When Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas made the fateful decision to fire Mike Babcock, he (as usual) took much of the responsibility on his own head. “I’m disappointed in myself,” he told reporters. The team at the time was giving him a lot to be disappointed about. But in the course of his pink slip self-criticism, he said one thing that stayed with me.
“Coming into the job [in May 2017] and knowing Mike was the coach, you certainly want everything to work out. Going through last season, going through the off-season, it was always my intention [to make it work]. I tried as best as I could with that and I’m disappointed in myself and only myself that it didn’t work out, that we couldn’t become simpatico on every single topic.”
Dubas and Babcock clearly weren’t always on the same page, as the quote says. Certain players that Dubas valued, like Justin Holl or Jason Spezza, were viewed as lesser options by Babcock, to infer from their contracts and ice time. While it took a whole whack of losses in November to get Babcock gone, the tension between General Manager and Head Coach probably didn’t help any.
Once Babcock was fired, it was immediately clear who the next coach would be. Kyle Dubas had hired Sheldon Keefe to coach the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds; he’d hired him to coach the Toronto Marlies; and now he hired him to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. From the early returns on the coaching change, this looks to have been a good decision. It was also shamelessly nepotistic.
We make a lot of fun of the Old Boys’ Club in hockey, how the same forty-five men seem to cycle through most of the head coaching jobs and half the front offices. Despite having been an All-Canadian Hockey Lifer from childhood, Kyle Dubas is usually seen as more progressive and innovative, more modern. But Kyle Dubas didn’t hold interviews or scour the world for the best candidate. He hired the man he knew he could work with. Given that Dubas was trying to save a season that was going rapidly down the tubes, you can argue that he hardly had time to look elsewhere. Dubas had apparently advocated hiring Keefe as early as 2015, though, and he didn’t give his old comrade the customary “interim” coach tag to see how things went. He gave him a three-year contract right away. Dubas had his man.
Unless we think Kyle Dubas was extraordinarily lucky and just happened to have the best possible head coach at his disposal for virtually his whole management career, we have to acknowledge the role familiarity and mutual sympathy played in that hiring. There are many potentially good coaches out there; Dubas didn’t know them as well and didn’t know they if they would work with what he was trying to build. This doesn’t mean the Dubas and Keefewould never disagree—they have and did, as has been described during their time with the Marlies. Kyle is hopefully aware of the dangers of groupthink, where everyone nods along on the way to disaster. But the GM and coach would agree on big-picture strategy and direction.
One of the tensions in hockey coaching is between system and creativity. In a sport that happens very quickly on a slippery surface and where you are more likely to get leveled for every extra second spent thinking, predictability is at a premium. Knowing when you can step up and when your teammates have you covered; knowing what to do automatically because you’ve all practiced the plan together until you can do it sleeping. Those are the fruits of a coherent system.
Sheldon Keefe’s current system, which encourages defencemen to step up aggressively and sustain possession, enables a type of aggressive cycling that the Leafs previously couldn’t keep up. It also means that occasionally Cody Ceci will end up deep behind enemy lines like the world’s most confused spy. The system demands players do things that may not be natural strengths for them. It can sometimes mean that the most creative players are not in the spots we would want them, or the focal points their skill suggests they ought to be.
Of course, players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have license to attempt plays that they see before them. They’re talented. Only the most obstinate of coaches (and the Mike I’m thinking of here is Keenan more than Babcock) would totally stifle their stars. Keefe believes in letting his players use “God-given skill”, as Matthews once put it. It’s a balance.
Different coaches approach this differently. Boston seems almost to play one system for their deadly top line and another for their other lines (I owe Katya for that insight.) Balances are struck; the point is they’re struck somewhere between system and innovation, where you try to steer between letting the artists make art and having an army of all generals and no soldiers.
The Leafs, more and more under Kyle Dubas, have leaned into a particular identity: forward skill and puck movement. This was partly governed by who the good players on the team were; when Dubas took over Toronto had a wealth of offensive talent and not much defensive talent. He’s leaned in further, though. He added another star forward in John Tavares; he added an offensive defenceman who I’d trust as far as I can throw him in his own zone (Tyson Barrie.) He did also add Jake Muzzin, as a concession to the other side of the puck. But beyond that things have gone in one direction. The Leafs now are the Leafs of a couple of years ago, except more. More offence, more leaning in, more skill; not much hitting, limited defensive zone prowess, and little concern for the “grit” that old-school fans think is essential.
As the Leafs’ strategy gets more coherent and distinctive, as they lean in further and further, you start to run into an odd fact: some players are likely worth more to us than than they are in general, and some are worth less. If Justin Holl is a sixth defenceman under Babcock but he can play as a fourth defenceman under Keefe, he’s worth more to us, because we’re more and more invested in the Dubas-Keefe vision of the team. Arvind suggested to me this might apply with Matt Dumba, a defenceman for the Minnesota Wild who I’m more than a little afraid of overspending on. If he fits us a lot better than Minnesota—and Minnesota are well-coached by Bruce Boudreau but almost as opposite to the Leafs as they can be—maybe he’s worth more that his numbers would appear. The flipside of this is that some players who are still good may be less useful to us, and those players become natural trade bait.
Tyson Barrie has been much better, albeit still flawed, under Sheldon Keefe. Is he more our kind of player now? Are we confident enough in this model of the Toronto Maple Leafs to invest in it, all-in?
Kyle Dubas now has his coach, who is instilling a system he seems to believe in. (It is worth noting Keefe probably has to insist more on adherence to the system when he’s first teaching it, so everyone learns how it’s supposed to work.) He has a team that is built to play this way. The Shanaplan to rise out of the league’s cellar is done, or at least superseded. We’re full into the Dubas Plan now.
I have thought more than once about acquiring a player like Jonas Brodin (also from the Minnesota Wild), to add some defensive responsibility who can play the right side, despite shooting left. I still like this idea. But I’m starting to wonder if I’m coming at this the wrong way. If the Leafs really do get more out of the players that best suit them—which I’m sure is true of all systems, but might be more and more true of the Leafs—then balance might be the opposite of fit. Maybe the Leafs can go further in this direction and further in the playoffs.
If the Leafs can be simpatico top to bottom, with players that fit and a coach that fits, maybe that’s worth more. If the clash of styles was holding them back before, maybe the alignment of them can get this team where it’s finally trying to go. Maybe it’s time to stop trying to fix the defence and to lean all the way in.