It is quite clear now more than ever that Auston Matthews grew tired of Mike Babcock as his coach and was happy to see him fired whether he admits it publicly or not. The majority of a fanbase will blame Babcock for the never ending timeline of events where it was clear the two never saw eye to eye.
The back-to-back off-season meetings in Arizona, Matthews subtle instagram post tagging Mike Commodore, who has famously attacked Babcock on social media for the way he felt he was treated in his lone season in Detroit in the 2011/2012 season; and I’d also imagine Auston was not a fan of the way Babcock threw one of his best buddies Mitch Marner under the bus in the 2016/2017 “ListGate” debacle.
I was always of the opinion that this “feud” was constantly overblown just based off my personal experiences. I will never believe that a player needs to “like his coach” but there most definitely should be a level of respect amongst the pair.
However, I am beginning to believe that if you want to maximize the potential of a player as a coach, that player has to RESPECT and TRUST you enough; that they’d be willing to go through a wall for you. I don’t necessarily think every player gave up on Babcock but I do think that the message was wearing thin and you could just tell in the body language of the players in that first game under Keefe in Arizona, this team needed a change.
Now to get into what I think should be one of Sheldon Keefe’s highest priorities, and it’s something unfortunately Babcock was never able to do… make Auston Matthews a true top 5 player in the world ON BOTH SIDES OF THE PUCK.
A lot has been said over this last week and half by the Leafs players, and specifically Matthews referencing Keefe’s encouragement to use their “God-Given abilities”. To some, they simply think of Matthews’ God-Given abilities as his tremendous hands and his world-famous shot. I absolutely concur that these are Matthews’ strengths, but I am a true believer in Auston’s ability to drastically improve on the defensive side of the puck.
He is listed at 6’3, 223lb; he not only has the talent but also the physical capabilities of truly being the best player in the world not named Connor McDavid. I envision Matthews at the top of his game tormenting opponents at will like Eric Lindros was doing in the prime of his career; a physical and skillful presence on the ice. Now I am not asking Auston to go and throw 10 hits a game and drop the gloves if I am Keefe, I am asking him to have the confidence to know that he can use his physical presence more to his advantage.
An example of something Matthews can improve on is his body positioning in the D-Zone (as seen on this Pierre-Luc Dubois goal earlier this season): Matthews is tremendous at stick lifts in order to steal pucks but in a scenario like this, you’d like to see Matthews have better body position and use his strength to keep Dubois from getting to the net.
Something else I’d like to see Matthews improve on his lackluster passes in the defensive zone. There have been countless plays in recent games where Matthews has made bone-head passes that have directly lead to either sustained pressure from the other team (like in Colorado a few games ago) or even worse have lead directly to a goal against like Jimmy Vesey’s goal last Friday.
This goal comes just after Timashov closes Buffalo’s lead to one and the Leafs were looking like they were pushing to comeback and win the game in regulation. But a careless play by Matthews leads to a goal that ultimately stopped any and all momentum the Leafs had. The good news is these mishaps are not due to a lack of “skill”, but more a lack of “will” and hopefully having a stronger relationship with Sheldon will make Matthews more “willing” to take care of the puck.
Now there is a preface to the play that lead to the Vesey goal, Matthews was on his way to playing a career high of 24:48 in TOI. The Leafs top forwards time-on-ice has been another change under Keefe thus far and on the surface this seems encouraging but I’d caution those fans who have been lobbying for more minutes from #34.
Dubas hinted at a lack of fitness from their star players in the opening season press-conference when questioned about players like Auston’s ice-time. This is definitely something to keep in mind but I do think eventually Keefe will have to be much more strategic in deciding on the situations Matthews is put on the ice.
Overall, I think this change is definitely for the better and it is quite clear Auston’s production exemplifies that. To the Maple Leafs benefit having a motivated, engaged Matthews on both sides of the puck can only spell bigger things for the Maple Leafs overall.