Toronto Maple Leafs Quarter Season Report Revisited: Part Two

Despite their most recent struggles, Toronto has entered the much-needed bye week a completely new team, regardless of what the standings may reveal.Over the last few months, the Toronto Maple Leafs have completely reinvented themselves or at the very least, began to play as expected. Aside from the obvious (hiring Keefe) Toronto has made changes to their game that have shown up handsomely on the stat sheet.

Unlike the start to the season, where this team was patented for taking one step forward and two back, Toronto has finally found a gear that has led them to a modest 16-7-3 record under Sheldon Keefe.

Not perfect but not bad.Yes, Keefe is a promising young NHL coach and his ability to make in game adjustments, make all of Leafs nations weak at the knees, but aside from the X’s and O’s, Keefe managed to change a culture, that was clearly begging for something new. Keefe has introduced a philosophy that genuinely may be the simplest way of thinking and is mostly over looked by traditional NHL coaches. That crazy, intellectual theory is about having fun.

As crazy as it sounds, it works.Gone are the days of coaches using intimidation as a means to get their point across or assert dominance over the players. Now, it’s simply about respect and Keefe has exemplified just that. He has focused on individual skill, rather than attempt to change a player to fit the system. He uses each player in a role that they are meant to be played in so that they can have the best opportunity to succeed. Engvall, Brooks and even Timashov have all played very well under Keefe.

That’s no accident.The NHL has changed drastically over the last decade and coaches who refused to tweak their philosophy/strategies and adapt to the current times have suffered the consequences. No, I am not saying there aren’t any good ‘ol’ time” hockey coaches left, because there are. What I am saying, is the NHL is trending in a completely different direction.

Hitting is becoming an afterthought, fighting is obsolete and forechecking has gone from ‘first man in better lay the body or they’re benched’ to ‘first man in just needs to simply separate the man from the puck and wait for support’. Zach Hyman is one of, if not the best forechecker in today’s modern NHL and guess how many hits he is credited with in his 30 games this season? TWENTY-FOUR!Now? A clean zone entry mixed with puck possession and a dash of creativity equate to offensive success. The numbers speak for themselves.

In the last 22 games since hiring Keefe, Toronto sits first in Points %, GF per game, and First Goal %. All of these are almost a direct opposite to where they sat under “he who shall not be named.” It’s not as if these are the most important stats in deciding whether a team is a contender or not, but it does prove that Keefe has made a difference. Statistically, Toronto is trending upward in almost every major category and it should not come to a surprise, when you consider the talent Toronto possesses and how well the players fit Keefe’s system.

The numbers also don’t lie when you consider the type of season Auston Matthews is having under his new bench boss. He is on pace to beat Toronto’s single season goal record of 54 which is held by non-other than Rick Vaive. Matthews is playing towards a career year this season and could find himself in serious conversation for the Hart Trophy (where his odds are currently just outside the Top 5 to win the MVP), along with the possibility of winning the Rocket Richard Trophy. The Maple Leafs are 16-3-5 in games he scores, and 9-12-2 when he doesn’t. Mustache and all, Matthews is important to the Maple Leafs and Keefe’s system seems to benefit him greatly.

Toronto has adopted a new offensive scheme where the high forward slides in between both defencemen in the offensive zone. By doing this, it allows the defencemen to activate down the walls of the o-zone when necessary for a simple give-and-go play. This often helps make room in the slot for the high forward to sneak in unnoticed. This tactic not only provides more room for a dangerous forward like Matthews, but most importantly it forces defending teams to move around, which will create more space for high danger shots.

This strategy can only work with good puck moving defencemen, who are able to make effective decisions without causing a turnover. It just so happens that 5/7 defencemen for Toronto are more than capable of doing this.Toronto has also changed their offensive entry approach. Possession seems to be their number priority, as it should. A roster that was built with speed and skill should never intentionally forfeit the puck just for the sake of “getting it deep”.

There are a (maybe) few players on this roster that are actually capable of a physical forecheck and retrieving the puck, which is not enough to make this a system. Keefe has managed to take that part of the game away from Toronto and focus on clean zone entries and patience. There have been a number of occasions where a winger will curl back before the blue line to reset the play.

This isn’t a brand-new idea that has taken the league by storm by any means, but it is an idea that fits this team perfectly. So simple. So effective.Toronto hasn’t necessarily played poor as of recent but the numbers don’t speak highly for themselves. I don’t believe this has as much to do with Dubas or Keefe as it does the team. There is a plethora of excuses that can be narrowed down in contributing to why Toronto has been to inconsistent this season. A large portion of this inconsistency stems from having multiple injuries to major pieces on their roster and also to flat out slumping players.

As long as Toronto continues to weather the storm and get back into a playoff spot. This team hasn’t reached their maximum potential yet, and could potentially be saving it for when it matters most. These boys need this bye week just as bad as a university student needs the reading week. It’s been a tough, uphill battle for the first half of the season and I fully expect them to come back rejuvenated and ready to play some meaningful games in May/June.

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