Sheldon Keefe’s lineup experiments should be encouraged

Photo credit:Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
I think I’ve stated it here before and I’m sure most of you don’t care, but I’m not a huge Sheldon Keefe guy. That’s not to say that I think he’s a bad coach, in fact, I think he’s an above-average one. I just think the Leafs with their resources have better options available but have been able to seek a lot of comfort in the fact that Sheldon Keefe’s knowledge of how Kyle Dubas wants the players he brings in to be used is something that you won’t find easily with other coaches. That’s the perceived advantage and I accept that.
A couple of my criticisms of Keefe prior to this year is that he very much seems locked into his lineup and is reluctant to make changes and the other is that he doesn’t seem to prepare for when the Leafs plan of attack is blocked. The recent lineup blender and experimentation with the 11 forward and 7 defenseman approach has been very welcomed in my household and can fully appreciate there will be a lot of nights when it doesn’t go so hot, but this appears to be Keefe checking some of the boxes where I felt he was lacking.
Why am I bringing this up? It’s because there doesn’t seem to be universal appreciation for Keefe taking this approach (when is there universal appreciation of anything Leafs?) and I thought I’d take the opportunity to weigh-in on it.
I guess no one shells out money to hear Paul McCartney perform Wings songs and no one should shell out money to see Auston Matthews play on a line with Alex Kerfoot. I can appreciate that. And I can certainly appreciate the points around putting the optimal Leafs lineup out there as much as possible to get them to drive the play and force other teams to counter the strength of the Leafs offense. These are valid points, but ones that ignore the fact that the Leafs are not locked into lines and it is a lot easy to revert to something in game than to implement something new. If the Leafs want a Bunting reunion with Matthews after Toronto is a down a goal or two, that makes a lot more sense than randomly deciding that in a 3-2 game now is the time to see if Sam Lafferty adds a spark that Bunting can’t in that moment.
The other area where I take issue is that it is important to have a strong counterpunch on the road. For teams that are as close as the Leafs and Lightning are, there is a very good chance that the home team in the series is going to be the one who dictates the way the game is played. Players like Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, and Timothy Liljegren all have a noticeable drop off in what they can do on the road vs. at home, and finding the best fit for them in that different situation makes sense. In contrast, the low risk, low event play of someone like Alex Kerfoot adds a safety net to a top six line on the road and that is likely why we are seeing him get his reps.
In addition to those, it seems worth acknowledging the amount of prep work that both the Leafs and Lightning are able to put into looking at how to play against each other. I’m pretty sure we were still in 2022 when we knew these two teams would be facing each other in the first round and while both teams have their way of playing to win there is no doubt that these teams are also looking at adjustments that will have varying degrees of success against each other.
Finally, and this one probably can’t be stated enough, the Leafs have three new forwards and three new defensemen that they are trying to configure into the lineup and figuring out what works for those six players. There really isn’t an opportunity to run a Leafs Classic line because that doesn’t really exist when a third of the lineup is new. Throw in the fact that there is will have to be another hasty experimentation process for Ryan O’Reilly when he returns and there is going to at least be a curious test phase when it comes to Matthew Knies, it seems like everything being tossed up in the air is the new normal.
I think stepping back from it and looking at what is actually being tested shows that there isn’t anything too crazy going on anyway. While testing Bunting in the bottom six, the Leafs have kept Matthews with either Marner or Nylander, so nothing radical is going on there. Similarly, there hasn’t been any distancing of Tavares from one of the top two wingers either. David Kampf is always still getting to play with one of Jarnkrok, Kerfoot, or Zach Aston-Reese, and when it comes to defensive pairings the Leafs still seem to be trying to go with two familiar pairings and one new combination on most nights.
For most of the season and in fact most of Keefe’s time as head coach he’s favoured a roll four line approach. We are now seeing him try 11F/7D, and I personally hope we get to see him experiment with the idea of a shortened bench of three five player units with three specialist players making up the grocery stick portion of the roster. That might not happen, but I can dream. For now I think it’s important to embrace the more adaptive strategies that can be added to the Leafs tool kit.

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