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Auston Matthews and award season, Maple Leafs not showing their cards, and Sheldon Keefe: Leaflets

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Photo credit:Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
2 months ago
Three games remain and if I’m being honest, tonight’s game against the Red Wings is the last one where I’d expect to see anything resembling a full effort out of the Leafs and anything resembling what they could use as a playoff roster. As a sign of respect for the Leafs fans who certainly paid enough to be at the final home game of the season, the Leafs icing the best roster possible and not load managing anyone would be a plus. As would making a strong push for Auston to hit the 70-goal mark on home ice. Ultimately, I’m sure whatever decisions are made about tonight and the final two games next week will be made with the consideration for what is best for the Leafs in the playoffs, not what is the best fan service tonight, but I don’t think the two are that far off from each other.

For your consideration: Auston Matthews for the Hart and Selke

Listen, I generally hate individual awards and feel like a hypocrite for even touching on the topic. If I’m going to get excited about Matthews winning an individual award it best be the Conn Smythe. Anything else is a nice accolade for his friends and family to enjoy with him. That being said, I want to speak to the American PHWA members and remind them that this is their chance to make history and start forming the “Greatest American Hockey Player of All-Time” narrative.
While Brett Hull may still have the best single season goal total of any American player in hockey history, Auston Matthews has a chance to catch or pass it, but Matthews already has the distinction of the best single goal season by a player born in America. That’s something that you are going to want to celebrate right? He’s crossed the 100-point barrier, and somehow of his current 68 goals, 51 of them have come at even strength. Insane. For contrast, last season Connor McDavid won the Rocket with only 38 even strength goals, a total that was 3rd highest in the league.
Matthews is doing something special that goes beyond just a Rocket Richard trophy and it’s a chance to make American hockey history.
Auston could become the first two-time winner of the Hart trophy and the celebrating of American excellence doesn’t end there, he has a strong case for the Selke. The challenge there might be that you can probably think of better defensive forwards, but can you think of a defensive forward who hasn’t had to sacrifice the offensive aspects of their game to get there? Matthews would become only the second American player to win the Selke, Ryan Kesler being the first.
Finally, America has the opportunity to do something special and sweep the NHL Awards. Quinn Hughes has an excellent case for the Norris. Connor Hellebucyk an excellent case for the Vezina (and in the early part of the season he looked like a Hart candidate too.) The Jack Adams might be a bit trickier as it looks like Rick Tocchet’s award to lose, but maybe John Tortorella is a dark horse, or Americans can just sweep the players awards. Anyway, celebrating Auston Matthews fits the USA hockey agenda and I wonder if that will be enough to give him some individual accolades beyond the Rocket Richard.

Strip down the lineup for the Florida road trip

The Maple Leafs are gearing up for a whole lot of fun in the sun. They’ll close out the season with a couple of games against the Panthers and Lightning, and then most certainly play the first two games of the playoffs in Sunrise as well. It’s not a bad situation in the sense that there are some great away from the ice distractions for the team to take part in while trying to get right for the playoffs.
I’d also say the Leafs want to avoid getting hurt and not give the Panthers an immediate look at how their playoff lineup cards matchup. Given the realities of waivers and NHL rosters, clearly not everyone can be sat and there are some guys like Matthews and Nylander that are chasing personal bests that probably want to be in the lineup. That’s fair. There is also the issue of if you just pluck your best players out of the lineup you are giving the Panthers a good look at the Leafs bottom six and how they play together, so there needs to be an effort in mixing that up as well.
You can also bank on Paul Maurice not coming at the Leafs with anything he intends to use.
If I’m the Leafs I’m probably taking this opportunity to sit John Tavares, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Morgan Rielly:
Reaves-Matthews-Nylander
Robertson-Domi-Marner
Knies-Holmberg-Gregor
Dewar-Kampf
Brodie-Lyubushkin
Benoit-Edmundson
Giordano-Timmins
McCabe
I’d also give Jones the start against the Panthers and with Woll likely starting the playoffs on the bench, I’d give him the go against the Lightning. If the Leafs are wanting to give Samsonov one last start before the playoffs it should come Saturday night against Detroit.
I think there is a benefit in giving Domi a couple more looks at centre even if the plan should absolutely be to play him on the wing. The playoffs are a marathon and players are going to get hurt along the way, he might be needed at centre and letting him get another look there makes sense.
For the most part, I just enjoy the exercise of building the most absurd Leafs lineup I could think of but at the same time, I also think there are some defensive pairings there that have merit if Liljegren isn’t 100%.

