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All or Nothing Episode One: What ails the Leafs

The Prime series opens with a look at a Leafs team that wins a lot but frustrates their coach.

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs
Evgenii Dadonov of the Ottawa Senators scores the game-winning goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs winning 6-5 in overtime.
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

There is a test set for the viewer early in episode one of Prime’s All or Nothing Maple Leafs. If you pass, you’re the audience this show wants, if you fail, you might keep watching, but you’re on the outside, not the viewer the show is speaking to — you’re just an eavesdropper.

Kyle Dubas welcomes Sheldon Keefe into his office for a meeting focusing on the neatest whiteboard in history. There’s magnetic player cards laid out so precisely on the board, someone used a ruler. Each one looks like the Vital Statistics section on our T25 articles, listing player number, height and weight and various other stats. Dubas, in a dad sweater, has a roster construction conversation with Sheldon Keefe, who dutifully joins in.

If you make it past this scene with your credulity intact, they’ve got you. If you think this is clumsily staged roster 101 that they would never really talk about, you’re likely one of those blog readers who don’t think deciding who to put on the Taxi Squad was actually all that difficult.

Somewhere down the hall from this room, so devoid of any signs of human life, it might have been shot in an office furniture store, is Brandon Pridham who is the master of the CBA and the salary cap, and holds the keys to a great deal of the Leafs’ roster decisions. But All or Nothing exists in a world of emotional melodrama. There’s no place for the salary cap, or the fans who understand it. Or worse, the bloggers who think the obstacles the salary cap presents make the game of winning in the NHL that much more interesting.

The All or Nothing house style makes the coach the star, with the players as a rotating cast of foils for his coaching speeches, and the game as the canvas where he bends reality to his will. For the Maple Leafs, Dubas and Keefe are a duo, the two dads of the team — Dubas begins as fun dad, happy and cheerful in his dad sweater as he tells the reassuring story about his Hockey Man™ upbringing and introduces some of the players.

Keefe is the boring dad who wants the team to play with playoff intensity all year. He is introduced, past completely sanitized as if he was born at age 23, as a person who knew hardship while playing a grinder role in the NHL and AHL.

Brendan Shanahan wanders by in a very sharp suit, but is introduced by a montage of his old hockey fights first, and only then some scoring plays. Foreshadowing the skill vs grit narrative that’s sure to come, the viewer is reassured that he is not merely a Hockey Man™, but the right kind.

When they drop the crafted narrative and just put the game on the screen, this show can be visually beautiful. The cinematography is excellent, with the camera low, giving you a player-level view, and the editing and intercuts of bench scenes elevate what could be a Game in Six to something more visually interesting. But your average Youtuber with better musical taste and nothing but broadcast footage makes a more meaningful highlight montage.

The start of the season, with a win over the Canadiens, is upbeat and happy, and the blur of action and reaction is intercut with a mic’d up Keefe who shouts invective from the bench, incongruous with the scenes on the ice, but his speech in the locker room after the game shows him pleased with the team. Coach speeches are the framing All or Nothing builds its shows around.

At 18 minutes into the show, no woman has spoken.

The Oilers are game two for the Leafs, and unlike the usual approach, Connor McDavid gets a mention here. None of the Canadiens existed as real opponents to the Leafs in the first game montage, but in this loss, the unstoppable Oilers top line is the whole show. The game footage is another disjointed blur of goals while Keefe’s bench commentary turns a little bitter.

Post game, Keefe is often very insightful. He sees the play objectively, comes off as emotionless and boring, but he’s not going with his gut or his deeply held biases about masculinity. He is usually right about what was good or bad, what went right or wrong. But what I want is to see the dots get connected between the diagnosis and the cure, because traditionally with Keefe’s teams, the cure doesn’t come until the players are changed.

After the Oilers have their way, the focus is on what Auston Matthews has to say. He also has good insights, but never connects the dots between what the team did wrong to what they’ll do differently the next time. The wrong things this time — losing all their offensive punch against a concerted defensive effort — are not new troubles.

But I shouldn’t get too deep into analysis of how they played, that’s not what this show is about. This show is about the surface drama, which is why you see Keefe answering Kristen Shilton’s question about playing it too safe — she’s quoting Matthews — with a wooden sort of irritation.

