Because the 2019-20 NHL regular season was suspended on March 12 due to health concerns in the wake of the coronavirus, I thought it might be a good time to review the Toronto Maple Leafs season. Here goes.
Maple Leafs’ Down & Up Season In Review
If the regular season ends where the team currently resides in the standings, the Maple Leafs record would be 36-25-9. They would have 81 points, which puts them in third place in the Atlantic Division. If there were playoffs “organized” using the format expected for a completed season, the team would make the playoffs based on their finish in the conference.
To use the story from the old gothic novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson, the regular season was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde – or more to the point Hyde and Jekyll. During the Edward Hyde part of the season, the team was coached by the iconic Mike Babcock, who was by reputation one of the best coaches in the history of the NHL.
Alas, something went awry and the team simply didn’t play well for him. He lasted 23 games before he was relieved of his coaching duties. His season ended with a 9-10-4 record and, after a six-game losing streak, he was toast. He had been the team’s coach since May 2015, but his history of winning didn’t cement him to Toronto.
In Babcock’s place, general manager Kyle Dubas hired his old friend and Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. That hiring was no surprise because the two have worked together so long. In fact, they grew together through two organizations. When Dubas was general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he hired Keefe to be the team’s coach from 2012-15. When he became general manager for the Marlies in 2015, he hired Keefe to coach the Marlies. So, he was always the coach-in-waiting, and this season his wait ended.
Sheldon Keefe’s Record-Breaking Coaching Start
Under Keefe’s coaching, the team took off, beginning the Henry Jekyll portion of the season. The six-game losing streak that ended Babcock’s tenure with the team immediately ended and, during Keefe’s first 20 games as a new head coach, the team posted a 15-4-1 record. That wasn’t just good; it was the best start under any new head coach in the franchise’s 102-season history. (from “By The Numbers: Sheldon Keefe’s Historic Start With Maple Leafs,” Jordan Horrobin, Forbes Magazine, 01/06/20)
The team was so hot under Keefe that, by the start of the new year, the Maple Leafs had completely lifted themselves out of the doldrums and were on pace to beat 100 points for the season and even best a strong Tampa Bay Lightning team for second place in the Atlantic. Under Babcock, the team was on a 78-point pace and wouldn’t have even made the postseason.
After Keefe first took over, the Maple Leafs beat everyone. During his first 15 wins, 10 wins were on the road. Eight were against teams in playoff positions. The team was also scoring at a pace of 4.1 goals per game, which was the highest in the NHL. In addition, the team’s 2.7 goals against per game were the eighth-lowest. Keefe upped his best players’ time on the ice and Auston Matthews, as one example, began to regularly play more than 20 minutes each game.
Even 29-year-old Michael Hutchinson played well. Under Babcock, he had only played during the second game of back-to-backs and had been beaten in seven-straight games. But under Keefe’s coaching, Hutchinson won three-straight games including a 33-save shutout against the playoff-bound New York Islanders.
Key Injuries Didn’t Help the Maple Leafs
However, after such a strong start when Keefe first became coach, the team simply couldn’t sustain that pace. Eventually, the Maple Leafs finished the season (so far) with a record of 27-15-5 in 47 games under the 39-year-old Keefe. Although the team didn’t play to expectations, certainly part of the issue for the 2019-20 season was that key injuries hobbled them.
Although the injury bug hit the Maple Leafs hard during Keefe’s second half of his coaching season, the team was bugged by injuries even early in the season. They started the season short-handed, with Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott both out for a month rehabbing offseason surgeries.
Then John Tavares broke a finger and missed games. Alex Kerfoot was out with a concussion and later dental surgery. In mid-November, Mitch Marner went down with a high-ankle sprain that kept him out from Nov. 9 to Dec. 4.
The first time Andreas Johnsson got hurt he missed most of December. Then, in mid-February, the 25-year-old had surgery on his right knee after colliding with teammate Kasperi Kapanen – he’ll be out of action six months.
Jake Muzzin missed most of January with his first injury, then he missed much of February, too. Frederick Andersen hurt his neck, and Cody Ceci went down to an ankle injury and missed 14 games. Russian rookie Ilya Mikheyev suffered a lacerated wrist and has been out since December.
The Maple Leafs defense was devastated. As noted, one day after signing a four-year contract extension in February, Muzzin suffered a broken hand blocking a shot and missed four weeks. Star Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly broke his foot in January and was out almost two months. Given that the Maple Leafs defense was the team’s Achilles Heal even without these injuries, with the injuries it was one of the NHL’s worst.
So, Were the 2019-20 Maple Leafs a Disappointment?
In reviewing the Maple Leafs Jekyll and Hyde season, it’s hard to fault the team for where it finished. As always, as fans of the Blue and White, we are ever optimistic and it’s hard not to expect a juggernaut every season that steamrolls every team in its path.
But, even the most optimistic Maple Leafs fans should realize that in pro sports juggernauts seldom happen. That’s especially true in hockey, where goal scoring is relatively low and a bad bounce off the end boards or a player can spell instant defeat.
For me, the team was highly-entertaining and that’s always a good thing. I must admit I don’t personally live or die whether the Maple Leafs are successful or not. In short, I enjoyed this season and look forward to watching the young players such as Matthews get better and better as they mature.