Toronto Maple Leafs truly becoming Sheldon Keefe’s team

Head coach Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Head coach Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators Saturday night on the backs of Michael Hutchinson and Jason Spezza.

At the start of the season, Michael Hutchinson couldn’t buy a win and the Toronto Maple Leafs trotted their backup goaltender out whenever the schedule forced them to, with disastrous results.

It’s funny how much things can change in just a few months.

Many complained that Mike Babcock was too stuck in his ways when it came to the use of his backup goaltender – too rigid to a philosophy that seemed to be failing. But Mike Babcock stuck to his guns. He couldn’t be talked into another way of coaching, it’s who he was. He knew better.

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For most of his career, he was right. And even though the knives are out now for Babcock, it can’t be denied that his rigid philosophy produced results. But they didn’t here, and the Leafs rolled the dice on a change.

When you watch a game like Saturday night, where the Leafs pulled together a win on the backs of an impressive performance from Hutchinson, and a goal by Jason Spezza, it’s hard to believe this is that same team Babcock coached.

Saturday night’s win by the Maple Leafs was the most un-Babcocky win yet, and kept the team’s post-All-Star break win streak alive. It was a big two points for a team in the thick of a playoff race, and with a big game coming up against a division rival hot on their tail.

Let’s start with the most obvious example of this “New” Leaf team, already now months old. Hutchinson was starting, despite the team having the last two nights off. The nod is yet another vote of confidence from Keefe. Hutchinson’s season has been far from perfect, but these kinds of wins will surely help him build confidence, and will also build the team’s confidence in their netminder.

Hutchinson had a stellar effort in overtime, and while he was bailed out by a post, he made the stops he needed to make in a situation Babcock would never have played him in.

And speaking of players who Babcock never would have played…the Leafs got a goal from Spezza tonight, who was a constant question mark when Babcock was handling the game sheet.
Without Spezza, this game isn’t even in overtime, and the Leafs fail to secure any points – something they cannot afford to do at this stage.

Even Keefe’s overtime philosophy is night-and-day to his predecessor, as William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews were all on the ice together for the final goal. Despite being one of the league’s best goal scorers in the last few years, Babcock was always hesitant to put Matthews in the high-pressure situations, most famously in game sevens in Boston, where Matthews rode the pine.

Keefe has been a player’s coach from his first day on the job, and fair or not, the perception from inside the locker room and out is much more positive.

The Leafs are far from secure in their quest for a fourth straight playoff berth, and the upcoming Florida and Tampa Bay games will make or break their season. But when the losses come, they don’t have the same kind of “sky-is-falling” feel to them that the Babcock losses had.

Keefe has righted the ship. He’s earned the fanbases trust moving forward, and with exactly thirty games to go, has more than enough time to continue implementing his style. It’s a fluid style, one based on positive reinforcement and confidence boosters.

Everything Mike Babcock’s wasn’t.

What was the more noticeable difference with the Leafs’ play under Keefe? Can this lead to more success when the playoffs roll around? Let us know in the comments below.