“It went exactly as planned, so not a lot to talk about” was the joke that Maple Leafs bench boss Sheldon Keefe opened his post-game media availability with on Monday afternoon, lightening the mood and showing a bit of self-awareness for what the hockey world had just witnessed – an 8-6 Toronto victory over the Carolina Hurricanes that we’ll be talking about well into the next decade.
Fourteen-goal games, while uncommon, don’t necessarily guarantee you “Instant Classic” status. What makes this one was the setting – an afternoon game made with a presentation format geared to the “Next Generation” of hockey fans, and how the score was clustered – three goals in the first five minutes by the Leafs, followed by five unanswered goals by the Hurricanes including three in 74 seconds, followed by Toronto scoring five of the third period’s six goals, including three in 59 seconds.
It was absurd. It was obscene. It was dazzling, and at times, it was an affront to everything that the establishment has taught us about hockey. It was far from perfect, but it was every bit of brilliant that you could ask for. It also put a few key pieces of the envisioned next step for this team on display.
The very first thing that jumped out at me, before the game had started, was Jason Spezza being placed in the starting lineup, on John Tavares’ wing. As mentioned before, this was an event night and Toronto’s biggest home game from a spectacle standpoint beyond the Home Opener.
The Home Opener, of course, being the night where Spezza had tons of family in the house to see him play his first game for his hometown team, with whom he signed for league minimum to join, only to see himself scratched by Mike Babcock so he could “learn more about the penalty kill”. This made Monday a good time to try to give Spezza a belated hero’s welcome – Keefe recognized this and gave him that opportunity, knowing that his four daughters would be there as well. Spezza returned the favour by scoring just 30 seconds into the game.
These sort of gestures go a long way. They’re the types of intangibles that “intangibles” people don’t really talk about, despite meaning just as much if not more to the process. They create comfort and trust in the room, they develop group buy-in, and they send a message to players on the outside that this is a good place to play your hockey.
The last note is particularly key to the Leafs, as they transition to the “locked-in core, interchangeable support” model that so many other contenders follow. The team needs to be able to recruit players in ways beyond compensation, and recent years have been a constant tug-of-war between proving themselves to be one of the best places in the world to develop, yet one of the worst places to be if you were on the cusp of an NHL graduation. Babcock’s treatment of Spezza at the start of the year was the type of move which, besides making little hockey sense, makes veterans second guess the idea of sacrificing to try to win in Toronto. What Keefe did here paints a much more positive portrait, and Spezza clearly gained a jolt of energy from it.
The Spezza tweak, as brief as it was, is just one example of how Keefe has been willing to be flexible with his lineup – something that many in Toronto have been asking to see for years. The last few seasons of Leafs hockey have featured an almost impressive lack of experimentation in the lineup, with adjustments typically only coming in the event of injury, or occasionally in the honeymoon phase of ruling a bubble player out. Lines would stay together for months on end, assignments would be predictable down to the shift, and unless the team was in complete disarray mid-game, no effort would be made to try something different. Even if one of those in-game adjustments worked, they wouldn’t be carried over to the next game.
A good example of that is the hesitation to unite Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner at even strength – something that the Leafs ran as an actual line for the second consecutive game yesterday. Now, I’m not going to argue about what the optimal combination of the top forwards are, as I think you could take any duo of Tavares, Matthews, Marner, and Nylander and put them together and get long-term positive results, especially if you’re flanking them with puck retrieving god and chance-driver Zach Hyman. But the two enjoy the opportunities they get with each other, and both very clearly have hot sticks at a time where the Leafs need to make up standings ground, so why not give it a whirl?
It paid off in a huge way, and the two weren’t just rolled out as normal either. Rotations and even combos were allowed to be broken temporarily if it meant squeaking out the big guns ahead of a TV timeout, or an intermission. When it was clear they had the momentum and energy in the third, they were rushed back on as soon as they were good to go, finishing the game with nearly 25 minutes played a piece. These sorts of on-the-fly adjustments are Keefe staples and in fairness, also common with many other coaches in the pros.
But I get the feeling that this is just a taste of what’s to come for an ever-evolving bench, and ever-evolving roster, playing in an ever-evolving game. There’s nothing that says teams have to stick to four lines and three pairs, two powerplay units, two penalty kill units and one scheme for each, or that they have to stick to three forwards and two defencemen.
These are all on the more aggressive ends of the hypotheticals, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a team that tinkers with the status quo a little bit as they get more comfortable. Even with an emphasis on keeping uniformity between the Leafs and Marlies systems over the past few years, Keefe was no stranger to trying new things over his half-decade in the AHL and now that he’s the curator of the organizational defaults, this will likely branch out further and further with time – be it with his own ideas, or ones developed below. Monday provided great audibles, but I can’t help but see a lot of the iceberg still underwater.
Betting On Your Stars
Many predicted that with additional freedom given to Toronto’s top offensive players, we might get to see more occasions were pushed toward their favour by takeover, high-impact performances rather than hoping for a consistent system’s execution to go in the team’s favour.
Boy, was that the case in this game. The best part was that it was impossible to tell who’s show it was until the dust had fully settled. At first, we were placed on Sittler Watch as Tavares picked up three points in the first five minutes of game action. Then it was the Matthews show, which reached supernovic strength with this absurd spin-o-rama pass to Marner, who reversed the expectations with a one-timer.
