3 things that impressed me from Craig Berube’s 1st press conference

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
23 days ago
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The Toronto Maple Leafs introduced new head coach Craig Berube to the media yesterday, backed by general manager Brad Treliving and President Brendan Shanahan. If you were expecting a bone-shaking introduction with promises of shaking up the team, you probably left feeling disappointed. But, if you were expecting Berube to make a solid first impression, I’d say that was a fair assessment of how it went.
It was the first time the Leafs introduced a new head coach following the season since 2015 when they hired Mike Babcock. The primary difference between the two occasions was the state of the team, with the Babcock presser marking the beginning of a new, exciting era of Leafs hockey (or so we thought), and Berube’s coming at a point where the fanbase doesn’t have much of an appetite for patience or realistic conversations about the team. And honestly, how can you blame them? It’s been eight years of arguably the most talented era of Leafs hockey with only a single round win to show for it.
Berube isn’t a magician. He’s not going to jump behind the bench in October and will his team to a Stanley Cup victory. We all know that the issues with this team stem beyond the head coaching gig, but that doesn’t mean he can’t inspire some confidence from the fans, and it certainly doesn’t mean he won’t help them achieve that goal. In a climate where the stakes are higher than ever, I thought he said the things he needed to say. From watching the press conference, here are three things I took away from the media availability that impressed me.

North-South Hockey

The Leafs’ list of issues when it comes to playoff hockey is reminiscent of a grocery list. You can point at their lack of goal-scoring in win-or-go-home games, you can point at their troubling trend of dried-up special teams in the spring, or you can point at the team not being able to get a save from their goaltender in pivotal moments. All of these are legitimate issues, but a grander scale issue that pertains to the first two is their issues when it comes to sticking to the perimeters. Too much coasting along the boards waiting for space to open up to make the perfect play, not enough adjustments to the speed and heaviness of playoff hockey and not enough willingness to score “unsexy” goals, as Treliving might say. When Berube was asked about the type of hockey his teams tend to play, he offered up a blunt assessment.
The Leafs had their heaviest back end in recent memory in the 2023-24 playoffs, with the likes of Jake McCabe, Simon Benoit, Joel Edmundson, and Ilya Lyubushkin giving the Leafs a number of heavy hitters at their disposal. While they certainly excelled in slowing down the Bruins and making life harder for them from a physical standpoint, they could have used some better puck movers back there too. Even then, though, it won’t matter unless the Leafs adopt the North-South way of playing on a full-time basis. Your slowest players will only look slower if you spend too much time looking for the perfect pass, especially in the playoffs when the ice shrinks and people are more willing to throw the body and knock you off course. Putting an emphasis on playing heavy and pushing the pace forward instead of side to side is something this team desperately needs.

Eye-to-Eye with Brad Treliving

I touched on this in an article yesterday, but it’s worth mentioning again because we’ve seen the Leafs have to work without this quality a couple of times before. We first saw it when Kyle Dubas initially took over as general manager and worked with Mike Babcock as his head coach for a little over a year, and again when Dubas was replaced by Brad Treliving and the latter had to work with the former’s hand-picked coach in Sheldon Keefe. There was no bad blood between the two sides, in the most recent case at least, but it was abundantly clear from the start of this past season that Keefe and Treliving didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on how to build a team. Keefe had long been used to having a couple of strong possession, defensive players to the effect of Alex Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall making up his bottom six, and when those types of players were replaced with supporting cast types such as Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and Ryan Reaves, it took him a little longer to adjust and figure out how to optimally ice his team.
Whether Treliving and Berube’s idea of how this team should be built is the correct one is up for debate, but at this point, the bar is on the floor. The Dubas and Keefe era Leafs only managed one round win in four years together, and at this point, a trip to the Conference Final may be enough to take some of the heat off of them. In that same breath, Leafs fans have short memories. Yeah, the round win in 2022-23 was great, but what have they done since then? Round win or not, the desire for more continues to burn in Toronto, and having your head coach and GM on the same page regarding how the team should be built is a step in the right direction, even if it seems like something that should be a prerequisite.

Partnerships and Accountability

When Babcock was relieved of his duties, the big story around the switch from him to Keefe was the transition from a “hard-ass” coach to a “player’s coach”. Five years later, we’re reversing things to the way they were before. That being said, Babcock’s version of being a hard-ass is vastly different from Berube’s. The former was known for putting his players in the doghouse without much of an explanation (just ask Justin Holl or Frankie Corrado) and taking odd measures to learn more about his players, whether that’s asking a rookie Mitch Marner to rank his teammates from hardest-working to least-hardest-working or asking his Columbus Blue Jackets players to go through their phones and ultimately losing his job before the season even starts. Say what you want about that style of coaching, but there’s a reason Babcock hasn’t held a job in the NHL since 2019.
Berube’s tendencies as a “hard-ass” coach are well documented. You’ve probably seen the video going around of him as St. Louis Blues head coach talking about how his highest-paid players weren’t performing like it, but if you’re expecting him to come in and call his star players soft losers whenever they lose a game, you’ll be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean he’s afraid to tell players when they’re not performing up to standards.
“Well, to hold players accountable, and for players to understand the accountability, you have to form a partnership,” Berube said speaking to the media yesterday. “I think it starts in the summertime. Getting to know these players, and them getting to understand what I’m all about, how I’m gonna coach, how I’m gonna coach each individual and the team. Then, when the time comes to hold the player accountable for, it could be ice time or whatever the situation is, they understand it more. Communication is huge. I think one of my strengths is I’m a great communicator with my players, they know where I stand. I’m gonna tell them if they’re playing well, I’m gonna tell them if they’re not playing well. I’m going to tell them things they need to improve upon. Accountability is accepted more by your players when you have that partnership.”
Treliving echoes this sentiment.
“We all talk about accountability. The ability to hold people accountable, push people. We’re all watching what’s being played right now, it’s real difficult. To have success at this time of the year is very difficult and you’ve gotta be able to push people into uncomfortable positions. To me, you have to connect with people first. There has to be a partnership, a relationship, and a trust.”
Players need to hear about it when they’re not performing up to standards. Nobody is arguing that. But your established relationship with your players is a factor here. If you leave them in the dark, tell them how awful they are and don’t expand beyond that, you’re going to lose that connection. The Leafs had completely tuned Babcock out by the time his tenure was up, and Berube’s style should ensure he doesn’t meet a similar fate.
Either way, the Leafs have officially wiped themselves clean of the Dubas/Keefe era, with Shanahan being the only piece of ~that~ era of Leafs still lingering. Berube will have his moments where fans will either miss Keefe or clamour for someone else, I’m sure, but he seems to have the right idea of what this team needs to look like to succeed in the playoffs, and until he reaches the four-year mark and hasn’t made any further success, he deserves the same leash Keefe had.

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