Call it a case of one of those heartbreaking moments when the worst person makes an excellent point, but Damien Cox was right when he wrote about there being no chance that the Leafs are firing Sheldon Keefe over a 4-4-2 start. There is a lot to go into that. On the ice, the Leafs are down at least two key defensemen. They are without Matt Murray and have had to rely on Erik Kallgren more than any team should, and fundamentally playing their bottom six forwards in a way they haven’t previously and that’s going to lead to a roster that is going to need to figure things out and it’s not a surprise they haven’t hit the ground running.
That being said, there is a lot to criticize about Keefe and the Leafs at large. The deployment of the personnel the Leafs have has been suspect at times. There is still an unwillingness to stake claims to the high-danger areas of the ice at either end and if the Leafs carry-ins were a person, even the most casual hockey fan could pick it out of a police lineup. The Leafs are not without their problems and a lot of that has to sit with Sheldon Keefe. We’re just nowhere near “fireable offense” yet. Sorry to disappoint.
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The same is somewhat true of a lot of other Leafs at the bottom of the roster we love to scapegoat.
  • Alex Kerfoot has been far from perfect, but putting him at 3C to start the year was putting him in a situation he hasn’t thrived in before, and in his penalty killing or 2LW situations he’s returned to his adequate but not stellar standing.
  • Pierre Engvall is getting over an injury and, perhaps to again criticize Keefe, has been deployed in a bizarre fashion this year. If there have been attempts to have him drive the play on a regular basis, overcomplicating Engvall beyond his straight line success is not ideal. Let him play a simple game and the Leafs might not be disappointed.
  • Justin Holl doesn’t belong in the top six. He didn’t put himself in the top six or next to a young defensive partner, he’s been going where he’s told. He still represents a suitable 6/7D for the Leafs and an option they might not want to jettison until they know what they have in Jordie Benn.
All three of these players represent usable depth, but depth that is making a bit more than the Leafs would probably want to be paying for them and all three have expiring contracts. Dubas deciding to move on from these players wouldn’t be shocking, but it’s not fantasy hockey, and dropping players isn’t always as easy as the Hurricanes made it look with Ethan Bear. Teams wanted Ethan Bear.
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That really brings us back around to Kyle Dubas and his involvement in this. His coach, his players, his decisions, and he’ll be owning a lot of this too. That said it’s hard to imagine that Brendan Shanahan is considering any change here either. It’s early but it isn’t. There are a number of years that speak to the Dubas approach coming up short in the playoffs, and ten games in there isn’t a whole lot of excitement around any of Dubas’ moves from the offseason save for an appreciation of Ilya Samsonov. Though in many ways the personnel changes that Dubas made weren’t made for the regular season, they were made for the playoffs. Zach Aston-Reese and Nic Aube-Kubel’s hitting in the regular season doesn’t mean as much as their hitting in the postseason. Calle Jarnkrok is a decent regular season forward but becomes a great shadow of an opposition player in the playoffs. Matt Murray was always going to be a project and Samsonov was going to be who bought the Leafs time to get Murray ready for the final stretch of the year. To some degree being underwhelmed or angry at this point is right on schedule.
That said, there is absolutely on Dubas’ back just as there is on Sheldon Keefe’s. It’s just nowhere near the time when an organization that has constantly preached and practiced patience is going to act.
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Any frustration with a player like Mitch Marner is equally foolish to think it would be dealt with in a hasty fashion. The Leafs might need a lot more out of their top line, but it also seems foolish to rebuild Matthews and Marner’s games. Having them struggle in the first 10 games of the regular season hits a lot better than it did during the Montreal series, but the issue remains the same. They need to make their space or play with someone who can create it for them.
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In many ways, especially with Sheldon Keefe, it seems like the Leafs are starting down a path to significant change. Last year the Leafs had a 12-2 November to take the pressure off, a repeat of that would be nice, but unlikely. It will be interesting to see what the Leafs need to achieve in November to regain confidence. Does 9-6-0 do it? Does it need to be 11-4-0 to feel on track? Do they just need to have a good expected goal rate?
However this unfolds I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t any need to involve Kyle Dubas’ Grandmother in the process, nor is there a real need to panic in general. The Leafs are trending in an unfortunate direction, but with 7/8’s of the schedule remaining and a .500 record as their starting point, there isn’t a rush to blow things up.
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