Lastly, it was Marner channelling that goal into an outright explosion of his own, setting up a goal seconds later and picking up another one of his own seconds after that, putting him at a career-high of five points amongst all the chaos.
It wasn’t just those three either. Nylander found the back of the net to continue his thirty-goal pace, a significant improvement on his disappointing previous year. Tyson Barrie’s pinch on the equalizer was the type of risky, but gorgeous activation that we just would not have seen a couple of weeks prior.
It was leverage placed on the big guns, and they fired the necessary shots. These are the players that the team invested significant assets and money into, and they all delivered. That doesn’t happen every night, and there are nights where they all land on tables, but these players are paid because they are capable of having these types of breakout games more often than everyone else, and when you have a player in that sort of mode, leaning on them can dramatically improve your fortunes in a game.
That, of course, is why the great stories of championship teams usually come with players who deliver repeatedly down the stretch, and that’s why the teams with multiple impact players tend to be the most successful when it comes to crunch time.
This is something particularly important to note at a time where people question Toronto’s salary cap management structure, which sees them paying $40 million to their top-four offensive players, mixing in a few other mid-high contracts below them, before cratering to the bargain bins for depth. Many will point out a lack of room for additional impact players moving forward, but fewer will point out that the team already has more of those types of players on their roster than most teams, to begin with. Many will point out a low margin for error moving forward while giving other teams mulligans for errors they’ve already made.
I’m firmly of the belief that the strategy that they’re chasing right now is the right one – a strong and focused development program can keep replenishing the fringes, and I’d rather have the stars available to them now locked in over having dead cap space waiting for hypotheticals. This way, you’ve got a good chance of someone stealing a close game for you on any given night – or you get a night like this where several bail you out of potential embarrassment.
Trusting The Offence
Lost in all the bit talk of micro-adjustments and individual performances is, again, the fact that this game had fourteen combined goals – more than double the league average.
Needless to say, if you’re a fan that paid to go to that game, you got your money’s worth. But even the most aggressive believer in the offensive side of the game will tell you that it wasn’t a game with perfect flow and cadence – lots of the goals came from broken plays and direct mistakes by the conceding team.
A good example of this would be the Carolina three-goal outburst in the second period, which was the result of three direct turnovers by Leafs defencemen Morgan Rielly (once) and Justin Holl (twice). These are absolutely avoidable, have nothing to do with pace or tempo or hockey belief systems, and the (well capitalized-upon) opportunities manifested at the hands of error. This is true of a couple of Toronto goals as well.
But while many would look at a mistake-filled game and come to the conclusion that success comes from tightening things up and structuring your way to victory, I see the sort of game where a talented team should embrace the chaos. That isn’t to say that systemic reliance and defensive structure have no place in the modern hockey game, but typically speaking, they are tools that you should avoid leaning into unless you’re the weaker team – if you can control a game by speeding it up rather than slowing it down, you probably should.
To understand why talent should prefer pace, one can look in the direction of basketball. Compared to professional hockey, professional basketball has significantly more predictability – there are fewer upsets in game, series, and championship fashion and while there remain no guarantees, the best teams usually find success. Part of this is the fact that basketball employs shorter benches and the top players play more, making disparities more evident, but what drives it even more so is the quantity of scoring plays. The average NBA game features about 80 field goals and 180 field goal attempts – significantly more than the 6 goals and 60 shots that the average NHL game does. This means more opportunities for those with top finishing talent to use it, which means less variance, which means more consistent results.
Hockey skaters obviously don’t have the advantage of an unprotectable net – having to beat a goaltender as well means that their shots are about a 20-25% as accurate as the stroke of a good spot shooter – but it stands to reason that, if you’re fairly confident in your team’s ability to outscore the opponent, and you have a goalie who can bail you out more often than not, you should want to trade chances whenever possible. The Leafs showed the benefit of this in this game, pulling out the advantage in a 79-shot game by simply scoring away their errors.
Can you do this every night? Probably not – occasionally you don’t have the energy, or the other team has the leverage in the skater or goaltending department. But Toronto are a young, stamina-filled team with a world-class offensive group and an elite goaltender, and a schedule that peaked in intensity earlier in the year. There is no reason they shouldn’t be taking advantage of this, and I suspect we’ll see more of it throughout.
Enjoying The Result
The one last thing that stuck out to me, to go full circle, was a Keefe quote from the post-game scrum. “If we didn’t make a ‘next generation’ of fans today, I’m not sure we ever will.”
What a difference from the “It’s fun, but it’s dumb” comment from Mike Babcock after a similarly high-scoring – and believe it or not, much more dominant from Toronto – game against the Winnipeg Jets (they won 7-2!) two years ago.
It’s a clear statement of understanding the whole point of this wacky, crazy game that we obsess over – while the most diehard fans will take a “win at all costs” approach to the operation, valuing success over what they’re actually watching, this is an entertainment product first and foremost, and games are supposed to be exciting. You want big plays and big moments above all else – we wouldn’t have ever fallen in love with the game if it were boring.
Obviously, this team has too much skill to ever become a total snoozefest, but for a while, the energy definitely seemed to be gone. Monday was a clear example that the magic is still within the team and that they’re embracing it. While 11 wins in the first 14 games of the Keefe era is reason enough to be excited, the most chaotic and least repeatable of the bunch perhaps gives the most reason for optimism of all so far.