Kyle Dubas

Getty Images

Marner to play first Leafs game since Babcock drama (and Tuesday’s mini-meltdown)

1 Comment

When it comes to a team’s 30th game of an 82-game regular season, you couldn’t ask for much more sizzle than what the Toronto Maple Leafs could provide against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs activated winger Mitch Marner, setting the stage for the crafty winger to play since Nov. 9, when Marner suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Flyers.

An eventful month

To put things mildly, a lot happened since Marner’s unpleasant-looking injury:

That 3-2 shootout loss to the Flyers began what would be a six-game losing streak for the Maple Leafs, and represented the end of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto. It wasn’t, of course, the end of Babcock-related drama, however, as reports surfaced about Babcock playing mind games with Marner during his rookie season, and all that “hardest working players list” entailed.

Since then, there have been a wave of stories about coaches exhibiting abusive behavior (either physically, verbally, or sometimes a mix of the two), with the Calgary Flames parting ways with Bill Peters, Marc Crawford placed on leave from the Blackhawks, and plenty of other reverberations.

Akim Aliu stated that he expects “big changes” around hockey (and the NHL in particular) following a meeting with the league, but time will ultimately tell.

Either way, Babcock’s firing and that rookie-year story should fix even more eyes on Marner than usual, which is saying something considering all of the attention his offseason contract negotiations received.

A fuller view of the new-look Maple Leafs

Sheldon Keefe won his first three games as coach of the Maple Leafs, but the Buds have since stumbled in their last three games, going 1-2-0. Things ended on an extremely sour note on Tuesday, as the Maple Leafs experienced a bit of meltdown late in a 6-1 loss against the Flyers.

Auston Matthews said “we can’t fold like that,” while Keefe agreed that the Maple Leafs let Frederik Andersen out to dry, stating that “hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need.”

It doesn’t figure to be easy. The Avalanche are on a three-game winning streak, boast players like Nazem Kadri who will be pumped to play against his former team in Toronto, and are rested (their last game was on Saturday) while Toronto is closing out a back-to-back. The Maple Leafs have struggled lately in such back-to-back sets, at least stemming from Babcock’s days.

Watching Marner himself

Pension Plan Puppets points out that Marner is coming back basically as early as possible (assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks before Wednesday’s game).

Getting Marner back should be a thrill, and again, a nice opportunity to get a better picture of what GM Kyle Dubas truly envisions as his team now that he doesn’t have to clash with Babcock’s competing style.

But how close to 100 percent will Marner be? While his most treasured ability is his world-class playmaking, Marner is also known for outstanding edgework and agility, using his elusiveness to thrive as a smaller player (rather than Nathan MacKinnon-class speed). You have to wonder if recovering from a high-ankle sprain might at least hinder some of his skating strength.

That said, Marner will still have the vision and anticipation that makes him such a great passer. Jake Muzzin pointed out the way Marner processes the game, and while there could be a bit of rust there, chances are he’ll give Toronto another gear.

“His reads without the puck,” Muzzin said when asked where Marner’s hockey IQ really shines. “I feel like he’s one step ahead of the puck out there when he’s on. He’s got great vision with the puck, but picking guys and reading passes before they happen, he’s right up there with the best.”

Maybe the Maple Leafs will be a little tired on Tuesday, and maybe Marner won’t be quite there physically, but it still feels like we’ll get a better idea of what this team (and player) is capable of now that Babcock is no longer in the picture.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Keefe: Toronto has enough talent for quick progress

1 Comment

GLENDALE, Ariz. — New Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe spent a decent chunk of a 30-minute morning skate on Thursday teaching instead of running drills.

There’s a lot for his new team to learn and not much time to do it.

The 39-year-old Keefe is now in charge of the Maple Leafs after veteran coach Mike Babcock was fired Wednesday with the team mired in a six-game losing streak.

Keefe was officially introduced Thursday morning as the 31st head coach in Maple Leafs history. He’s got a long history with general manager Kyle Dubas, who hopes Keefe is the right choice to help Toronto bounce back from a disappointing 9-10-4 start.

Keefe believes it can be done.

”We’ve got a lot of talent and the ability to make life hard on the other team in a lot of ways,” he said. ”Focusing on that, we believe, will produce positive results. Because the players are good enough for that to happen.”

Keefe inherits a roster that includes talented forwards like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

Tavares said there were ”many mixed emotions” because Babcock was so dedicated and committed to the team. He said the team feels a burden because it hasn’t played up to expectations but is ”turning the page” and moving forward.

”Sheldon’s got a great mind for the game,” Tavares said. ”We’re excited about the energy and the things he’s bringing and trying to improve from where we’re at.”

Keefe will make his coaching debut during Toronto’s game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

Dubas said the franchise must show patience as Keefe, a first-time NHL coach, embarks on the difficult task of taking over a team midseason and trying to quickly turn things around.

He’s confident the players understand there will be ups and down.

He’s also aware that outside perception might be a little less forgiving.

”It’s all part of what makes working and playing in Toronto great,” Dubas said. ”You can’t go anywhere in Toronto without people caring deeply about the team. I read the greatest quote this morning on the way here: ‘You can look at it as a burden or look at it as a trampoline.”’

Toronto is a team that needs quite a bounce.

The 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto and made the playoffs the past three years, though the Maple Leafs lost in the first round each time. When the team started slowly this season, Dubas and team President Brendan Shanahan knew it was time for a change.

Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday to break the news to Babcock, whom he hired in 2015.

He acknowledged it was a hard day. Some more hard days may follow as Keefe tries to quickly implement his system, though the franchise is confident it’s headed in the right direction.

Keefe was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. He was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped the franchise win its first Calder Cup championship in 2018.

Several of the Leafs’ current players were coached by Keefe when he was with the Marlies, which is the franchise’s top minor-league affiliate.

PHT Morning Skate: Life after Babcock; goalie gambles not paying off

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Confidence should be gained for the Maple Leafs now that Mike Babcock is gone and Sheldon Keefe is in. [Toronto Star]

• The fun is gone in Toronto. [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Babcock is out, but now the pressure is upped on management. [Leafs Nation]

• “The NHL has to stop letting player safety depend on referees’ judgment calls.” [RMNB]

• “Why punching your opponent in hockey is fine but spitting on him is not.” [The Guardian]

• A look at Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and other NHL players carrying large offensive burdens for their teams. [ESPN]

• Jamie McGinn has been released from his tryout with the Blues, while Troy Brouwer inks a one-year deal. [Blues]

• Some goalie gambles haven’t paid off for a number of GMs. [Yahoo]

• It’s been a mixed bag of results for the Sabres’ blue line. [Die by the Blade]

• In good news for the Sabres, assistant coach Don Granato, who’s been out since Oct. 1 while battling severe pneumonia, was back at practice on Wednesday. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The Blue Jackets have faced a pretty tough schedule to start the season. [1st Ohio Battery]

Yanni Gourde should not longer be considered underrated; he’s just that good. [Raw Charge]

• Sharks’ Evander Kane pushes growth of hockey at Oakland middle school. [NBC Sports Bay Area]

• Finally, a great development for Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash last April:

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Our Line Starts podcast: What now for Maple Leafs? Issues in Calgary, Buffalo

Kathryn Tappen, Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, and special guest Bob McKenzie react to the breaking news of Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday. Why now? What’s next? All your questions answered. Plus, Pierre McGuire interviews Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

21 Comments

The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

***

As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

MORE:
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.