With losses mounting, the general dysfunction reaching its peak levels, and with hints dropped several months before, Maple Leafs fans were right to feel it in their bones that time was drawing near for Mike Babcock. Still, in the late afternoon on Nov. 20, 2019, when the news release dropped while the Maple Leafs were between stops on a road trip through the southwest, it was still a jaw-dropping, time-standing-still type of moment for the franchise and its fans.
This was one of the high-profile coaches in the game’s recent history, and one who promised to out-live his eight-year, standard-setting mega contract in the biggest hockey market in the world for the simple fact that the Maple Leafs were going to be “that good.” And he wasn’t wrong in being that brash, because it was trending that way for a few seasons, with the Leafs making significant improvements year over year.
But when that progress stalled in a highly mismanaged, and second consecutive Game 7 loss to Boston Bruins in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and when the club was severely underperforming in the comeback season — Babcock’s fifth — GM Kyle Dubas played the card that was seemingly burning a hole in his pocket, replacing the incumbent with his preferred choice from back to even before he was making minor decisions with the Maple Leafs.
It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached the one-year anniversary of the dismissal that sent the biggest name in hockey coaching into isolation several months before the rest of us were forced to join him. That’s in part because It’s Been A Year, but also because so many important Leafs things have happened since Sheldon Keefe stepped into the limelight.
Keefe applies the immaturity tag
Some incredible things happened for the Leafs in the immediate days and weeks that followed Babcock’s departure. Freddie Andersen was turning a corner on his season. John Tavares was beginning to kick it into gear himself. It seemed Tyson Barrie was reborn. Jason Spezza didn’t have to look over his shoulder. They finally, finally got a win from the backup goalie. All these things combined to help the Leafs rattle of 15 victories in 20 games to begin Keefe’s tenure, and the chests of Leaf fans everywhere were once again pushed out.
But about six weeks in, things seemed to take a turn — beginning with a performance of the ages on Jan. 6 from the visiting Connor McDavid. The Oilers captain racked up four points and scored one of the most brilliant goals in the history of the game in his best-ever performance against his hometown club. Keefe had already lifted Andersen — perhaps prematurely — before McDavid’s wondergoal, which infuriated the Leafs’ starter. What ailed the Leafs before was suddenly apparent again: they couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net.
What followed was a 4-3 shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets, an 8-4 shellacking at the hands of the Florida Panthers, a sloppy win over the New Jersey Devils, and then consecutive losses at home to the Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks leading into the bye week and All-Star break. As players prepared to head out on vacations after losing five of their last six, Keefe, ostensibly feeling what Babcock had felt, sent them away with a grating review through the media, calling their recent performances the work of an “immature” club.
That criticism and the word itself would stick with the Maple Leafs for what was left of the season, with the coach doubling down on it occasionally, critics using it in their analysis, and the general manager working to address it once the offseason rolled around.
While it was, let’s say, a mildly jovial atmosphere around the Leafs room in the fallout of the Babcock decision, what we quickly learned about Keefe is that he would be in charge of no country club.
His reviews of the team’s waning performances were one thing, but his matter-of-fact, unemotional decision to sit Kasperi Kapanen for one game at the beginning of February after the winger slept in and missed the start of a practice was one of the first examples of the new coach taking ownership and setting his example for the franchise.
It sparked some debate over the relationship between Keefe and Kapanen, who worked with each other previously with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. It might have also been a launch point to the discussions about dealing Kapanen at the trade deadline. It wouldn’t, however, have a bearing on the future in either a positive or negative light, but may have had an influence on the decisions made at the end of the season, when Kapanen was the first player shipped out in a mini offseason makeover.
Leafs bring in the Soup
Michael Hutchinson’s failure to deliver adequate performances from the backup position was one of the main reasons the Maple Leafs were in the chase position in the Atlantic Division at the halfway mark of the season. However, since the introduction of Keefe, Hutchinson was providing reasonably effective results in his starts. The trouble was when Hutchinson was forced to remove his ball cap and tighten the straps when Andersen needed to be spelled in-game.
This was most evident in the one of the defining games in the entire Leafs season when they virtually cut out the oxygen supply on the Panthers — or the team they were directly competing with for a postseason spot — for an entire second period and in protection of Hutchinson, who was thrust into the crease when Andersen left with an injury. But the Leafs’ “best defensive game” in the mind of their head coach wasn’t enough to win, because Hutchinson allowed three goals on only 13 shots across 38 minutes.
