Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Shades of Babcock, Matthews & Marner

Auston Matthews, Column, Mike Babcock, Mitch Marner, News & Rumors, Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs

On November 16, 2019, then Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock took his team into Pittsburgh to play the Penguins. The team was on a four-game losing streak, and when they left the building that streak had grown to five. 

The team never showed up for Babcock and was overwhelmed by a score of 6-1. Babcock was removed from the job as head coach after his very next game – another loss in Las Vegas. His replacement? Sheldon Keefe.

Related: Ex-Maple Leafs’ Mike Babcock: Stubborn, Confusing, and Out of Work

As someone who covered that story then, I have to wonder if current Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe doesn’t find the 7-1 loss to these same Penguins a bit eerie. I can’t imagine he’s on the spot for losing his job; but, at the same time, there seem to be workplace pools being created to see if Keefe or general manager Kyle Dubas will be the first to be fired. So the thought is floating around in the universe.   

There’s stress on this team, even six games into the regular season. In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I want to take one last (I hope) look at some interesting aspects of the game. I’ll then comment on Auston Matthews’ and Mitch Marner’s season thus far and propose a first-line change that I’d like to see.

Finally, I’ll look at the team’s game in Carolina tonight and what they must do to win.

Item One: Keefe Talks about How the Maple Leafs’ Game Fell Apart

After the team’s 7-1 loss to the Penguins, coach Keefe shared his thoughts with the media, as he typically does. Keefe shared that he obviously had a lot of thoughts – you could see him looking skyward regularly during the game thinking some of them – but admitted that he didn’t have many “good” thoughts.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

Keefe did track the game in this way: “I thought that after the first little segment of the first period (the first goal against Jack Campbell was another fluky one) we found our game. I thought we were going really well. I thought we started the first couple shifts of the second period really well — we were in the offensive zone, moving around a little bit, and we had some chances.”

Then Keefe spoke about when the roof caved in on his team. “We had a turnover in the offensive zone and didn’t have structure coming back, so it ends up in our net, and, before we’re gathered, it’s in our net again, and it’s 3-1.”

Related: The Gordie Howe Hat Trick

The analytics bear out his reality. As my often collaborator and long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith emailed to me, he felt that the second and third periods of the Penguins’ game had to have been the worst periods the team has played during Keefe’s tenure as coach. When looking at the game report from naturalstattrick, and focusing on high-danger chances, the Maple Leafs out-chanced the Penguins 6-3, playing five-on-five during the 1st period. The Penguins out-chanced the Maple Leafs 9 -1 during the last two periods. In every situation during the last two periods, the Penguins generated 12 high-danger chances, and the Maple Leafs only two.

That’s being overwhelmed. As noted, the last time the Maple Leafs were overwhelmed this badly in Pittsburgh the head coach was fired shortly after. 

Item Two: What’s Happening to Matthews and Marner?

Although Auston Matthews is coming off a wrist injury, his first-line partner Mitch Marner has been in the lineup all season. At this point in the season both these typically high-scoring players are behind a long list of other team members on the scoresheet – William Nylander, Jason Spezza, John Tavares, Wayne Simmonds, Michael Bunting, Morgan Rielly, Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin, and Alex Kerfoot. That’s nine other players.  

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitchell Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Funny thing is that Matthews’ wrist doesn’t seem to be bothering him. He had an amazingly strong first game; but, he just didn’t score. The sixteen shots he took at the net were more shots than he’d taken in any game last season. However, he’s now played three games and he seems to have faltered badly during the last two. 

To me, Marner played well during his first four games; but, similar to Matthews, the puck just didn’t go in for him. During his last two games, he too has faltered offensively. He’s playing well defensively, but his offensive confidence seems to be leaching out of him. What’s the story? Is more going on than meets the eye?

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I’m not a coach, but given that William Nylander and Jason Spezza are – to my eyes – the team’s two best forwards up and down the lineup, would it be out of the question to put Spezza on the top line with Matthews and Marner? From what I’ve seen now in his third season with the team, Spezza’s smart enough to play with and fast enough to keep up with any of the top lines. Is it time for such a radical change?

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

It’s not going to be an easy game tonight in Carolina against the Hurricanes and former teammate Frederik Andersen, who’s tied as the NHL’s leader in wins with four. However, it’s an opportunity for the team to pull itself together. 

Toronto Maple Leafs' Frederik Andersen
Former Toronto Maple Leafs’ goalie Frederik Andersen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Slocum)

In remembering Babcock’s firing and Keefe’s first few games as the Maple Leafs’ coach, the team experienced a rapid turnaround. A similar turnaround is needed during the remainder of this road trip. 

Related: Frederik Andersen’s Unforgivable Sin According To Maple Leafs Fans

Campbell needs to have a strong game. Matthews and Marner need to start producing points. And the vaunted power-play unit has to generate some goals. Almost more than anything, and I know the jury’s still out, I’d love to see Nick Ritchie become a target in front of the net. He’s about Andersen’s size.

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