22:45 is when the first woman speaks. Blame TSN.

Keefe doesn’t like what Matthews said about playing it safe. He has a conversation with Dubas, now a very serious dad because they lost, about his worry that this comment might infect the team with wrong ideas. In an unintentionally hilarious moment, he tells Dubas to “go and watch the game”, and he’ll see Keefe is correct about what went wrong. As if Dubas doesn’t watch it live and on tape as a matter of course.

Keefe, on the advice of Dubas, is going to address this negativity with the group. This is an entire conversation about the “narrative” Matthews’ comments promote like he’s a kid who keeps wearing a Che t-shirt, and his dads are worried he might need military school now.

Keefe talks to Matthews in practice and then the group about this, and we see the team fall into line, conforming to Keefe’s thinking on why the Oilers beat them. It’s almost the defence wins games meme — another All or Nothing staple — but Keefe phrases it as not working as hard as the Oilers did, who always had five guys below them whenever they had the puck.

If you cast your mind back, you will recall that the Oilers played a tight, stifling defence in their early games against the Leafs. It was the talk of the town. Two towns. The Leafs offence did not punch through, so yes, the Oilers outscored the Leafs on the counterattack. But if you never score, it’s not really the goals against that beat you.

I think Keefe and Matthews are both right about this game. The Leafs play it safe by never varying their offensive process. They overthink it, as Matthews says later, and when that fails, they don’t gamble with a Babcockian rush style to bust the game open. Keefe wants them to grind it out in the corners. Matthews wants to take the ball and run with it, and Keefe wants him to worry about defence in the belief that they had the puck a lot and eventually the bounces would have gone their way — if only they’d kept the goals against down.

Or this was just a manufactured bit of faux-conflict easily resolved, a consequence-free emotional drama where the coach is the star, and Mr. Target Audience is right to be suspicious of that young skill guy who maybe just wants to do the fun part of the game all the time.

Family scenes are the tonal break from the grind of the game, and the first one is Matthews and his mom and dad at the shooting range in Arizona. It’s a humanizing moment drenched in American values of freedom, guns, and Mexican cooking.

Ema Matthews is the second woman who speaks at 29 minutes in.

Back to winter, Toronto and the Leafs, and Dubas, in yet another serious dad sweater, has a meeting with Keefe about their offensive woes. Which is exactly how I remember the start of the season, so this is encouragingly real. The power play hid the dreadful five-on-five play, and PPP was really worried about this team. We got a lot of flack from the fans of win/loss records for it, but Dubas and Keefe seem genuinely troubled by a list of players who haven’t scored.

Now I feel like this is discouragingly fake. I know these guys would look at Expected Goals, not just production. These are the King and Crown Prince of the process, the long view, and riding the waves of variance. They aren’t going to get twisted up over some shooting percentage dips. They would talk about this real offensive weakness in a very different way to someone who considers “he’s gotta produce” wisdom.

Keefe talks to Jason Spezza and John Tavares about his concerns that the other guys will see just the winning, and he’s worried they’ll tune him out when he tells them they can’t pass every test without studying. He tells Tavares that he wants a team that, when you get a lead, you know the game is over. Although the problem the Leafs have is weak five-on-five offence, the focus shifts to the thing that did happen — goals against, rather than the thing that didn’t happen — sustained offensive pressure.

It sounds like more of the defence wins games meme, and maybe this is where Keefe himself loses the plot. Or this is another manufactured moment and I’m supposed to be thinking what a great, yet boring dad he is.

The first episode comes to a close on the blown 5-1 lead against the Ottawa Senators on February 15. Arnett tells us that it should be an easy win against a bad team, but we all know better. Even at the time, anyone who really looked at the Sens and DJ Smith’s style would know they could poke holes in the Leafs system, given a chance.

After the Leafs let it get to 5-2 on a shorthanded goal against, the second intermission coaching speech is intercut with a stone-faced Frederik Andersen, who will never perform the emotions that will satisfy a camera or a fan. Keefe repeats his very valid take that this game needed to be over already. It wasn’t over. They blew the lead, lost the game, and looked like fools again.

This is the Leafs, their problem, their weakness, their issue, and it’s not new. We all want an answer about how or why it keeps happening.

All or Nothing isn’t going to tell us. It’s just going to roll on to episode two.