With four wins from five games, it would be hard to ask for much more from the Toronto Maple Leafs at the outset under Sheldon Keefe — especially since he’s asking the team to change just about everything they thought they knew.
It’s early, very early, but in the spirit of keeping a Mike Babcock tradition alive, let’s dissect the first five-game chunk under the new coaching regime (eight points, by the way), and discuss a few important trends.
Now steering the ship
Aside from the goaltending (which we’ll keep short and sweet later), the biggest development under Keefe has been the improved performance from the captain.
After ruling at even strength with an iron fist on a line with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman last season, John Tavares simply hasn’t had the same influence in his second year with the Leafs. Injuries to all three pieces from that previously-differentiating unit (including a broken finger himself) have existed as obvious contributing factors to Tavares’s failure to repeat last season’s career performance, but the captain would be the first to admit that the struggles were largely on him.
Toronto was outscored 14-6 with Tavares on the ice at even strength in his 16 games while Babcock was still in charge. He had just two goals and two assists at 5-on-5, which just put so much pressure on the Auston Matthews unit to produce.
In five games with Keefe, and with Ilya Mikheyev now on his left side, Tavares has already matched his even-strength goal total from the 16-game sample under Babcock, and the Leafs own five of the nine goals scored under that condition with the captain on the ice.
It’s a small sample — and just baby steps, really — but what’s more indicative of the return to dominance than simply counting six points in the last three games is that Tavares is creating and taking quality scoring looks at a rate that compares to Matthews. Always a good look.
Top line owning quality looks
Auston Matthews is still waiting to explode from an offensive standpoint under the new direction, but there is good reason to suggest that it’s coming. Toronto’s top line with Matthews, William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson has increased its share of the quality scoring chances since Keefe took the reins.
Matthews leads the team with a 70 percent high-danger corsi share over the last five games, with Nylander and Johnsson following with 68 and 66 percent, respectively. It’s roughly a 10-point uptick for all three members of the Leafs’ No. 1 line, who have six goals between them in all situations.
Matthews has provided two of those goals, but has averaged more total shots, scoring chances and high-danger opportunities since the switch, shooting only 11 percent.
Wins at the margins
In relative terms, the most dominant line for the Leafs has in some ways been whatever combination Keefe has on the fourth unit. Frederik Gauthier, Pierre Engvall, Dmytro Timashov and, to a limited extent, Nick Shore, have eaten up possession in their limited minutes. All of them are well above 65 percent possession in last five games, and the numbers actually improve when accounting for targeted shots and scoring chances.
All three main pieces are at least plus-two in goal share in the five games, which means they’ve provided a meaningful edge from low in the lineup.
Longer leash on the power play
If it has been discussed, Nylander wouldn’t admit it after Saturday’s win over the Sabres, but there has been a significant divide when it comes to allocated ice on the power play. It seems the Leafs’ top unit no longer has to adhere to the strict time-on-ice rules previously enforced.
Across five games and eight total power plays, the first five over the boards — Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie — have each logged more than 10 minutes, with everyone else limited to roughly three.
We’ve seen the benefit of the preferred unit not limited to just the first minute on at least one occasion over the five-game sample, with Nylander’s crucial power-play marker versus the Sabres coming over 90 seconds into the man advantage. It’s just something we simply would not have seen with Babcock.
Despite all the positives to take from the first games, the statistic that has mattered most for the Maple Leafs is the .959 save percentage Frederik Andersen has authored in four starts since Keefe took over.
Solid in wins over the Coyotes and Avalanche to start, Andersen earned his first shutout of the season last week in Detroit before stealing two points for the Leafs in the second half of the back-to-back against the Buffalo Sabres.
We could be looking at the start of Keefe’s NHL coaching career much differently if Andersen’s best spell this season hadn’t coincided with his arrival.
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