DENVER—If Mike Babcock said it once, he said it a thousand times.
During Babcock’s four-plus seasons as Maple Leafs coach it was one of the foundational mantras of the organization. And as much as it made sense to some outsiders — this was a team built on speed and skill, after all, so playing “fast” only seemed to follow — to many of the speediest and most skilled denizens of Toronto’s dressing room Babcock’s urgings to “play fast” were always met with misgivings. To those players, it was shorthand for a style that didn’t particularly suit the roster as built by general manager Kyle Dubas.
“Play fast,” as interpreted by more than a few Leafs who matter, often led to a chip-and-chase grind game at which the team only occasionally excelled. “Play fast,” too often, was a slightly more sophisticated variation on “pucks in deep.” Which is why, under Babcock, puck retrieval was such a prized skill, and why a forechecking savant such as Zach Hyman was so cherished by the coach, who was fired on Wednesday.
But what’s becoming clear in the opening days of Sheldon Keefe’s tenure as head coach is that playing fast is a thing of the past. Don’t get it wrong. Speed and skill will still be the keystones of the operation. These guys certainly aren’t winning with hard-hitting heaviness. And the ability to retrieve loose pucks will still be a valued commodity, because hockey’s a game of unpredictable bounces that requires resilient adaptation to random situations. So Hyman, though he might not be the new coach’s very favourite player, isn’t going anywhere.
But the core principles being emphasized by Keefe, as the rookie coach held his first full practice at the University of Denver’s Joy Burns Arena in advance of Saturday’s game against the Avalanche, are clearly different than the ones incessantly pushed by Babcock. What’s the biggest discrepancy? Players are always reluctant to make comparisons so soon after a firing. But suffice it to say that if Babcock wanted the team to play fast, the post-Babcock Leafs are being encouraged to play with patience and control. Call it slow hockey with fast players, and fast thinkers.
On Friday, Keefe described the philosophy as “trying to be a little more purposeful” with the puck. Auston Matthews, the team’s leading scorer and forever a Babcock skeptic, said the newly installed concept amounts to “not rushing plays when we have the puck, especially in the neutral zone.
“It’s having more patience,” Matthews said.
Which is not to say it’ll always be as seamless as it looked in Thursday’s 3-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes, wherein Toronto’s players clearly took pleasure in dancing on Babcock’s professional tombstone. To be fair to the Leafs who clearly found glee in Babcock’s ouster, four-plus years of any coach can be too much. As for four-plus years of Babcock’s repetitive shtick — “redneck authenticity” is what the two-time Olympic gold medallist once called it, as though it were a saleable product — nobody who works for the club will tell you Babcock’s act wasn’t at times tiresome. Mike Babcock, when he wasn’t betting on Mike Babcock, was about Mike Babcock. It’s entertaining until it’s not.
Which is not to say Keefe won’t soon experience more trying times than the honeymoon of a 1-0 NHL coaching record. And certainly they’ll face serious opposition on Saturday, when 10-year Maple Leaf Nazem Kadri takes a shot at exacting revenge for the summertime trade that sent him to Colorado against his will, a deal that brought Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot to Leafland.
“(Kadri is) kind of in your face, and I’m sure this is the game he’s had circled on his calendar for a long time,” Matthews said. “You always know what to expect when you go up against him.”
You know what to expect, or you don’t. On Friday, mind you, the Leafs were very much focused on what to expect from each other. One of the linchpins of Keefe’s system, after all, is five-man co-operation in every aspect of the game, from advancing up the ice to retreating through the middle on defence.
“Everyone has to be on the same page to support one another, especially through the neutral zone,” Matthews said. “I think everybody knows how hard it is to get through the neutral zone in the NHL.”
If any Leaf knows how hard it is to get into an NHL lineup at age 36, it’s Jason Spezza. Scratched by Babcock on opening night, never mind that he’s a GTA guy who took less to sign with the Leafs, suddenly he finds himself a valued commodity in the Keefe era. If a play-fast, straight-line game doesn’t suit a guy who’s not as fleet as the average 20-something, Keefe’s new push to be purposeful and patient speaks to why Dubas signed Spezza in the summer.
“He has a skill set that fits the way that we want to play, so that I think sets him up for success,” Keefe said Friday.
If Dubas and Babcock never found “simpatico,” to use Dubas’s word, Spezza and Keefe seem like kindred spirits. Years ago they played against one another in the OHL during Keefe’s long-ago days as a wayward junior. Spezza joked on Friday that those years “will not be spoken about,” perhaps out of respect to a coach who is now Spezza’s lifeline to extending a career that, under Babcock, looked to have hit a dead end.
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Playing Keefe’s style of game, Spezza said, “feels natural to me.” If Babcock wanted the team to dump the puck and chase, Keefe wants them to keep it and improvise, albeit with caveats and with purpose and with defensive responsibility always in mind. For a roster filled with expert practitioners of a lifetime of skill work, Keefe is speaking in what amounts to a love language. It’s a honeymoon, indeed.
Said Tyson Barrie, the offensive-minded defenceman who was traded from Colorado in the summer: “It’s an exciting time to be a Leaf.”