Should Sheldon Keefe be the Toronto Maple Leafs Scapegoat?

Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs (Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs (Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports) /

With the Habs reaching the Stanley Cup Final, much to the delight and pleasure of their reasonable, law-abiding followers, the Toronto Maple Leafs are left at home licking their wounds and watching in shock, wondering what happened.

The downward spiral commenced with a Nick Suzuki goal barely a minute into overtime in Game Five and, if some  fans have their way, will not cease until most of the Toronto Maple Leafs  “big four” is broken up and Dubas and Shanahan are hunted down like Mussolini and his mistress headed for the Switzerland border.

Ok, that’s probably a little over-dramatic, but it’s definitely doom and gloom in Leaf-land and people understandably want to see a little carnage, if not some type of scapegoat offering to provide a sliver of hope for a different result next year.

So here is my offering: Sheldon Keefe.

I know, it may sound silly or premature to throw the head coach with only 103 NHL games to his name who sports a sizzling 62-29-12, .660% in that time (all stats from under the bus but those are all regular season numbers and what genuinely concerns me is how easily Keefe has been outcoached in both of his playoff matchups.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus

The Toronto Maple Leafs regularly controlled the play during this series and ended up out-shooting Columbus 188-157. They had a seemingly endless amount of quality chances but just couldn’t solve the goaltending duo of Korpisalo and Merzlikins, who finished with a collective save percentage of .952.

Tortorella’s top two defensemen, Werenski and Jones, were primarily used to stifle Toronto’s top guns and Keefe’s only adjustments to all of this were to move Tavares to the top line and….well actually that was it.

Keefe in effect made Tortorella’s life easier by moving his offense to mainly one line because Torts then only had to use Werenski and Jones to smother that top line and David Savard was more than capable of handling the bulk of the rest of the defensive ice time. Spreading the scoring over multiple lines would have allowed for Toronto to either take advantage of weaker matchups or force Tortorella to over-extend his young defensive stars. Keefe also could have tried juggling a few of his combinations to see if any different player on a different line provided a spark or found some extra chemistry. Simply moving all of the eggs to one basket was the least effective counter.

Mitch Marner also dialed in some pretty lackluster performances this series but Keefe still gave him nearly 25 minutes per game and never took him off of the top line.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal

This was another winnable series. Toronto outshot Montreal 234-197 and scored 18 goals and 48 points to Montreal’s 14 and 33. Ducharme eventually abandoned his physical strategy and put the young guys in the lineup, electing to simply clog the neutral zone and pounce on mistakes while relying very heavily on his top-four defensemen….and again Keefe’s only adjustment was to stack the top line. Marner dialed in another sub-par playoff appearance…and again Keefe didn’t move him from the top line or take away any minutes (he played nearly 25 per game total, the most of any Leaf).

The powerplay, struggling mightily for a span of two+ months, was still the same stagnant mess with two ineffective shots (Rielly, Marner) manning the point and a clearly washed-up Joe Thornton getting regular PP1 minutes.

William Nylander, easily the best forward this series, still spent time on PP2 and could only muster a total of 18+ minutes per game. And even though he was performing on his own and providing quality scoring depth, Nylander was eventually switched to LW to play with a cold Matthew/Marner combo and thus again making life easier for an opposing coach who was already trying to neutralize the top line.

What do do for 2021-2022?

I know people want to see a change and breaking up the core of this group would make a major statement but this core has battled significant adversity and could have gotten past both matchups the last two years with a little help from behind the bench (or from Mitch Marner, I guess. Scapegoat #2?).

What seems evident to me; however, is that Keefe needs to start adapting to the situation and start exhibiting an extra degree of creativity. Furthermore, Marner shouldn’t automatically be glued on Matthews’ wing or on PP1 next season. Ice time should be earned and no one player should be above criticism or consequence for prolonged, sub-par play. Nylander seems to be the only main forward who gets punished for poor performance and yet he has constantly performed in the playoffs.

Next. Leafs Top 10 Prospects. dark

Adapt. Be creative. Change it up. Hold all players accountable and make players earn their spot in the lineup. Do that Sheldon and while we probably won’t see Leaf colours on the Notre-Dame Basilica next summer, I bet we will see some happy faces in Toronto for once.