On all accounts, it was a great weekend for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The team won a back-to-back series. The backup goalie won a game, and looked good, for the first time this season. The Maple Leafs won-loss record under new head coach Sheldon Keefe stands at 10-4-0. Finally, the team, since Nov. 20, has had the best power play in the NHL and is a top-10 penalty kill team.
That’s all fine and dandy.
What’s also fine and dandy is that we are learning more about Keefe as a head coach; and, in last night’s 4-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, he showed another side of himself that some might have not expected. Keefe can show tough love, even to players he – and everyone knows this to be true – really likes. That’s William Nylander.
Mike Babcock’s Motivational Strategy
First, to set the backstory for this post, it’s difficult not to contrast the coaching styles of Keefe to the – now after-15-games-departed Mike Babcock. They come from two different coaching philosophies. Babcock was if you read and believe the revelations emerging from former players simply mean-spirited.
Babcock’s coaching style was to create what we call, in the psychological world, cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance happens when people get into a state where they have inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes regarding the decisions they should make. For a coach like Babcock, one can only believe he engaged that process so that his players wouldn’t know what to do – or how to play – unless he told them.
If you can believe what you hear from the reports of former Detroit Red Wings’ Chris Chelios and Darren McCarty, Babcock had criticized former Red Wings’ player Johan Franzen so much that Franzen had a nervous breakdown. Franzen admitted as much in an interview a few weeks ago from his home country of Sweden, and he called Babcock the worst person he’s ever known. [By the way, Franzen’s nickname was “Mule” because his reputation among teammates was that he could carry the team. He wasn’t a wimp.]
In short, Babcock’s coaching strategy was to play mind games with his players as a way to “motivate” using fear or to confuse them until they were befuddled. That’s old-school military leadership that establishes a top-down mentality that puts a single person in charge.
Sheldon Keefe Coaches Differently
From what we hear, Sheldon Keefe’s coaching differs in fundamental ways. I’m sure a phrase used is that he’s a “players’ coach.” He listens to his players and sometimes changes his mind. For example, he allowed Frederik Andersen to play back-to-back games recently as a way to support the Danish goalie’s expressed desire to go to battle with his teammates after they bailed on him in the 6-1 December 3 game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Although Andersen lost the second game 3-1 against the Colorado Avalanche 3-1, I believe it was a good coaching decision for the long-term.
Another example of Keefe’s treatment of and consideration for players was when the team played the Avalanche in Denver, and he replaced Nic Petan in the lineup with since-departed Nick Shore. Denver is Shore’s hometown and, although Keefe received criticism when he scratched Petan in favor of Shore for the game, Shore made his new coach look smart when he scored in the first period.
Why did Keefe play Shore? Because in his own words, “I’m going to put Nick Shore in the lineup in his hometown, seems like the right thing to do.”
Keefe’s Decision to Bench William Nylander
So here we are at the December 21st, Saturday game against the Red Wings. Keefe benched Nylander, or restricted his shifts is a better way to put it, except for three shifts in the second period and no shifts in the final 13 minutes of the game. [By the way, he also did the same to Kasperi Kapanen.] Why? Because Nylander [and Kapanen, too] wasn’t engaged and seemed disinterested on the backcheck.
Interesting, just the night before in New York against the Rangers, Nylander had exploded offensively with two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist in the 6-3 win. Prior to the Rangers’ game, Nylander had scored only three points in his last nine games. Wouldn’t you think that might light a fire under the Swedish winger? Well, not so much.
Although Nylander has huge talent and is on pace to equal his 61-point pace from his best seasons, he’s still a work-in-progress. Last night we had an example of how coach Keefe would work on him. Obviously, I’m not privy to the conversations between coach and players, but I don’t imagine Keefe abused Nylander verbally. Instead, he probably kept the message simple: If you won’t play like you’re interested, we’ll play who is.
So he benched Nylander for much of Saturday’s game. Nylander looked uninvolved on the backcheck, so he sat. Perhaps it’s a lesson for the young Swede, who for the night skated less than 15 minutes after such a dominant performance the night before.
Maybe It Wasn’t All Babcock
We’re still learning about Keefe as a head coach, and last night we learned one more thing – well, maybe two. First, we learned that Keefe is willing to correct his players – maybe especially if he likes them. Second, we learned that it might have been too simple to say that former coach Babcock hated Nylander and the way he played.
We also learned that Nylander needs what we call in school a “timeout” every once in a while. He needs to keep his engagement level ramped up. If not, other players on the Maple Leafs have enough fire in their bellies to take his spot. Although they might not have talent to burn, they’ll play hard.
The Maple Leafs Going Forward
If the team is going to make the playoffs and take a run at the Stanley Cup, it needs a team filled with hard-working, skill-focused players who don’t take nights off. There’s no excuse for a night off regardless of the quality of the opponent.
We now know that Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe is willing to make tough-love decisions, even with his favorite players because he needs the team to stay the course.
Over the course of the rest of the season, players will come to realize that Keefe will hold players accountable for their play. It doesn’t have to be abusive, but it needs to happen.
Now we know that Keefe will do it.