The Toronto Maple Leafs have struggled mightily this year. The team has looked all out of sorts this season as they have struggled to find cohesion as a group. The struggles for the Leafs culminated in the firing of head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday last week. The Leafs had just suffered their sixth straight loss in a 4-2 defeat to Las Vegas, and it seemed as though Babcock’s coaching tenure might be coming to an end in Toronto. Frankly, Babcock’s firing seemed inevitable after the embarrassing defeat the team suffered on Hockey Night in Canada, as the Leafs lost 6-1 to the Penguins. The game featured the team’s new backup tender, Kasimir Kaskisuo, and the Leaf’s really hung Kaskisuo out to dry as they never looked into the game from the start.
Babcock took over the Maple Leaf’s head coaching position in 2015 and helped the organization immensely into making them a consistent playoff team. While Babcock was very successful during the regular season in his 4 years behind the bench, the playoffs were a different story. The Leafs never made it out of the first round of the playoffs with Babcock. Three straight first-round defeats are tough to swallow, especially as the Leafs lost the last two against the same team (Boston Bruins) in game 7 (in both instances). Babcock has been criticized for his stubbornness and inability to effectively make necessary in-game adjustments. That being said, the fact is that the players weren’t responding to Babcock’s coaching and overall message, and that meant it was time for a change.
Babcock cannot be solely blamed for the Leaf’s struggles as many players have underperformed this season. The most obvious underperformer has been Leaf’s defenseman Tyson Barrie. Barrie came to the Leafs from Colorado in a trade that sent former leaf Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche. Barrie hadn’t scored a goal this season (20 games in) until he potted his first against the Coyotes late last week. Although, Barrie has scored in three straight games since Babcock’s departure and is looking better defensively. In addition, John Tavares has not played well in the early going. Tavares was injured early in the year and has not looked sharp since returning. The Leafs have invested a lot of money into their top players, and they need them to step up if they hope to salvage this season. Finally, the Leaf’s backup goalie situation has been a debacle to say the least. Michael Hutchison was the Leaf’s back up to start the season, but that didn’t last long. Hutchison failed to register a win in the 5 starts he had and didn’t look particularly comfortable in those games. As mentioned, Kasimir Kaskisuo is the club’s new backup and while he has had great success in the minors, it is yet to be seen if that success will translate to the NHL.
With the departure of Babcock, the Leafs hired Sheldon Keefe who was the club’s AHL affiliate (Toronto Marlies) head coach since the summer of 2015. Keefe had great success with the Marlies as he coached them to a Calder Cup victory in the 2017-2018 AHL season. Keefe has a long history with Leaf’s GM Kyle Dubas as they have worked together since their OHL days when Keefe was the head coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and Dubas was the GM. Keefe will have a lot to prove as he enters his inaugural season as Leaf’s head coach. With the team struggling, we will see if Keefe can be that spark that gets the team heading in the right direction. After snapping their 6-game losing streak in Arizona in Keefe’s first NHL game, and following up that performance with two big wins in Colorado and Detroit, the Leafs seem to be energized with a new coach behind the bench.
Time will tell if the Leafs can keep up the momentum, and they will need to if they wish to find themselves in the playoffs come April.
Sebastian Farkas is a fourth year Honours Politics Student and Sports and Wellness Editor of the Athenaeum.