Sheldon Keefe judgement days

I’m a critic of Sheldon Keefe not because I think he’s a bad coach but because I don’t think he’s a great coach. When there isn’t a salary cap for the front office, I don’t think the Leafs have built the ideal lineup beyond the bench and that starts with Keefe.
That said there are reasons to keep him. The Leafs core has worked with him and while I’d question how much they’ve bought in to him, they haven’t fully tuned him out either. Also a lot of what Keefe has implemented is about players playing to their strengths rather than trying to get them to do things that they’ve never done before, there is some merit to that and has divorced us from the painful moments of Mike Babcock trying to use Tyson Barrie in defensive zone situations.
So like I said, there are better options out there at any given moment in my opinion, but at least during the regular season he doesn’t hold the team back.
Most of the major concerns with Keefe come in the playoffs and whether people are right or wrong about what is being said about him, those criticisms are going to pop up again. Last season we saw Keefe correct himself from the underutilization of the core four forwards and he began deploying Matthews and Marner over 22 minutes a night. That was a far cry from the 2022 playoffs when they were regularly finishing games under 20 minutes a night.
That issue being corrected came with a heightened concern over Keefe’s ability to effectively line match. It was the line matching that initially had the Leafs stars not playing key minutes, but now the deployment was so focused around reacting to the opposition instead of trying to set the pace for the game themselves. With the Leafs starting on the road this year and Keefe not having the final change, it will be interesting to see if he starts off by running with the idea that he is putting who is best for him on the ice first and trusting that they can get it done. Generally the Leafs don’t have the personnel to properly line match anyway, and this comes up every time Toronto tries to protect a lead instead of pushing for more offence.
Another thing to watch for with Keefe is his preparedness and adaptability. We’ve seen teams come at Toronto with variations of the 1-3-1 that have slowed their attack across the blueline, we’ve seen creases clogged at both ends with the Leafs losing the battle for important areas of the ice and the Leafs have done little to counter that. If Keefe is going to lead the Leafs on a successful playoff run there better be some new tricks up his sleeve and that is a big reason why Guy Boucher is behind the bench as well this season.
I’m curious what success looks like for Sheldon Keefe in the playoffs and what keeps him behind the bench of the Leafs. I’m not sure if his job is even in jeopardy and any concerns about him might be coming exclusively from outside the organization and not those responsible for paying out his severence.
The bare minimum from a job security standpoint seems like it would be to win a round and likely win a round and make a strong showing of it in the second round. The bar might in fact be a lot higher and Keefe might need to take the Leafs to the Conference Finals before leadership truly believes he is the right coach for the job.
Brad Treliving has been patient in the past with his coaches, but Brendan Shanahan heading into the last year of his contract and new MLSE CEO Keith Pelley might have differing opinions. It seems like for the third year in a row Sheldon Keefe is heading into the playoffs with questions about his employment status at the end of the run.

ICYMI

Here are a few articles from The Leafs Nation you might have missed this week:
How the Arizona Coyotes built the Toronto Maple Leafs by Filipe Dimas
Marlies Weekly: The Baby Leafs push for the playoffs by Bennett Jull
Maple Leafs need to stick with their spread out offence going forward by Alex Hobson
Maple Leafs have assigned Noah Chadwick to the Marlies by Michael Mazzei
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