In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ Quick Hits, I’ll take a look at three aspects of the Maple Leafs’ team and comment on what I think they might mean. First, I’ll look at the vast improvement in Mitch Marner’s offensive game. Second, I’ll wonder whether the Maple Leafs can play better defense by playing better offense. Third, I’ll look at what I think is an obvious team improvement. That’s the improved coaching of Sheldon Keefe.
Quick Hit One: Something Happened to Mitch Marner
During the 2020-21 postseason, one reason the team didn’t move past round one was that the offense didn’t get going. Neither Auston Matthew (who scored one goal in seven games) nor Mitch Marner (who scored zero goals in seven games) could get untracked. This year it’s different.
Against the Montreal Canadiens last season, the bulk of the team’s offense was predicated on Marner feeding Matthews the puck. With Matthews’ suffering a wrist injury and the Canadiens’ defense focusing on stopping the Maple Leafs’ top line, it was not a successful formula for winning in the postseason.
Something happened to Marner during the regular season this year. He’s changed his philosophy of play and has become a goal-scorer himself – in addition to being a set-up man for Matthews and now Michael Bunting. That’s changed the entire team’s offense. It’s now much harder to concentrate on stopping Matthews if there’s a chance that Marner will also seek the shooting lanes.
What a difference that’s made this postseason. The question is whether that change of offensive plans can continue to work successfully throughout the postseason.
Here’s saying it can and will.
Quick Hit Two: Can the Maple Leafs Play Better Defense by Playing Better Offense?
One thing I’ve noticed in this series is that when the Maple Leafs get a lead for some reason they don’t keep pushing the same offense that got them the lead. The team seems to lay back and take up a defensive posture. At that point in the game, the Lightning team seems to be able to put the Maple Leafs on their heels. Suddenly, the momentum changes, and the Maple Leafs have to fight against the ensuing onslaught.
Is it possible that the way the Maple Leafs got the lead – by pushing hard on offense – can also become a strategy that would allow them to protect the lead as well? It only seems logical to keep pushing the advantage. Or, is it “easier” to go into a defensive shell and clog up the neutral zone?
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 7, 2022
The more the Lightning come at the Maple Leafs, the more tenuous their lead seems to become. At some point, there’s logic to the belief that the opposition can’t score if the puck is in their own end most of the time.
What would happen if the Maple Leafs just kept pushing instead of allowing the Lightning into their defensive zone?
Quick Hit Three: Sheldon Keefe Is Becoming a Better Coach
Under all the drama of the postseason and behind all the play that fans see on the ice is the fact that (I believe) the Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe is becoming a better coach. He’s had his growing pains, as most people new to any job have; however, the players play hard for him and the team is coming together well.
In addition, the coaching staff is growing stronger every season. This season’s additions of Spencer Carbery and Dave Chynoweth have improved that entire team. The fact that Keefe shares leadership is beneficial to his entire team. Keefe has done a solid job working with general manager Kyle Dubas to build both the roster and the team culture.
That culture is vastly different and improved from the previous head coach. In fact, Keefe has done well to oversee the maturation of both Marner and Matthews as they’ve come to be the leaders of the team.
There’s also no doubt that he’ll grow in his ability to coach this team. He’s been fortunate enough to have strong players; however, his players have grown together as a team since he’s been the coach. The entire team is improved, and that’s a great sign going forward.
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