With Andersen still hurting, Hutchinson had to make the start two nights later in New York, where he once again failed to deliver a winning performance. Before the Leafs even left Madison Square Garden that night, it was announced that Jack Campbell had been acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in a package that also included Kyle Clifford.
For reasons apparent at the time and further now looking ahead, the Campbell acquisition was enormous for the Leafs. Having suffered for trying to cut corners with a third-stringer trying to be passed as a backup in Hutchinson, the Leafs now had a legitimate plus contributor in that role. In addition to that, as a beacon of positivity, he was a tremendous help to a team beginning to buckle under the pressure for a second time in the season already.
Of all the moves the Leafs have made over the last 12 months, the Campbell addition might have been their best.
The David Ayres game
There might be 10 games from the last 12 months that will endure in the minds of Maple Leafs fans and management, many of which have already been mentioned. But two games versus the Carolina Hurricanes probably stand out the most, with the brilliant and exhilarating comeback victory a few days before Christmas being overshadowed by the humiliating loss that followed a few months later.
Losing to their own emergency backup netminder, whose primary role with the organization when not waiting for the off-chance that multiple goalies on the same team go down with injury, is to maintain the ice at their practice facility, was the watershed moment of the season. Not only was it beyond embarrassing, but it seemed to validate that assertion that Keefe would come back to about the Leafs being an immature team. It was, in effect, a litmus test — an evaluation of a team’s ability to professionally approach a situation that favours them, but a situation that demanded an adaptation nonetheless. On that night, the Leafs simply failed to react appropriately to the changes that the Hurricanes implemented while in survival mode with a 42-year-old practice netminder moonlighting at the very height of the profession.
While damning, certainly, the loss should have been something the Leafs should have worked to erase from their memories as soon as possible. Instead, losing to the backup goaltender, and in turn watching a team employee tour the late night television circuit at their expense, totally impacted the franchise’s process moving forward. It’s been reported that Kyle Dubas cancelled a call with free-agent defender Zach Bogosian following the loss, determining that his club didn’t deserve the reinforcements before the trade deadline.
No encore for epic comeback
What’s truly wild about the 2019-20 Leafs season is that all granular details discussed and debated ad nauseam throughout the course of the abbreviated schedule were actually quite trivial. Because at the end of it, it didn’t come down to the race with the Panthers for the final spot in the Atlantic Division; the Leafs basically just need to not be terrible to qualify for the postseason in the NHL’s pandemic restart, and they obviously accomplished that.
So after months away from the rink and a mid-summer training camp, the Leafs entered a postseason series as a favoured seed for the first time in a very long time, clashing with the 10th-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in what was officially the play-in round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While the circumstances were different, the Leafs found themselves in a familiar situation after losing two of the first three games and trailing by three goals late in the third period.
The Leafs truly needed a miracle to survive and somehow manufactured one, scoring three times in under four minutes to force overtime, where Auston Matthews won it on the power play to force a fifth and deciding game.
Incredibly, not a lick of magic or momentum carried over for the Leafs in the decisive game they perhaps never really belonged in. Toronto was shut out for the second time in the series in Game 5, and lost an opening-round matching in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
Trimming the fat
With far too much money tied up in the top performers and a serious imbalance through the defensive pairings, circumstances already dictated that the Leafs would have to move out heaps of money out to draw closer toward an optimized lineup for the upcoming season. However, when the pandemic halted the salary cap’s trajectory, it essentially forced the Leafs to trim all the excess from the roster in order to keep the core in tact. That meant Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson were dealt, and Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and Frederik Gauthier let go as free agents, in order to bolster the defence core with talent and depth.
While less money will be spent at the forward position, the intention is that the issues Keefe has spoken out publicly about will be addressed in the moves made to fill the positions vacated by Kapanen and Johnsson. But for the Leafs to be successful, free agents Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton, and the returning Jason Spezza, need to be more than just high-character contributors and presences in the dressing room. Much of the Maple Leafs’ success hinges on these low-cost additions moving the needle on the ice as well, because contributions from beyond the top six was a significant issue for this team before it took an axe to its middle class.
Over the course of 12 months, Keefe identified the underlying issues, attempted to resolve them on the fly, and has now had his opinion considered through the re-working of a roster.
What he inherited is truly now his, one year after Babcock was fired.
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