Ever since Sheldon Keefe took over coaching duties on Nov. 21st, the Toronto Maple Leafs have looked like a much different team. They have won eight out of 12 games since that time, and are playing a much more exciting brand of hockey. They are coming off a successful Western road trip, where they picked up four, of a possible six points, to help stay competitive in a tightly packed Eastern Conference.
Through their first 35 games, the Maple Leafs currently sit in fourth place in the Atlantic division, and ninth place in the Eastern Conference. They are three points out of a playoff position, and will hopefully continue to make up ground after a sluggish first couple of months.
Coach Sheldon Keefe was quick to point out that he is impressed with how his team has reacted to the new changes, and how their game has translated nicely on the ice, but he realizes there is still work to be done.
After the Maple Leafs’ most recent win against the Sabres on Tuesday night, Keefe acknowledged that the potential of this Leafs team has not been reached yet. “We are still nowhere near what I think we can look like and what we are capable of, but we are doing a lot of great things”, he said. They are playing with a lot more freedom offensively, and the new changes he has made to the Maple Leafs’ special team has shown immediate results.
Keefe has done a phenomenal job getting the power play back to an elite level. He has tinkered with the first couple power play units, and hasn’t been afraid to give heavier minutes to superstar players, such as Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner. He realizes that the Maple Leafs invested heavy money into these players, and the only way to get the most out of them is to give them all the ice time they can handle.
It is very promising to see the Maple Leafs tightening up defensively and allowing fewer goals per game. Their defensive issues have definitely been noted over the last couple of years, as they have been near the top in the league in goals allowed per game. Keefe has adjusted the defensive pairings, and it seems to be working out well.
Morgan Rielly is now playing on the first defensive pairing with Tyson Barrie. The two form a very dynamic one-two combo that is very exciting to watch. Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin are the shutdown defensive pairing, and are performing their roles admirably. Holl use to play under Keefe with the Toronto Marlies (AHL team), and has seen his ice time rise considerably since Keefe was hired.
If one thing is for certain, it is that the Maple Leafs’ offence will be fun to watch. Auston Matthews, has 21 goals already this season, and has four-straight 20 goal seasons to start his NHL career. There is only one other player in Maple Leafs’ history to do the same thing – Dave Keon. It is an impressive feat for Matthews, who possesses a lethal combination of size and skill that is rare for his age.
Prior to Christmas Day, the Leafs will play three games in four nights, and will hope to carry their momentum forward. It is likely that they will have to play their backup, Michael Hutchinson, who has been a disaster for them all season. Hutchinson is 0-5-1 this year, has a 4.55 goals-against-average, and a .876 save-percentage. The Leafs will need him to step up and perform for them, in order to take off some stress from Andersen’s shoulders. Freddy Andersen has played plenty of hockey lately, and the Leafs will need to keep him fresh for the long season ahead.
The Maple Leafs have a very favorable schedule to close out 2019. Over their next six games, they will play the New York Rangers twice, the last place Red Wings, the lowly Devils, the Hurricanes, and the Minnesota Wild. These are all very winnable hockey games, and the Maple Leafs will have to pick up some points to gain ground on their division rivals.