Remember when Mike Babcock was fired and the world decided he was a black-hat villain who was, therefore, always wrong? Nature abhors a vacuum, so the natural result was that Sheldon Keefe became the white-hat hero, here to save the day, and everything he did was right.
That was then, and this is the spring of our discontent. The vacancy now is for a villain, and Keefe is starting to look like the man whose hat is turning black.
My stated position is that coaches don’t affect things as much as fans want to believe. They don’t make players win, they aren’t at fault for losses, and they are neither geniuses nor people who just send the next line over the boards.
Keefe is also not a man with a free hand. The standard hockey structure is said to be a GM who picks the players, and a coach who utilizes them. And while it’s likely never truly that simple, the Leafs show clear signs of a collaborative process where Kyle Dubas designs the 10,000 foot view of the team, Brendan Shanahan signs off on it, and Dubas and his entire vast team of people, led by Keefe at the game level, implement it.
But when the game is going on, right there in front of you and I, Keefe is the man making the snap decisions. Not alone. That gamble of a goal review was a collaborative decision, and we could see that right on the television screen. But when it is time to decide who plays when and where, that’s Keefe, almost entirely.
Here’s three things he’s done that I just can’t figure out.
Joe Thornton on the first power play unit
It’s not even a Jumbo vs Willie argument to me, it’s Thornton vs virtually anyone else. I get how this happened. Nick Foligno is hurt and Zach Hyman was hurt, or one of those players likely would be there. Thornton is good at the job of net-front, Leo Komarov but better, goalie-disturbing pest. If Foligno is not available, there are other options. Keefe needs to pick one of those other options, and that seems obvious because PP1 has all the ingredients to be great, and it’s not.
A man who ain’t what he used to be is not the missing link to hold it all together.
He is, by on-ice Expected Goals, one of the worst forwards who has played meaningful power play time on the Leafs. It doesn’t work, we can all see that, and it would literally be better to play almost anyone else there. He makes the power play worse.
And this mistake seems to me to be the identical mistake Babcock made when he played Komarov in that role. He’s tough, hard to move out of the crease, and he’s as annoying as, well, Joe Thornton is. But neither of them can tip the puck. What they gain in territorial advantage they lose because they don’t even get the greasy garbage goals. Maybe it was more obvious that the pass-happy, low-shooting Komarov was kind of the right idea, but missing some key skills than it is with Thornton. But it’s still the same mistake.
The overhaul that needed to happen before the playoffs was one where everyone resisted the sunk cost fallacy, gave up on the net-front agitator scheme they wanted, and made a power play that works with the players they have.
And that means, for the love of god...
I also understand what’s going on here. Now brace yourself, I’m going to say a thing: Willie is shit defensively. He really is. He’s bad in the defensive zone, too passive in his decision making and only springs into action when he has the puck and he can execute a zone exit. That’s just who he is, and no amount of analysis or coaching or having the “Steve Yzerman talk” with him can change him.
So when Keefe says this:
Sheldon Keefe on managing William Nylander:— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) May 30, 2021
"Will had been playing very well in the role I was utilizing him in, and in the last couple of games I've gotten away from that and it really hasn't gone as well for him. I've got to make sure I'm not getting him out of the rhythm."
I actually do think he means not using him in ways where his weaknesses will overwhelm his strengths. And that’s good! It’s one reason why Nylander has had a good season, and it’s a mark in Keefe’s favour.
But there is no planet on which William Nylander is not one of the best power play forwards on the Leafs, and not playing him there is just misusing a tool for the wrong reasons. The tool Keefe is trying to force into the power play structure come hell or high water is, of course....
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Mitch Marner is more like Morgan Rielly than they are each like regular forwards or defenders, respectively.
As this season has worn on, aliens from two systems over know that Marner is looking to pass to Matthews, and all that guff about shooting better was cover for the fact his one-timers is a no-timer. Marner’s shot is not a threat. The only threat is Matthews.
Marner has drifted back on the power play and taken on the role of the second defender. He looks so much like Rodion Amirov did at the WJC, I want to scream. Because that was frustrating! He’s just Mitch Marner, only shooting poorly from worse locations now, and the power play is effectively a 3F-2D affair a lot of the time.
If you click through and look at those shot maps, you’ll notice the side switching, and that’s not the problem. That was a factor of Matthews’ wrist injury which saw them swap sides. In the past Marner has played much more effectively than he has this season while playing on either side.
So there’s Marner drifting back to be a left defender. That opens up passing lanes for him, but if one of the people he’s passing to is Joe Thornton, and he’s on the ice with Morgan Rielly, who is a good shot in close, but from the point is not a rocket-man like Shea Weber, you naturally get a power play that looks like passing practice. Everyone who plays PK in the NHL knows you just have to cover Matthews and you’re good.
If only the Leafs had another shooter!
Me, the know it all
I’m not all that fond of power play analysis, and I don’t think I’m that great at it. I don’t even think this is the major area of concern with the choices Keefe has made lately. I think taking all game to clue in that Nick Foligno shouldn’t have been on the second line is a bigger problem, and is worryingly like the state of indecision Keefe lived in last season when the team kept playing badly some of the time. I genuinely think all three of these things are pretty obvious, arise out of Keefes choices in a foreseeable way and are verifiable.
The thing that bothers me is why I think Keefe is doing what he’s doing. I think he likes the type of player Thornton is, doesn’t trust Nylander at five-on-five, and has fallen into a habit of finding reasons not to use him. The worst one is, though, he cannot split up Marner and Matthews due to his own ironclad belief in their “special chemistry”.
He’s fallen victim to some pretty common hockey fallacies with all three of these player choices. There might be quiet words spoken to him about playing Joe Thornton too much out of respect, but there sure isn’t going to be a voice in the Leafs organization calling for Marner to come right off of PP1 because that would mark you out as the outsider, and we all know what happens to those people in hockey.
Speaking of, Nylander won’t get a job out of respect ever because a player who has peaked in his defensive ability at kinda okay, is blond, attractive and Swedish, is never going to be typecast as the guy deserving of it. Keefe, who has actually made real efforts to up Nylander’s five-on-five ice time to something approximating a sensible number, will keep on finding reasons not to really trust him.
None of this will matter if the Leafs start controlling the play again in the offensive zone at five-on-five because that is the thing that will win game seven. Keefe needs to make the right choices to give the team a chance to do that, however.