. 10.) There’s no retroactive cap benefit, though. The Flames’ cap ceiling is now bumped up by the combined values of Valimaki, Czarnik and Bennett’s contracts, or roughly $4.694 million. Adding Rieder and Yelesin pushes them roughly $3.103 million into their LTIR relief. If somebody else gets hurt, they can just throw them onto “regular” IR because they won’t need to open up additional cap space.
We’re working to confirm what happened to open up the roster spot for Yelesin’s recall. We’re thinking Brodie has been placed on IR retroactive to his fainting episode.
Utica Comets Pre-Game
Binghamton Devils at Utica Comets
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
7:00 pm Eastern/4:00 pm Pacific
The 10-6-0-0 Utica Comets are back in action today as they welcome the 6-8-3-0 Binghamton Devils, (New Jersey affiliate) to town for game 17 of the season. The Comets are coming off of a 4-3 loss to the Rochester Americans, while the Devils last played to a 3-2 loss to the Springfield Thunderbirds.
The Devils show a record of 2-6-1-0 on the road this season, while the Comets have gone 5-5-0-0 at home. Binghamton has given up 53 goals this year while scoring 44. The Comets have outscored their opponents by a count of 54-39 so far this season.
Utica’s power play has gone 9/59 this year, giving them a success rate of 15.3% with the man advantage. They aren’t where they’d like to be on that front, but things are finally trending in the right direction. On the penalty kill, the Comets have given up nine goals while down a man 70 times for a success rate of 87.1%.
The Devils, for their part, have gone 10/63 with the man advantage for a success rate of 15.9%, while their penalty kill has given up 11 goals while down a man 57 times for an 80.7% success rate.
Ben Street leads all Bingo scorers with seven goals and 13 helpers to give himself 20 points in 17 games this year, while Brett Seney sits second with his nine goals and seven assists, giving him 16 points in 17 games. Chris Conner rounds out their top three with seven goals and six assists to give himself 13 points in 16 games.
Fabian Zetterlund leads the Devils rookie group with two goals and one assist, giving him three points in 10 games this season. Brogan Rafferty is the Comets rookie leader with two goals and nine helpers, giving him nine points in 16 games. That has the Comets rookie blueliner on pace to break the record for points by a defenceman in a single season for the Comets set by Bobby Sanguinetti with 40 back in the 2014/15 season. Rafferty is currently on pace for 43.
Reid Boucher is the big cheese in Utica with 13 goals and five assists, giving him 18 points in just 11 games this year. Boosh continues to get it done for the Comets in all three zones. Tricky Nicky Goldobin sits second with his four goals and 12 helpers to give himself 16 points in 15 games this year, while Kole Lind rounds out the top three with three goals and nine assists, giving him 12 points in 16 games. Kole had 17 points in 51 games last season, so the second-year winger has shown that he is becoming more comfortable at the pro level.
The two clubs have squared off five times already in this young season with the Comets showing a four-games-to-one advantage while outscoring the Devils by a count of 17-11 in the process. The last game between the two clubs was settled in overtime with the Comets coming away with the win.
The Devils have gone 1/14 with the man advantage in the series, while the Comets have gone 1/12.
Reid Boucher and Ben Street lead the series with six points each, while Kole Lind and Frankie Perron have put up five each. Brogan Rafferty has picked up four points over the first five games of the series, as has Nathan Bastian, while Vincent Arseneau, Justin Bailey, Carter Bancks, Nikolay Goldobin, Chris Conner, Joey Anderson, and Brett Seney all have three points to their credit in the series.
The Devils have used Louis Domingue and Evan Cormier in goal for the series. Domingue went 1-0-1 in his two games, posting a goals-against-average of 2.46 along with a 0.906% save percentage. He has since been summoned to New Jersey. Cormier, for his part, has gone 0-3-0 against the Comets, posting a GAA of 3.77 along with a save percentage of 0.885%.
Mikey DiPietro has played one game against the Devils, coming away with the win while posting a GAA of 1.91 along with a 0.933% save percentage. Zane McIntyre started the other four games, going 3-1-0 while putting up a GAA of 2.02 along with a save percentage of 0.929%.
Bingo found out yesterday that goaltender Cory Schneider had cleared waivers and had been assigned to their club. Schneider spent parts of six seasons in the Canucks system before the trade that brought the ninth overall pick in the 2013 draft, (Bo Horvat) to Vancouver. It is possible that the Comets could face Schneider today.
Scratched Last Game For Utica
- Jonah Gadjovich: LW/RW – Upper-body injury, week-to-week. NHL deal.
- Carter Camper: C – Middle-body injury, no timeframe. AHL deal.
- Olli Juolvevi: LD – Lower-body injury, no timeframe. NHL deal.
- Seamus Malone: C/W – Upper-body injury, no timeframe. AHL deal.
- Richard Bachman: G – Healthy scratch. NHL deal.
- Stefan LeBlanc: LD – Healthy scratch. AHL deal.
- Tanner Sorenson: C/W – In transit. AHL deal.
The two clubs will get underway in Utica today at 7:00 pm Eastern/4:00 pm Pacific. As always, CanucksArmy will have your post-game report following today’s action.
