It’s the first year anniversary of the Mike Babcock firing. It’s a special day, and we owe much thanks to Marc-Andre Fleury for it, but also Mike Babcock for being such an uncompromising prick that he refused to change even when all signs pointed to him failing in his role.
Not coincidentally this also marks the one year anniversary since Sheldon Keefe took over the Leafs, and I decided to have the TLN writers weigh in on what has changed the most in the past twelve months for the Leafs.
The Leafs played 47 games under Keefe this season. Comparing Keefe’s first 47 games to Babcock’s last 47 games shows us that Keefe’s teams slightly outshot (+0.7 SF%) and out-attempted (+0.9 FF%) Babcock’s teams, while Keefe received better 5v5 shooting (8.9% to Babcock’s 8.0%) and basically the same 5v5 goaltending (0.913 vs Babcock’s 0.914). Where things greatly diverged is in expected goals (a shot quality metric): the Keefe-coached Leafs had 53.6% of the expected share of goals while Babcock’s Leafs had 49.8% of that share. The eye test bears this out: under Keefe the Leafs were encouraged to be creative with the puck (within reason) rather than playing scared of losing it, which resulted in better quality shots and chances, which typically translate to more goals. The Leafs posted the league’s best Goals For per Game (3.51) and 17th-best Goals Against per Game (3.04) after Keefe took over the bench, to Babcock’s 8th-best GF/GP (3.23) and 29th-best GA/GP (3.49) in his last 47 games as Leafs coach. So what has changed in the year since Babcock left? The Leafs got better, and should be one of the better teams in the league this season based on the improvements we’ve seen since Babcock was fired.
One last thing to mention is the mental side of things: Leafs players can breathe now without worrying about their coach demeaning or playing mind games with them. They feel trusted to play to their strengths with a coach that will have their back, but also constructively criticize them when it’s needed. Having the right boss can go a long way in maximizing performance, and the Leafs seem to have that now.
I’d say that the biggest change in the organization has been the culture. Which is funny, since his arrival shifted a huge culture change from being a joke of an organization to a team that should be taken seriously. But, his message got old quick, and you could see it in the team’s play, as well as the very obvious divide in team vision between Babcock and Dubas. And none of that should overshadow what we have learned since his firing, particularly with his abusive and manipulative coaching tactics like with the list disaster with Mitch Marner. Ever since his firing, you can tell that the team has had more fun and wants to play for their coach, and it’s shown in their play as well. It was a much needed change that I think the Leafs will need in order to finally take that next big step forward to winning a Stanley Cup.
To me, the players are more willing to buy into what both Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas are looking to get out of them. Part of why there was turmoil and some frustration on the players end probably had to do with the conflicting views between Mike Babcock and the GM, which reached a boiling point in the first two months of the 2019-20 season. The change seemed to have flipped a switch because almost instantly the attitude changed and the players appeared to have a weight lifted off their shoulders. Because of that built trust over the months under Keefe, the Leafs played arguably their best defensive hockey in a while during the play-in round. Despite the lack of success and track record, this Leafs team has vastly improved in the players eagerness to play to Keefe’s system.
The biggest change certainly comes from having a coach and GM who are on the same page and want to see players used the same way. While I’m not willing to say that Barrie was good, and the trade wasn’t a mistake, the fact that Keefe seemed to embrace the player that Barrie is rather than trying to force him into roles he wasn’t equipped for was a huge improvement. The Leafs offseason overhaul will probably be significant as Dubas has brought in the best players available and Keefe is going to play them the way they know how to play.
Additionally, the flexibility of Keefe rather than the rigidness of Babcock will continue to be a nice step forward for the Leafs. When something isn’t going Toronto’s way in game or in a playoff series the Leafs now have a coach willing to adapt and change, play a style that optimizes their chances against their opponent.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a bit of a trade off in not having Babcock. Early in Babcock’s time with the Leafs he was essential for putting the structure in place, his name commanded a lot of respect and while his ideas weren’t very good, he did force players to fall in line. There is a bit of risk with the Leafs being too relaxed, but there’s nothing to say that things will be that way. The 2021 season will be the first year that Keefe gets to coach his way with personnel that suit his style. Given the progress we saw with him coaching a team built for Babcock, we should have some optimism about what he can do with his team.