Say what you will about Mike Babcock the person — and a lot of people have done exactly that following his dismissal on Wednesday — but the past two games have revealed in unflinching detail just how much the ex-coach was holding this Maple Leafs team back.
My goodness, folks. How did we let this go on for so long?
The schedule is now into late-November, and the Leafs currently sit outside of a playoff spot, coming fresh off a coaching change over 20 games into their season. Typically, that’s when the practice fights begin to go down — a necessity if this team is actually prepared to follow the 2018-19 Blues blueprint (Bluesprint? I dunno, something to think about) most expect them to.
And yet, this team looks positively giddy.
Jason Spezza straight-up broke out into uproarious laughter on the bench during Thursday night’s slump-busting victory. Auston Matthews got as hyped for Tyson Barrie’s first goal of the season as Bill Murray did for Michael Jordan’s dunk that saved the entire earth in Space Jam. John Tavares declared a midseason road win in freakin’ Arizona as the start of “something special” before dropping F-bombs like a guy who just learned how to swear.
And you know what? Maybe he’s on to something. Sheldon Keefe’s Leafs do look special; re-energized, cohesive, and intensely motivated. This is a different team than the one from *checks calendar* three days ago. And last night in Colorado, they took one step further in proving it wasn’t a flash int he pan.
Here are five takeaways from Something Special: Part Two.
1) Tyson Barrie Should Enter the Dunk Contest
Knowing what we know now, and having seen what we just saw, I think it’s important to leave this tweet here for dramatic effect.
Mike Babcock says the challenge for Tyson Barrie right now is to reinvent his game in the absence of touches on the first power play. Said that’s what he’s known, and those opportunities just aren’t there.
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) November 9, 2019
I, for one, am flummoxed to learn Babcock’s players quit on him. It simply does not compute!
Just think about it: Upon acquiring one of the NHL’s premier offensive defensemen whose nearly-decade-spanning resume features nothing but borderline-elite powerplay production, the natural move for any coach is to ignore all that and instead attempt to turn him into the hockey equivalent of a wild Metapod. You know, the kind you run into whenever searching the tall grass that you don’t even bother catching because they’re impossible to evolve.
Real tactical genius stuff here.
Not only did Barrie score once again last night — it was his second tally in two games since being emancipated from Babcock — but the 28-year-old happened to do so in the exact opposite fashion Babcock would’ve likely intended: creeping down into the offensive zone while on PP1.
No matter how you slice it, Barrie has spent the past three days dunking mercilessly on his former coach. There’s no other way to describe it. What we’re seeing now is Contract Year Barrie™, the one everyone expected to show up when the Leafs acquired him in July; aggressive, ruthless, and brimming with swagger.
God help the next mortal to stand in his way.
Is he a perfect hockey player? No. Is he a good hockey player? No. Is he even a serviceable hockey player? Frankly, no.
But make no bones about it, Cody Ceci saved the game for the Leafs last night. And by “saved the game”, I mean he literally made an out-of-nowhere kick save in the final minute of the third period to prevent the Avalanche from pushing the game to overtime.
Ceci with the save of the game pic.twitter.com/KgioVCVPmc
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 24, 2019
Look at the form on display. The acute instincts used to read the shooter all before dropping into a perfect butterfly.
Say what you will about Ceci to this point (I, for one, say he’s been quite bad), but you can’t deny that he came through in decidedly unexpected yet entirely necessary fashion Saturday night. That’s notable, and gives me a rare opportunity to fill a post-game column with Ceci praise which, given his normal performance, may never come again.
Good on ya, Cody.
3) Patience, Baby. Patience
The sheer wave of pleasure I feel every time the Leafs begin a breakout, find no opportune lanes, and rather than chip it off the glass for quite literally no reason, proceed to circle back and wait for a better opening is indescribable.
In fact, they’ve ventured into quasi-romantic territory at this point. I am smitten by this system.
Fixing the breakout is perhaps the most important change the Leafs need to make under their new head coach. This has been a long time coming, too.
On a systemic level, you could argue that Babcock’s unrelenting reliance on the stretch pass and equally staunch refusal to change it even when the Bruins clearly figured it out precipitated his team’s two consecutive first-round exits. Those Leafs just gave the puck away for nothing under those directives, almost as if it was a talented player buried underneath Babcock’s doghouse who everyone knew would come back to bite them in the hands of an opponent. Often times, it did.
Keefe’s Leafs (and Marlies before them), though, are different, appearing to recognize one of hockey’s intrinsic truths: the other team can’t score when you have the puck.
What a concept.
This is such a Marlies-like breakout.
Bank of the wall-> forward ready for the pass -> forward flashing through the middle.
Avs D has to back-up because the Leafs are getting through the neutral zone with speed. pic.twitter.com/dtkMgKiyfY
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) November 24, 2019
Gosh darn, ain’t she a beauty?
It’ll take some time before the Leafs can fully acclimate to Keefe’s system. But even with just a single practice and morning skate under their belts, the buy-in has been remarkable apparent so far.
4) Playing To Win
QUESTION: How can you tell when a hockey team was in DIRE need of a coaching change?
ANSWER: When every time their new coach opens his mouth, you want to bump his quotes like a mixtape.
If we’re being honest, this one should be nominated for a Grammy.
Keefe on riding top PP unit in third period for full two minutes:
"With our team & the way it is, we have elite talent, so the more we can utilize them when their energy level is good, we're going to do it. We're going to take advantage of that …"
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) November 24, 2019
There’s a lot to unpack in this sequence. Yes, Keefe did call a timeout roughly halfway through a late-game powerplay to more or less prevent his top unit from ever coming off the ice, but let’s take it back even one further.
The Leafs held a one-goal lead late in the third period of a, for all intents and purposes, must-win hockey game. Under normal (read: previous) conditions, the players would have been given the directive to turtle, focusing solely on “safe plays” to try and hang on until the final buzzer.
Keefe’s teams don’t turtle, though. They keep pushing. Even when up by one with less than ten minutes to play, Keefe risked burning his only timeout all to grant Toronto’s most dynamic weapons an extra 57 seconds to drive the knife into their opponent’s heart. They ultimately didn’t, and things got a little dicey towards the end, but that’s beside the point here.
Keefe plays to win. And, as the boxscore tells us, that’s exactly what the Leafs did last night. Hallelujah.
5) Making Players Happy Matters
Nick Shore didn’t have to play in last night’s game. In fact, he probably didn’t deserve to either, given his complete lack of offensive production and negligible defensive impact to this point. But Saturday was different. The Leafs were heading to Denver. And in recognizing how much it would mean to Shore, who previously attended the University of Denver, to play in front of family and friends, Keefe put him in the lineup.
It took less than one period for Shore to reward his coach’s gesture, scoring midway through the frame to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead.
In a shocking twist that no one could have ever seen coming, it turns out that hockey players will play hockey when treated with respect and basic human decency. Crazy stuff, I know.
Before last night, Shore most recent goal came on October 12th, 23 games ago. Are you telling me that being given a special opportunity by his coach for no reason other than it would mean a lot to him and his loved ones didn’t add some extra motivation? Athletes aren’t robots, guys. They’re human beings, with emotions and instincts that are impacted by their surroundings. Keefe seems to understand this. And throughout the doldrums of an 82-game season, that matters.
Just imagine how jealous Jason Spezza must have been.