After kicking off their road trip with a victory, the Edmonton Oilers head to the Staples Center to take on Todd McLellan and the LA Kings. Tonight represents a great opportunity to grab another two points as they face a team that is undoubtedly going through a rebuilding period. Still, Todd McLellan has them playing some pretty good hockey as of late and they’ve won three of their last four games.
Benning not playing. Likely miss 2-3 games. Larsson slides in with Russell for his first game since opening night. Blueline depth in Edmonton the best it has been in a long time. #Oilers
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) November 21, 2019
The Oilers will be getting a boost tonight as Adam Larsson is expected to draw back into the lineup after breaking his foot in their season opener. The team’s blueline hasn’t been an issue thanks to the emergence of Ethan Bear but any time you can get a legitimate top-four defenseman back into the lineup, it’s a massive positive. Depth scoring was an issue early on and even that is starting to improve with Jujhar Khaira and Markus Granlund both finding the back of the net in their win over San Jose.
Edmonton is starting to roll with points in eight of their last ten games. They’ll look to keep that going tonight and I get you set for the game with stats, storylines, and more in the Pre Game Podcast (pres. by YEG Burger).
Give it a download! Don’t forget you can find it on Apple, Spotify, and Google!
Nobody expected this to happen. Well, I think many of us expected it to happen eventually, but not this early. If you told me back in the summer that Mike Babcock would be the first coach fired in 2019-20, I wouldn’t have believed you.
The Keefes Nation aha
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) November 21, 2019
But here we are now. The Maple Leafs were off to such a shockingly bad start, there just wasn’t time to wait around any more. This team needs to get things together and it needs to happen fast. Thanks to a six-game losing streak, the Leafs are on the outside looking in. American Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and, generally, if you’re outside of the playoffs by that time of year, you aren’t in the dance come April.
There’s one key buck to that trend and the Leafs are hoping they can mirror what that team did. That’s the St. Louis Blues. On this day one year ago, the 7-9-1 Blues fired head coach Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. It took the Berube-led Blues a little while to get going, but they did the impossible and went from dead last in the NHL at Christmas all the way to winning the Stanley Cup.
That’s what everyone is hoping happens here. Everyone is hoping that Babcock was the one holding the Leafs back. Everyone is hoping that Keefe can provide the spark that Berube did with his team last year.
Will it happen? Who knows. What we do know, though, is that the pressure is on now. The pressure is on Sheldon Keefe, a rookie coach having to jump into a disastrous situation in the most difficult media quagmire in hockey. The pressure is on the players, a group that has yet to live up to their potential. And, finally, the pressure is on Kyle Dubas, who finally has his team.
I don’t envy the situation that Keefe is being put into. While I think that Dubas did ultimately want Keefe to be the Leafs’ head coach sooner rather than later, I don’t think he wanted him to come into this situation. While everyone likes to point to Berube as the blueprint of what Keefe can be, they’re very different situations. Berube had been a head coach at the NHL level before. He was also already an associate coach with the Blues. Keefe is a rookie, making the jump from the AHL without any NHL experience.
It’s going to be a difficult job for Keefe. That’s not to say he won’t do a great job, and his track record with the Marlies suggests he can, but the pressure is going to be astronomical. As I said, I figure Dubas would have wanted to give Keefe a chance to come into his new role over the course of an off-season. Instead, he’s going to have to quickly familiarize himself with the team, the dressing room, and the assistant coaches, all while the team is already behind the eight-ball.
When Berube took over the Blues, the team responded slowly. They went 3-5-1 in his first nine games before Jordan Binnington got called up and things really flipped. A slow start like that for a rookie coach in this environment would be difficult to navigate.
For all his faults, one thing Babcock was particularly good at was his ability to deflect pressure from the team. All the way up until the end, Babcock made himself the centre of attention in Toronto, taking away the spotlight from Auston Matthews or John Tavares or Frederik Andersen or whoever else. Babcock truly was the face of the team while he was here. With him gone, so are the training wheels. The pressure is on the players now.
If Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander aren’t scoring goals, it isn’t because Babcock’s system is too limiting anymore. If the power-play, loaded with tens of millions of dollars worth of talent, can’t produce, it isn’t because of the tactics anymore. If the team gets off to slow starts or doesn’t appear focused in games or can’t grind it out in the third period, it’s on the players, not Mike Babcock.
It had been said for quite some time that Babcock was old and stubborn and that his style didn’t work with this high-pace, high-skill roster. The narrative was that Babcock was holding the roster back. That isn’t the case anymore. Kyle Dubas finally has his guy behind the bench. This is his team now. As a result, the pressure is on him too.
Dubas has been the general manager of the Leafs for a year-and-a-half now. Over the off-season, he was able to jettison a wealth of Lou Guys, like Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau and replace them with players like Tyson Barrie and Jason Spezza that fit his style more. He also now had his ideal coach behind the bench.
Everyone knows that Dubas and Babcock didn’t see eye to eye. They had completely different philosophies. Dubas is all about the new-age high-skill game and Babcock is old-school. But Sheldon Keefe has followed Dubas from The Soo to the Marlies and now, finally, to the Leafs. If this thing doesn’t work out, it isn’t Lou or Babcock’s fault anymore, it’s on Dubas.
The pressure is on in Leaf Land. Let’s see how everyone responds.